Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Catholic Perspective: The Wild Goose and the Emerging Church

The Wild Goose is a 4-day outdoor festival in Hot Springs, NC.  This is an annual event that began in 2011. It represents a huge movement that so far has managed to slip under the radar of mainstream attention.

Many of the attendees camped directly on the grounds and stayed on site the entire time.  There were mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics and followers of other traditions. The movement that originated this event includes what is called the emerging church.  They are working to envision—and live into—a post-denominational world.  Many are folks who find themselves on the margins of traditional church structures for one reason or another.  This includes interfaith households, artists, activists, LGBT, intellectuals, searchers or just anyone who does not fit into a denominational box for all sorts of reasons. 
At the same time, the large portion of clergy present tells another story—these folks are not just marginalized but directly at the core of their faith traditions.  Folks are exploring new monasticism; they are prophetic and inclusive.  It is rooted in Evangelical Christianity, but many other religious traditions are represented, such as Eastern and indigenous.  There is an amazing grace-filled aura of acceptance and warmth that permeates the whole festival.  It is the kind of environment where you could leave your wallet on a picnic table and come back several hours later and it would still be there, untouched.  Kids played in the muddy streets, and I did not notice a single behavior problem. 

There were dozens and dozens of speakers, bands, art exhibits and other events.  It was very hard to attend even a fraction of what was going on.  I tried to focus on events that had an ecumenical component.  I was just 3 weeks into my new role fostering understanding between Catholics, Evangelicals and other faith groups.  The Wild Goose Festival was for me a time of both professional and personal enrichment. It was a fantastic opportunity to immerse myself in interfaith dialogue, make contacts and quickly get up to speed in my role in a tangible way.  It was a baptism by fire—or rather, by rain!

A number of people visited the table and remarked that they were glad to see a Catholic presence at the festival.  While there are many Catholics there as individuals or as part of interfaith groups, I am proud to say the Glenmary table this year has been the only purely Catholic organization so far in the festival’s history.  [In previous years, Frs. Richard Rohr and John Dear have been popular speakers there.]

“Tom”:  Evangelicals, the Church Fathers and the British Invasion

I had a great talk with “Tom.”  He is an evangelical leader.  I am keeping his name anonymous because I am not entirely sure if what he told me was said in confidence.  He took me aside and whispered something that I have heard from many others:  “I am Evangelical but almost everyone I read is Catholic… mostly the ascetic tradition, Thomas Merton and the Church Fathers.”  He also said that does not translate for him into formally being part of the Catholic Church. 
I share this because his story is common.  It is represented very well by Duke Divinity School and other institutions, but mostly it is truly a grassroots movement not tied to any single place.  I am reminded about how the Beatles re-interpreted American rock and roll and gave the music world a shot in the arm—the British invasion began.  Right now, Protestants and Evangelicals are immersing themselves in Catholic thought and reminding all of us—Catholics included—about some of the best parts of the tradition that are often overlooked. 

A generation ago, Catholics were leaving the Church in droves and many were attracted to the freedom of the Spirit they found in Evangelical traditions.  Now, many Evangelicals are attracted to the traditions in the Catholic world—monastic practices, the liturgical calendar, social teaching and the religious orders.  If we step back and look at these cultural shifts, perhaps the Holy Spirit is more active than we generally care to admit.  When society becomes too one-sided, there is a shift in the other direction—later, there is a shift back.

Catholic prayer can become stale and robotic with rote recitation, so people are attracted to the freedom in the Spirit in the Pentecostal world.  Catholic blogger
Billy Kangas was at the festival and mentioned to me that after a while this can turn stale for altogether different reasons.  He said folks can become attracted to structured prayer to help them dig deeper in their relationship with God in a disciplined way.  He says that Evangelicals often come to him asking for prayer ideas from the Catholic tradition.  This is fascinating to me because 20 years ago I remember Evangelicals teaching Catholics how to put down their prayer books and instead pray out of a living, personal relationship with Christ.  The pendulum swings back and forth.

“Full and Active Participation”

A phrase from Vatican II kept going through my mind during the festival:  “Full and active participation.”  This is the hope—and expectation—for the level of involvement of the people of God in the life of the Church.  Yet, we all know how difficult it is to find and nurture that.  At this festival, there was no question that there was very full and active participation from just about everybody—from festival organizers to casual attendees.  As an organizer who has worked hard to build interest in both faith and justice efforts, I watched this closely.  What is their secret? 

So often, I have felt like a monk in the Dark Ages, just trying to keep some semblance of a movement alive for the next generationpassing on the faith, passing on the social teaching, keeping the conversation about peace just barely alive, just a flicker of a flame.  Most of the time folks are creating events hoping to stir some kind of a movement or beg and borrow to solicit participation. 

The most amazing thing about this festival is that the work to put it together is largely invisible.  There was no one hurrying around trying to keep the whole thing on track.  It just seems to unfold so naturally.  Having planned events in the past on a much smaller scale, I can appreciate the amazing skills of the people who put this together.

My opinion is this:  There is a wide acceptance of the full inherent dignity of each person in their uniqueness at the Wild Goose.  There was no pressure to force oneself into a denominational or cultural box.  Interfaith expression happens seamlessly.  Since the full person was respected and accepted, people returned the favor by being fully present.  The massive organizational achievement of this festival is a testament to that.  This does not mean that there are no standards or morals—the festival was a celebration of life, goodness and right behavior.  People like Rev. Barber (and Pope Francis, for that matter) are great examples of how you can fully respect and accept people while still having a firm moral compass of your own.

Meeting People Where They Are

Many Catholics go to this festival searching for spiritual nourishment, and there is usually no one there from the Catholic Church to greet them.

Most people under age 40 do not regularly go to weekly Mass or other church services.  Their spiritual life is more centered around events like the Wild Goose.  They volunteer at places like Glenmary Farm, go on retreats, read, talk to their friends and listen to inspiring speakers.  I think a lot about what it means to be a missionary—partly because I work with a Catholic missionary organization and partly because of the call by Pope Francis for all Christians to cultivate a missionary spirituality.  If we are going to meet people where they are at, they are at the Wild Goose. 

Missionaries traditionally have had the role of meeting people where they are at in a geographical sense.  We think of priests and ministers trudging through the Outback, setting up new churches with all the trappings of parish life.  Perhaps being a missionary today is less about the pioneering work to make the Church present in a new geographical location but rather making the Church present in a new cultural context.  Lack of access to a church building is not the reason why many are staying home from Mass.  As a Glenmary priest pointed out, they may have a church next door.  Too often the institutional Church assumes it is the duty of each Catholic to conform their life to the rhythms of parish life rather than finding ways to bring the Church to life wherever they may be.

We Reap What We Sow

One blogger suggested that the flowering of the emerging church movement today—which would include, in part, the Wild Goose—is directly a result of the culture wars of the last 30 years.  The seismic shift to the right that happened in the Evangelical world in the 1980s created a movement that has been politically powerful for a generation, but it marginalized so many people in the process.  The children of that generation are largely unimpressed by the inconsistencies of that movement and have become the leaders against it. 

It is worth wondering what might have happened.  What if Evangelical and mainline churches had taken a more inclusive stance three decades ago?  What if mercy and compassion were the main identifiers of the faith rather than hardline stances?

It is fascinating to wonder where this movement is going to lead.  When it comes to dialogue between Evangelicals and Catholics, the Wild Goose and the emerging church movement is an important piece of the puzzle.  I am so glad to have been a part of it and look forward to participating in the future!  

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