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Emergent Observations

September 17, 2008

I was honored by the invitation from my friend Tim to join the crew at the Baltimore Emergent Cohort last night. He asked me to talk about my experiences with and impressions of this thing called ‘Emergent’, and so I spent a couple of weeks ruminating and jotting down some of those thoughts. Which I shared last night, and which elicited a lively and interesting discussion. A few folks there asked for my notes, so I thought I’d go ahead and post them here:

To me, ‘Emergent’ (ie, ‘Emergent Village’) is relational, not organizational. In fact, it is not organized (though folks with a different paradigm can’t help but see it through their lens, and so expect it to have a certain structure and hierarchy). So I’m not a spokesperson– in fact there are no spokespeople (not even Tony Jones!). I’ll describe what I’ve resonated with relationally, and I’ll invite everyone else to chime in if they’re feeling it, too. Or if they’re not feeling it. Or if they want to add something.

My understanding of Emergent is based in a wider sense of ‘emergence’ in our culture (check out the wikipedia entry on ‘emergence’ for more on this)– in organizations in general, and in science, journalism, information dispersal, and etc.. Like other examples of emergence, it has flat org. structures, is self-organizing, etc..

My understanding of Emergent (ie, the network of Xians) is that it was a group of ‘cultural creatives’ who were following their instincts theologically, ecclesiologically, creatively, and relationally. They chose the term ‘emergent’ from the world of forestry: ‘emergent’ growth is the stuff that comes up on the forest floor, underneath the larger canopy. The health and future of a forest is indicated by this growth (and, to continue the metaphor, if ‘Emergent’ ever became the canopy, it would cease to be ‘emergent’). They employed emerging means of connecting– blogs, new media, gatherings, simple relationships, and most of all, utter experimentation.

So what is emerging is, in some senses, nothing new– many other Xians and denominations can rightly say, ‘We’ve been doing that forever!’ And yet, at the same time, there is a fresh approach, fresh energy, fresh combination and innovation and method and ethos and intent and departure and dispatch and commitment. The sum is greater than the parts.

This way of doing church is also no utopia. Many of us would say that it’s the only way for us to go forward, but we also recognize that it has many headaches and encumbrances, too. It might be simple, but it is not easy.

So here are some observations I’ve made, which I offer as starting points for discussion, and stated as vectors (my friend Pete has gotten me thinking about vectors, and about how our metrics are often too static– what’s more important is where we’re going). This list is obviously incomplete and perspectival.

– from confidence to humility. Epistemology and proper confidence. My friends are not wishy-washy, but learned, determined, and often opinionated. It’s just that they simultaneously realize the limitations of their understanding. [last night, one person used the great phrase, "strong ideas, held weakly".]

– from organizational to relational. Not centralized organizations (churches, et al) but scale-free networks.

– from pre-meditated to intentional. The groups I see developing do not know exactly where they are headed, but they are very intentional, nonetheless. The art of community development.

– from observation to engagement. Common Table’s ‘Worship Services’ and ‘Service Worship’, and Relational Tithe’s relational engagement with ‘widows and orphans’.

– from mainstream to marginalized. Learning to listen to the marginalized voices in the world, in culture, in our Scriptures, and in theology.

– from holiness to holism. The problem of dualism, and the embrace of holism. Celtic spirtuality. A new emphasis on Jesus’ incarnation, and an earthy and honest spirituality. Renewed interest in the ‘minor keys’ of Scripture.

– from Truth to true. Scripture as beauty to be experienced, rather than a set of truth claims to be mastered. “Inerrancy” as a theoretical and philosophical position.

– from stage to floor. [I had a lot to say here, but nothing more important or interesting than the Arcade Fire concert I listened to on the ride up, where the band started the show by playing 'Wake Up' acoustically, from the middle of the concert hall as the audience sang along.]

– from taskmasters to caretakers. Concern for the planet, and our environmental legacy. Reclaiming the idea that ‘the new earth’ is the one we’re sitting on right now.

– from consumerism to critique. A reconsideration of consumerism, of church consumerism, and of dualism (in politics, denominations, etc.). I’m utterly confounded when I hear critics say that the emerging church is capitulating to culture, when the emerging Xians I know are the ones serving the poor, giving away their possessions, leaving religious hierarchies, and speaking against the Empire. Undomesticating Jesus, and embracing smallness.

– from belief to action. People who are ‘religious, but not spiritual’. Non-creedal, non-doctrinal expressions of Xianity. Sara Miles is my hero.

(in an email this morning, Tim added another idea for a vector: “from compartmentalization to integration—thinking about holism and seeing God in all aspects of life, not just with Christians or in the church”. )

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6 Responses to “Emergent Observations”

  1. Mike Croghan says:

    That’s a *great* list, Mike – thanks for sharing it. And “strong ideas, held weekly” – schweet!

  2. whoa! this is something I’ve not ever seen written down this way! And I think it is largely what has been underlying many emergent discussions. I think it really sums up what I want to dot, too!

  3. Moff says:

    Stav, you are an embarrassingly good writer. Really, thanks for writing this down and thanks for posting it. I’ve been feeling squidgy about the whole emergent thing, to be honest, but this really breaks it down in pieces I can handle… and of course it makes sense, all of it, and it makes my presence at CT make sense to me, too.

    Um, and sorry about all the praise… i know that makes you uncomfortable. :^)

  4. Tim says:

    Mike,
    Thanks so much for coming up to Baltimore and for working up this great list to share with us.

  5. nick says:

    For a better description of “strong opinions, weakly held” than what I was able to give that night, see:

    http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/07/strong_opinions.html

    But I think the phrase doesn’t really need much explaining among most “emergent types”. ;-)

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