By Jeff Brumley
The third-annual Wild Goose Festival opened Thursday in the mountains of North Carolina, with organizers and many participants hoping the outdoor gathering will heal divisions between conservative, progressive and moderate Christians.
National leaders of the “Christian convergence” movement say the four-day festival near Asheville advances that cause with its eclectic mix of speakers, entertainers and attendees.
Organizers say the gathering has matured to focus on unity around social action. Many of those attending say they are drawn to the festival’s offering of Sabbath, conference and worship. The 100-acre site along the French Broad River in Hot Springs, N.C. is cited as another plus.
‘Kick back, relax’
“This was a good opportunity for us to kick back, relax and get a little perspective,” said Marty Anderson, co-pastor with this wife, Robin, of Commonwealth Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va. The couple and their three children are tent camping through the weekend at Wild Goose.
Joining the Andersons around the camp fire Thursday afternoon were Chris Robertson, minister of students and outreach at Towne Valley Baptist in Kennesaw, Ga., Barrett Owen, pastor of National Heights Baptist in Fayetteville, Ga., and Ryan Clark, specialist and training manager for self-funded field personnel for CBF.
“It’s exciting to be with other Christians who are more progressive and who understand the gospel to include concern about poverty, peace and the planet,” Robertson said.
Some of the vendors present testify to ecology and social justice as a concern of the 2,000 expected to attend through Sunday. Justice for Farmworkers, Stop Torture Now and the Human Rights Campaign were among the cause-oriented organizations represented.
But there were also a number of seminaries and publishers with displays, and also a host of retailers selling eco-friendly clothing and other goods.
Presbyterian Carl Horton of Kentucky, said it’s that eclectic feel that brought him back to Wild Goose for the second year running.
“It’s so un-church,” said Horton, of Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville. “It’s … a nice hybrid of camping and worship, community and superb lectures and concerts.”
‘The goose is’
It’s also grown up, organizers said.
“The fledgling is no more – the goose is,” Phyllis Tickle, a festival founder and writer on spirituality and emergence Christianity, said to cheers during Thursday’s opening ceremony. “It’s a symbol of God’s unpredictability.”
The lineup of speakers and events in the 54-page Wild Goose program is unpredictable, too. The more well-known include Tickle, Brian McLaren, Eric Elnes, Philip Yancy and Frank Schaeffer. Traditions include Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Protestant and Muslim.
Topics covered include forgiveness, setting boundaries in ministry, ecology, immigration reform, spiritual creativity and building transformative social movements. Musical offerings are just as diverse, from sacred music to hip-hop with a message.
But the most important events at Wild Goose aren’t on its stages and meeting sites, but around the campsites and tables scattered throughout the site, said Elnes, an author and United Church of Christ pastor considered a leader in the convergence church movement.
In meeting and talking with one another, Christians from different denominations and cultural backgrounds begin to see that theology becomes less important than the relationships necessary for addressing social challenges, Elnes said.
On the right, believers yearn for the social engagement embraced by progressives, he said, while some liberals admire evangelicals’ love of scripture and experience of the Holy Spirit.
The result is a gradual awakening and a movement that can be advanced at Wild Goose – especially as the festival continues every year.
“Those relationships are deepening” and pushing American Christianity into “a post-liberal, post-evangelical” era, Elnes said.
‘So many Baptists’
But like any movement, that may take a while because most who attend Wild Goose are Christians who are open to questioning their theology and traditions.
“The label that applies to most people at Wild Goose is ‘progressive Christian,’” with some conservative evangelicals sprinkled in, said festival spokesman Steve Knight.
Denominationally, mostly it is “Episcopal and Presbyterian – but there’s so many Baptists,” he added.
Wild Goose speaker Sarah Cunningham is a moderate Christian and author who said she feels somewhat like an outsider at the event despite always being warmly treated.
“My dad is a Southern Baptist church planter, which I know in this crowd doesn’t win me any extra points,” Cunningham said at the beginning of her Thursday session titled “The Well-Balanced World Changer: Conversations on Staying Well While Doing Good.”
‘Not fully in their camp’
Publishing books with theologically diverse publishers – like Zondervan, Abingdon and Moody – also makes it hard for people to figure her out, said Cunningham, who now attends a Wesleyan church plant. The result is feeling like an outsider on the left and right.
That feeling was evident in her closing remarks Thursday at Wild Goose.
“I still have some evangelical in me, but I won’t do an altar call,” she joked with her audience. She then concluded with a prayer to “the God of the evangelicals and the progressives and everyone in between.”
Cunningham said she feels an affinity for the compassion and causes that most at Wild Goose embrace. But she also loves the Bible – even the Old Testament.
“I just want to be honest that I am not fully in their camp,” she said.