Sunday, March 01, 2009


I was listening to Radiolab on NPR yesterday. The show (or at least the part of it that I caught) was on emergence (a really old episode, apparently). Specifically, they were talking about how the organized behavior of an ant colony emerges from the random behavior of individual ants.

One of the show's hosts, talking about ant colonies, says, "Buried in the system is a rule, a sense of direction, but how do you see that rule?" Scientist Deborah Gordon responds, "That's the wrong question, and that's what's so uncomfortable. The instructions aren't anywhere. The instructions come out of the way that the colony lives and behaves."

They didn't talk about the idea of the Emergent Church at all, but that was naturally where my mind was going, particularly after the above exchange. Churches seem to like instructions. They want plans for how to do things, and I think that's why it's so hard to find a good emergent church. You can't lay out a plan for replicating the church. If you have a formula that says, "Use candles, provide couches, play this type of music, focus on that type of sermons, etc." then you've already blown it. You imposed the "rule" and tried to get a church to emerge on the blueprint.

But to be emergent, an emergent church needs to arise spontaneously from a rule that is internal. You can't know ahead of time what it's going to look like.

And yet, I think this is obviously the right way to do church. All churches should be "emergent" in this sense, and I would bet that the best products in the history of Christianity have been emergent in this way. The Franciscan movement, for instance, was emergent. It grew up around an internalized "rule" working itself out in the context of 12th century Italy.

Unlike in the case of the ants, we can say what the "rule" is -- not exactly perhaps, at least not in a way that isn't culture-bound, but we can say. The "rule" from which a good church emerges is the Gospel.

One of the great blessings and geniuses of Christianity is that the Church has never codified a single articulation of the Gospel. The Gospel which can be spoken is not the true Gospel. It is a culture-bound artifact of the Gospel. But the Church "knows" what the Gospel is in exactly the same way that an ant colony knows the rule which guides the ant colony. The Gospel is the rule that created the Church. To paraphrase Dr. Gordon, the Gospel comes out of the way that the Church lives and behaves.

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