An Apology to Emergent Village

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 10, 2008

Yesterday, Emergent Village released a survey, asking for input about the future of their organization.

In response I wrote a strongly-worded response that, though an honest attempt to offer my opinion on Emergent Village and its future, was somewhat carelessly worded. To make matters worse, I failed to practice what I preach by doing two things:

1) I did publicly what I should do privately. I should have stated my concerns to folks at EV instead of airing them publicly. That was wrong. And I’m sorry for it. I apologize.

2) I focused too much on my concerns with EV and not enough on those things for which I’m thankful regarding EV.

I’d like to say I came to these conclusions on my own. But I’m kinda thick-skulled. I had to get an upset email from a friend calling me to account. Well, I stand rebuked.

Mark Van Steenwyk is the general editor of Jesus Manifesto. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.

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Viewing 12 Comments

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    Well done Mark.
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    Thanks Jonathan. I think my concerns are valid, but there is a right and a wrong way to voice those concerns. Plus, I have to realize about myself that my own tendency is to speak out against things rather than speak out for things. Not that I don't do both. I just think I need to shift things a bit more into the positive direction.
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    Mark, thanks for showing some real humility here in tempering your comments about Emergent. I appreciate your voice and your perspective a great deal, but it is frustrating sometimes when I hear these questions raised and I think, "Is he talking about the same Emergent Village that I know and love?"

    From my perspective, there's still a great deal of work to do, and it's going to take Emergent, Allelon, Sojourners, Submergent (or whatever you decide to call it ;-), all these groups to move things forward. I personally believe Emergent could play a significant role in helping to birth and nurture many new missional churches in the coming months and years, but not with the goal of being/becoming a denomination. I personally have that desire, and I'm talking to many people who would love to see Emergent serve and support those kinds of efforts, which I think it is uniquely positioned to be able to do (in some ways).

    For this reason, I don't think Emergent should fold up shop, but I do appreciate your concerns about the direction of Emergent and the way that things are done on a day-to-day basis. I hope you'll keep sharing them, both privately and publicly as you feel led.
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    Thanks Steve. Part of what is at play here is the grid that I use in evaluating organizations...and my understanding of movements. I haven't done a good enough job being clear about my concerns nor the basis for those concerns. And so, I regret, it has come off as though I think EV is bad.

    Let me be clear. In some ways, I'm as much a part of EV as almost anyone, except those who serve in an official capacity. I think EV has done a huge service in fostering the conversation. But I am working with these assumptions:

    1) Movements are almost always better when they are unencumbered with institutions. That is why, in my honest opinion, the Charismatic movement is way healthier than the Pentecostal movement.

    2) Emergent Village, while playing a catalytic role in the emerging church phenomenon, isn't at the center. So when I see EV moving into the role of being the emerging church nexus or central hub, I get nervous.

    3) Emergent is primarily focused on sharing ideas. To shift into church planting would be a radically new direction and, as such, change what Emergent is. And I'm not sure there is sufficient need for EV to take up this mantle. I can certainly see EV helping.

    4) There comes a point in time when it is better to exert less influence (not more) in the developmental process. This is obvious with parenting, but less obvious with movements. And I think the particular things that God has set aside for EV to do are mostly done. I think it would be better in the big picture for EV to either step back, or perhaps re-invent itself. But if it is going to reinvent itself it needs to do so in a way that is clearly communicated, rather than a slow shift that catches people unawares.

    5) It is a departure from what EV has been about in the past. Remember back when EV folks were squeemish with being called a "Movement" when it was really only about a "Conversation?" Somehow we've jumped from conversation to proto-denomination. That should give everyone pause. That may be the right move, but before that move is made, the onus is upon EV to explain why such a move is necessary, and why it should be EV making that move.
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    Thanks for stating these assumptions, because I think they're helpful. Here's my response to them (from my perspective):

    1) I think the emerging church movement will continue regardless of whether Emergent Village continues to "institutionalize" or not. I'm personally not in favor of a great deal of institutionalization, but I think some really good/positive things could be accomplished if EV had some more infrastructure from which to operate and accomplish those things. Again, I'm not for "big government" here, but for "scaling up" slightly to take on the burden of serving people better who are looking to EV for that support.

    2) EV isn't at the center, nor is it trying to be at the center -- although I think some of the language that gets used seems to (unconsciously?) imply that. I know, because I've been guilty of it myself! (see the "Rise of -Mergents" piece I co-wrote with Tony Jones) When that email went out about how "the emergent conversation" has grown, I think of that as applying specifically to Emergent Village, but I can see how others will read that and think it refers to the broader emerging church conversation. The insistence by Tony (and others) to not try and distinguish between emerging and emergent has confused the matter, but I believe the motivation there is not to somehow "co-opt" the conversation but rather just as an admission (a "throwing up of one's hands," if you will) that the two terms will be used interchangeably and that trying to distinguish between the two will never be an exact science.

    3) In the conversations I'm having, I am seeing how EV could play a significant role in helping to birth and/or nurture new faith communities. It may be a "radically new direction" for Emergent, but it's a logically outgrowth or evolution, IMHO, not a complete departure from what EV has been about all along. The ideas have always been about theology and ecclesiology. You say, "I can certainly see EV helping," and I'm fully in agreement with you on that. Again, I don't see this as being EV asserting itself as "the" new way to start faith communities. EV would be just one of the many streams/orgs/networks involved in this activity.

    4) Again, I am hearing and seeing different things. From my vantage point, as a cohort organizer, a member of the Emergent Coordinating Group, etc., I see the potential (and hope on the part of many) for EV to have a continuing, important role over the coming years. I'd be curious to know what you think God had "set aside for EV to do," which is now apparently "done," and also, what you think the "reinvented" EV would look like/be about, If you were to be the one to do the reinventing, what would EV become?

    5) Well, again from my vantage point, things are way to decentralized and frankly disorganized to call what EV is doing the work of a "proto-denomination." I'm not sure I know what a "proto-denomination" is, though, really, but I do know I like pronto pups at the Minnesota State Fair so eat one of those for me, will ya? ;-)

    No, seriously, if EV actually gets more involved in helping resource the birth/nurture of new faith communities, it will be through working in partnership with multiple denominations (and non-denominaitons) -- not just as one entity (e.g., the "Emergent denomination"). As far as I can tell, nobody thinks denominational bureaucracy is really a great thing, so I'm really not worried about that, to be honest. I get the concern or fear, but literally nobody I know in Emergent is lobbying to create those kinds of structures. If anything, the challenge is in working within the existing structures to get them to play by our rules in a way that honors their tradition without tying us up with handcuffs.

    These are just my thoughts/reflections. I think this is an evolutionary step for Emergent, not a revolution. I truly believe there is much more that could be accomplished for the Kingdom through Emergent, if it continues. Only time will tell ...
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    I get a little queasy when I see Emergent becoming a branded entity. With institutionalization comes clipped conversation. As much as Emergent writings have discussed the dangers of modernism, this is not the great sin of American Christianity. Consumerism is. And I worry that the emerging conversation is embarking down a dangerous path of branding and marketing that sounds a lot like a return to its roots in the megachurch.

    I apologize is this is unfair, but monetizing a conversation means that it is no longer a conversation but a product.
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    I think that those folks who agree with David (that consumerism is the primary problem in American Christianity) will tend to have a more pessimistic view of Emergent Village. Perhaps that is why I am so skeptical.

    I really enjoy spending time with my EV friends, but the organizational and promotional choices are hard for me to take because they seem relatively unconcerned with issues like consumerism.

    One time I had a conversation with Tony about this stuff. He pointed out that I am just as dirty with consumerism as he is...after all, I have ads for the Breviary (which is available on!) on the top of this site and in the rss feed. And I have a web presence, JM is becoming a brand, etc.

    I think there is truth in this, but at the same time I feel like I try to navigate these waters very carefully. I'm sure I've made mistake and will continue to make mistakes. I guess I don't really see EV grappling with that tension in a way that reassures me that we're not going to have EV move from a conversation to a movement to an events organization with publishing deals and consulting to a highly market-savvy denomination that becomes more interested in the bottom line than providing free places for exploration of ideas.
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    Perhaps this would make for a great side post somewhere. How do we wrestle with this idea? I love that JM actually has a poll asking if it annoys readers to have the banner ad.

    I don't think money is the problem, though. I think it is the relentless pursuit of it.
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    Jarrod Saul McKenna 5 months ago
    humility and repentance are beautiful things. Thanks mate.
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    You suck, Mark.

    ; )

    In all sincerity, I think this happens more often than we like. We let our tounges loose and BAM!!! you regret something. Sometimes people call you out on it but most of the time you're left wondering "Did that offend anyone?" "Should I have handled that differently". There is no lack of philosophers and religious leaders commenting on our ability to talk ourselves into a corner.

    If it makes you feel better when I was a young Christian I said dumb stuff nearly everyday. Once I used the word "tit" in a sermon. Yeah, I apologized.
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    I see your point, and of course your apology is appropriate, if for no other reason than you were convicted about the things you wrote. However, many of the comments in response, while rightfully commending you for your candor and humility, have the cumulative effect of saying "Yeah, geez, Mark -- what the hell were you thinking?", and I'm not sure that's entirely warranted.

    1) EV is a public ministry with a high-profile presence. You can't write or talk about the emerging/emergent phenomenon without taking them into account. This means that some of us are going to write and talk about EV -- good, bad, or otherwise -- without the luxury of worrying whether or not Tony Jones is going to get his feelings hurt (or Doug Pagitt, etc.). Because you self-identify as part of this larger movement, there are going to be times you'll need to establish boundaries, to place yourself on the map in some way. Of course there are more and less tactful ways to do that, but you're probably going to have to do that publicly, regardless of what kinds of private conversations you've had. The fact that you do have a relationship with some of the people involved makes things more complicated. If you're using internet media as a shield against the vulnerability of face-to-face communication, then sure, you've got a problem. But a public response to a public ministry is not in and of itself a breach of integrity.

    2) Your response was occasional, and not intended to be a well-rounded appraisal of EV. How much praise should you need to lavish on them before you can rightfully offer criticism or voice concerns? Your comments did not seem to be snarky sniping from the sidelines but an impassioned plea for EV to remain true to what you have loved about it. "Option D" on the survey, for instance, appears to be a kind of neo-denominational structure not dissimilar from the Willow Creek Association. Is that the same as the Southern Baptist Convention or the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church? Of course not. But I can see why it might bother you, and the fact that it is on the survey means that someone sees it as a possibility.

    So, yes -- I can see how the tone of the original post lacked the kind of charity you aspire to, and you felt a need to set things right. I get that. But I can't quite join the chorus of catharsis helping you beat yourself up over it.

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    Thanks Ted. I'm not sure I see my apology as a "beating myself up" over the issue. I agree that EV is public and should be able to handle public criticism. But it certainly is complicated when the national coordinator is my friend. My apology is a recognition that I should have talked to him first.

    The responses to my apology make me cringe a little, to be honest. I think some might take my apology for some sort of love fest for Emergent Village or some sort of deep self-revelation. I've certainly learned from this experience, and been softened by it. I made a mistake. But the mistake wasn't in my positions. I stand by the content of what I wrote earlier...I just should have been more tactful and talked to Tony before I put it out there.


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