Sunday, March 04, 2007
I recently participated in a ecumenical, inter-faith clergy discussion on Steven Johnson's book, Emergence. It was hosted by Reverend Clare Butterfield (Unitarian-Universalist) of Faith in Place, a Creation care ministry based in downtown Chicago. We met at the Chicago Center for Green Technology down in the City. Fortunately for me, it was located only two blocks from a Metra station, so I was able to take the train all the way in from Elburn (the end of the line which is about 25 minutes north of Yorkville), which saved me the time and gas of having to drive, and gave me time to get some reading done.

Emergence is not an "emerging church" book per se. In fact it's a "secular" book about science and sociology. The subtitle is "The connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software." However, a lot of the ideas in the book have a great deal of resonance with the values of the emerging church. To quote the book:

Emergence is what happens when the whole is smarter than the sum of its parts. It's what happens when you have a system of relatively simple-minded component parts - often there are thousands or millions of them - and they interact in relatively simple ways. And yet somehow out of all this interaction some higher-level structure or intelligence appears, usually without any master planner calling the shots. These kind of systems tend to evolve from the ground up.

The examples given in the book include ant colonies, cities, the human body, and video games. In each of these, the parts (individual ants, human beings, cells, lines of code) are fairly stupid and not aware of the interconnected whole, and yet out of their individual actions arises an ordered complexity, something that performs functions not directly perceived or intended by the individual members, and yet which benefits the whole system (for example, how a functioning city manages to maintain a sufficient flow of food and other resources to sustain all of its citizens even though there is no central planning involved making sure this happens).

Our discussion ranged all over the place, and we spent a good amount of time discussing how pastors and congregation leaders can encourage a "bottom-up" emergence approach in their faith communities, rather than a "top-down" approach to ministry. As it turns out, our church, Via Christus, already incorporates a lot of this "bottom-up" approach already.

However, I was most intrigued by the possibility of using this emergence metaphor as a description of how the Kingdom of God works. Our church has a strong commitment to transforming the world with the Kingdom of God, and yet we realize that we are but one small cell of the body of Christ, one small band of revolutionaries trying to make a difference in a great big world. Frankly, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. It's easy to start thinking "what difference can I make". Even if we work for justice and love in our personal relationships or our local community, is that really going to make a difference on the global scale, or is it just an insignificant drop in the bucket? It's easy to think that the possibility of the Kingdom of God really making a difference in the world is just a naive pipe dream.

However, the concept of emergence would say that all of our small, personal and local actions do have a cumulative effect on the whole that is greater than their individual impact. We don't need to be able to see the whole Kingdom of God to trust that it is advancing. God, perhaps, can see the big picture. We merely need to be faithful with the small things, right where we're at. If more and more of us catch that vision for the Kingdom and begin to act in small ways, the larger effect will be greater than any of us can separately imagine. That, I think, was Christ's intention in establishing the church as his revolutionary movement. Each individual cell in this movement may not make a huge impact, but together we will change the world.


posted by Mike Clawson at 7:52 PM | Permalink |


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