Church as an “emergent system”

In my previous post I offered a slight critique to the center set model of church, observing that while it is helpful it is ultimately incomplete in describing certain aspects of church life. In this post I would like to propose my own[1] model: the church as an “emergent system.”

(Aside: While sharing the word “emergent” with the so-called “emergent” church movement, this post has nothing to do with that movement.)

In The Social Animal David Brooks discusses a dizzying array of topics, including poverty. In describing poverty he uses the terminology of “emergence,” describing it as an “emergent system.”

Emergence is the philosophical opposite of reductionism. Reductionism tries to understand an entire system by pulling apart and understanding its individual parts. The idea is that we can understand something complex by understanding all the components that make it up. Reductionism is, of course, a hugely important way of understand the world.

Emergence, on the other hand, looks at systems as a whole, as a system as something that is more than just the sum of its parts. An emergent system is made up of more than just individual parts, but also the dynamic interaction between those parts. An emergent system is irreducible to its components and, in fact, will have characteristics that its individual components do not have.

Brooks offers some examples of emergent systems. Hurricanes are made up of the relatively benign components of water and wind which come together under just the right conditions to form a system of incredible force. A story has an emotional force that is irreducible to the sum of its words. An ant colony is incredibly organized and complex, even though no single ant can direct, comprehend, or even see the whole system.

One more component of emergent systems is worth noting. When a system of interactions has been firmly established (the system is “in place”) that system has a strong downward force on the individuals within the system. This is evident when we think of culture as an emergent system. Cultures are made up of people, ideas, rules, etc. but they are irreducible to just the parts. They are also characterized by the dynamic interaction between those parts. Additionally, culture has a strong downward force on the individuals which inhabit the culture. It impacts what we wear, what we eat, what we value, and what stories we tell.

I think it is helpful to think of church (both Big C and little c) as an emergent system. For many years I was accustomed to thinking of the church as merely the collection of individual Christians but the more that I have studied the New Testament the more I have begun to see Church as a think in and of itself.

Consider some of the major biblical images of church. The church is a body. A body is an emergent system. It is more than the sum of its parts (despite what Planned Parenthood would have you believe). A body is animated when there is interaction between the individual members of that body, when the arm works with the hand. The church is a building. A building is irreducible to the sum of its materials. It becomes useful when the parts work together in a particular design. The church is a family. Brooks observes that marriage counselors will sometimes say that there are always three patients in the counseling session – the husband, the wife, and the marriage itself. The same is true for a family. The family is more than a collection of people, but the interactions, roles, rules, and culture of that particular collection and the family has a strong downward force in shaping its individual members.

A church, in other words, is as much characterized by the interaction of its members as it is by the relative strength and weakness of its individual members. I think this is why there are so many “one another” commands given in Scripture. Love one another. Bear with one another. Serve one another. Be of the same mind. Forgive one another. Etc. All of these commands describe interactions between members of the community that will, over time, form patterns of interaction, and thus a virtuous emergent system – a Christ-like church culture. This church culture will then have a downward force on its individual members.

When seen in a positive way we will see that a loving church (a church characterized by loving interactions) will produce loving members. A forgiving church, forgiving members. A mature church, mature members. A church where members think of ways to spur one another on to righteousness, a holy church.

In the negative we will see that a bitter church will produce bitter members. A legalistic church, legalistic members. A faithless church, faithless members. I think this is why so many people, even strong Christians, can be ruined in a toxic church environment. A house where the foundations are crumbling will not be helped by a solid roof. A body that has cancer will not be helped, at least not in the long run, by a strong arm. Indeed, the arm itself will grow weak and eventually die as it is destroyed by the disease spreading throughout the rest of the body.

As a preacher, I need to think through this. Discipleship is more than just knowledge acquisition. It comes, at least in large degree, from a community. When I preach I need to think not just of what individual response I am hoping the sermon produces, but what sort of church culture the sermon would produce. In my short time as a pastor I have observed that a Christ-like church culture does a lot more for long-term spiritual formation than does a rousing sermon. Sermons are important, obviously, but often they are important in the way they reinforce the virtuous processes of the emergent system that is the church.

Non-preachers should take note as well. If you want to grow in relation to Christ you need more than just more individual Bible reading (though the importance of that should not be discounted). You need to be part of a church.

This Sunday some relative newcomers to our church mentioned that they really appreciated the “spirit” of the church. They didn’t commend the music or the preaching or the programs, but the spirit of the church. I can think of few things I would rather have them compliment. Certainly of the things we do as a church the “spirit” of the church, by which I understood them to mean the culture, values, beliefs and interactions of our church, all the things that make our church more than just a collection of individuals, will have some of the strongest downward force of the spiritual growth of our members.

I’m certainly not convince this particular model – the church as an emergent system – is all encompassing. One big difference arises Brooks’ description of the emergent system and the emergent system that is the church, the presence of Christ. The body has a head – Jesus. The building has a presence – the Spirit. The family has a leader – Christ. And it is really this presence of God, which makes the whole system life-giving and entirely unique.

[1] I don’t mean “my own” to say that my thoughts are original, only that I haven’t seen the ideas described in the blog post linked in this way before. Basically everything in this blog is derivative, and intentionally so.