by Michael Rich*
Hot Springs, NC — It doesn’t look like a normal United Methodist conference. The crowd is generally younger. There are more tattoos and piercings than one will find at the normal UMC gathering. And the music was all over the map — ranging from hymns (while consuming beer), to bluegrass, to techno pop. In fact, the third annual Wild Goose Festival held this year in Hot Springs, NC is not a United Methodist meeting at all. However as one looked under the surface, United Methodists were found throughout the event and Wesleyan theology was freely discussed. It may not have been a United Methodist gathering, but the influence of United Methodism was clearly felt.
The Wild Goose Festival was founded in 2011to be an American version of the Greenbelt Festival held in England each year to showcase new ways of doing church. Created primarily by leaders in the Emerging Church movement, Wild Goose represented a chance to move beyond the traditional church conference focused on church growth and instead attempted to bring together young church leaders who were totally rethinking what church looks like in our culture. Wild Goose identifies itself as a “community gathered at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music, and art,” and creates a safe space for people from various traditions to talk about their faith and call to mission in the world.
During the four day event, held on August 8-11, most of the keynote speakers came from the world of the emerging church movement — including leaders like Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, Frank Schaeffer, Nadia Bolz Weber, and Phillip Yancey. Yet a variety of United Methodist leaders, musicians and workshop leaders were found throughout the event as well.
Vincent Harding, civil rights activist and historian, and one of the elders who began each morning with Phyllis Tickle and NPR’s Krista Tippet, had a long career teaching at United Methodist Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO from 1981 to 2004. A leader in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, Harding encouraged and challenged the gathering with wisdom gathered from his faith and experience.
Fred Bahnson, a farmer and theologian from Brevard, NC led a morning session on food and faith each day. Bahnson is a graduate of the United Methodist related Duke Divinity School, and served for four years as director of the Anathoth Community Garden, a ministry of Cedar Grove UMC in Cedar Grove, NC.
Brian Combs, a Candler School of Theology grad led a session entitled “Exorcizing the Demon Charity. The presentation included participation by his District Superintendent, John Boggs of the Blue Ridge District in the Western North Carolina Conference and others from the Haywood Street Congregation, a United Methodist mission in downtown Asheville, NC.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Durham, NC is a Baptist from King, NC who also studied at Duke Divinity School. He is regularly on call to speak about social justice and new monasticism with Methodist groups across the state. His theology is radical Anabaptist with a large dose of Wesley.
Charles Pettee and Folk Psalm performed music several time during the weekend. They hold the distinction of being the only bluegrass band to ever play in Duke University’s Chapel. One of the members attended Duke Divinity School and Pettee studied the Psalms with Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School.
The only United Methodist seminary to have an information booth during the weekend was Candler School of Theology. Timothy Hankins, a rising second year student was there for the weekend and greeted potential students and inquirers. “We think that the creative type of people who attend this festival are people that would find a number of our programs right for them. We think Candler is a place to explore a call in a variety of settings.”
There were a large number of United Methodists, both lay and clergy in attendance. Pastors from a range of church settings, camping ministries and campus ministry could be found throughout the crowd of 2200.
David Hamlyn, a pastor in Western North Carolina who volunteered with parking for the weekend, remarked that the crowd was not as young as he expected, but that he did have a chance to meet those “stereotypical millennials who grew up in a fundamentalist households, who have moved to liturgical churches looking for depth and mystery in worship.”
Many presenters and discussions focused on Methodist theology, without naming Wesley or mentioning the denomination. At a Saturday discussion on food policy and charity there was a clear call for the combination of personal holiness with social holiness as the only way to go forward into the future. The speaker continued, “We know that it is difficult to hold the two together, but it is necessary,” in essence affirming the core United Methodist theology of holding in tension love of God with love of neighbor.
D.G. Hollums, Sr. Pastor of the High Desert United Methodist Church in Rio Rancho, NM said that he was still processing his experiences of the event, but that he found the gathering energizing in his ministry. “I am always glad to hang out with a bunch of crazy people to engage in meaningful conversations, both with the speakers and the other attendees.”
Melissa Cooper, a deacon working in camping ministry in the Florida Conference saw the weekend as a return to her roots. “For me, it’s returning to what got me started in ministry in the first place.” “This event is so important,” she said, “because it gives people who are fed up with the institutional church a place to gather, and a place for those of us in the institution a place to join in conversation.”
For more information on the Wild Goose Festival including videos from various musical artists and presenters visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/wildgoosefestival
*Writer Michael Rich is currently a Congregational Vitality Strategist is in the Western North Carolina Conference. He has worked in a variety of settings including pastor, camp director, Christian educator and director of communication.