Conference Christianity and Pilgrimages

Tonight one of my favorite writers on theology and philosophy of religion is speaking at the college where I started my degree. Unfortunately I live a good 8 hour drive from there now, so I won’t be in attendance. At the same time, across the country, a conference on process theology will be starting up.

I’ve found myself critical of contemporary emerging, progressive, liberal Christianity’s focus on conferences as a major mode of community building. Soularize, Wild Goose, Emergent Village Theological Conversation, Jesus Radicals. In the build up to all of these you hear things like “You’re going to want to be there,” or “If you care about these topics, you need to get there.” It feels somewhere between the advertising industry’s more common “You owe it to yourself to do this” and the more evangelical Christian “God is moving in this place.” To not go is something between denying yourself and denying God.

The site of the work, the community and the celebration is not in the churches, but in the conferences. To some degree it feels to me like “Come do these things here, because you’ll never find this at your local church.” And that’s probably true. But I’ve wondered if the conferences serve as ways to avoid making these things happen in our churches. If we get to talk about process theology once a year, then we don’t have to push to bring in into our churches. If we have alternative worship experiences here and there, then we don’t have to fight to have them at home.

Then there’s the costs of both time and money, which make the gatherings inaccessible to many. Registration, lodging, travel, time away from work, time away from family, childcare, these things add up, and likely figure into why these events are overwhelmingly populated by white, middle to upper-middle class, hetero, cis men.

And to top it all off, I’m such an introvert that being around that many people is draining.

I think these are valid criticisms, but I also think I’ve put too much stock in my criticisms.

The other night I was watching a National Geographic documentary on the Appalachian Trail. Seeing and hearing from those who were hiking the trail made it clear that the experience was one of pilgrimage for many of them.

American Protestantism does not have sacred sites, but many still feel the draw of pilgrimage. We desire having space, time and movement set aside for God. This stuck me this weekend as I ambled around New Orleans, looking at the beautiful church buildings that permeate the city. To travel to a sacred site touches something deep inside many of us, and hearing the hikers speak about their experience on the trail it hit me that these conferences function as pilgrimages for many in American Protestantism. People are creating their own sacred spaces, temporary and movable. People are building their own pilgrimages from the ground up. Whatever critiques I may have of the process, I can relate to that desire.

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