Friday, May 20, 2011

The Interpretive Challenge of Unconference11

Human life in this age places value on experience. Each experience elicits a degree of response. A television program can be watched with varied responses. The responses can be laid out on a continuum. Some responses offer a short shelf-life: "can you believe that American Idol vote last night?" Each episode will only be dissected for so long for some. For others, the episode may accumulate with others and inspire a vocal performance career.

Any experience offers an opportunity for interpretation. I have attended numerous continuing education events over the years. Each learning experience, though varied in content, offered a very similar structure. A speaker/teacher of great repute travels and meets traveling participants for a provision of information. It's like I back my empty informational truck into a dock for a load of information. Though the content may be complex, the transaction is simple. I pay money. I receive information. I receive a binder or folder full of notes and handouts I will not likely crack open again. I receive a Power Point file attached to an email that clogs a memory stick or sits on my hard drive. I may have more information, but the information nourishes my body as if I attempted nourishment by swallowing a palm full of vitamins without eating any food. The intake at a conference may hold nutritive qualities, but the information isn't sticky. The typical workshop/conference/symposium in church circles fails the stickiness test. My library is a testimony to this observation. I store many binders with hope of using the material again, yet I often don't. This failure doesn't speak to the quality of the information, but the context in which it was delivered. Every educational experience challenges the participant to interpret the information to their own context. Conference hosts over the years have recognized that more people from each context increases the stickiness of the information (Bring a group! Save money! Broaden the application!) but the methodology still lacks the stickiness necessary for integration.

Unconference11 was a powerful experience for me. Not only because it represented a spiritual milestone for me, but because there was something incarnational about it. Fleshy and sticky. There was not only information shared, but relationships were graciously hosted with God and others. Every participant was given the opportunity to contribute and be respected. This is not what usually comes out of a conference. The ethos of a typical conference resembles a rock concert. If only you can get close to the star, get a backstage pass, some of that star quality might rub off into your context.

Last night I ate dinner with good friends who, like me have attended numerous conferences and workshops. They know the routine. Talk about the greatness of the speaker, the cutting edge discovery or technique, the idea that will change our contexts. I realized last night that I couldn't explain the experience in the same way that I have explained other learning events covering about 20 years of my life.

The challenge of interpreting Unconference11 remains. What will matter in these weeks ahead? First of all, I gathered with a small group of folks passionate about subversive and new ministry developments. I hope to resource this group of people as I enter into a trajectory of ministry new to me. I am thankful for that opportunity. Most of all, the interpretive challenge of Unco11 will not be whether I can share what exactly I learned and experienced among friends. I was respected. I was valued. I was given the opportunity to contribute both truth and beauty. I was healed and loved. No "conference" I have ever attended has done that. My inclination is that though my work and life in the church looks a lot like the conferences I have attended for 20 years--a lot of vitamins, but no nourishment. The interpretive challenge is not that I can replicate Unco11 in my context, but whether in my context I can share in the work of healing, respect, love and creativity. This sounds a lot like Jesus to me.


  1. Thanks, Joe, for articulating a lot of what I'm feeling. I'm definitely going to be bookmarking this, and giving it to people who might ask me about Unco.
    Great to meet you, and I hope it won't be long until we meet again. While I was gone, Big Al got a call from Franke Tobey Jones that there was a duplex open and available for us. Now if only we can sell this house. It's 71 deg. already and cloudy, and 100 per cent humidity. Headed for 88 deg. today. Pray for me! ;-)

  2. Thanks for your comment, Abbie.

    Glad to meet you in person! I'm still processing unco happenings; I'm glad my thoughts resonated with you. Looking forward to having you as a neighbor! It's in the 80s in DC today, and 51 back in the Seattle does that sound? Peace be with you.