The Core Strength of Emergence

SUMMARY. My responses to two questions posted on Scot McNight’s Jesus Creed blog, seeking input on what you consider to be the strengths of the emerging/emergent movement, and what you would want to share with other pastors about this movement. Basically, its strength lies in systems thinking at the deepest level, which constructs the entire character of its paradigm in ways that conflict significantly with the convention/traditional Christendom paradigm – which is part of what makes it difficult to dialog across the divide.

There is an intriguing thread (as always!) at Jesus Creed, titled, “What are Emerging’s advantages?” In it, a former student of Scot McKnight’s says, Although my leanings are not emerging/emergent, I want to be fair, honest, and even-handed as I share on the emerging/emergent movement. My questions are these: 1) Could you (or your blog responders) share what you all consider to be the strengths of the emerging/emergent movement?

2) What would you want me to share with other pastors about this movement?

Below is the response I posted. It describes what I see as the core strength that ties various “emerging” phenomena together, why it is important, and what we should do in light of its importance.


My apologies for the following blog clog. I kept it as short as possible for a theologically savvy audience, considering that emergence is like Old Entish: “It takes a loong time to say anything in oooold … Entish. And we never say anything … unless it is worth taking a looong … time to say.” [Treebeard to Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers]

As a student of cultural systems and change, I come at emergence from a different angle. For me, the strength is not about a certain set of revised theological beliefs or practices, because I may or may not agree on this or that variation on the theme of emergence. It’s about something far deeper that may be the underlying commonality among the many expressions within the movement. I see the overall strength of emergence being the way its people think:

Those who are “emerging” grapple to use systems approaches for processing information, experiences, and relationships, and for acting in organically consistent ways with their conclusions.

From this core processing come the movement’s values, theology/philosophy, strategies, structures, methodological models, and lifestyle practices. Many of these aspects go quite counter to the standard faith and practice, but that’s understandable, given that their core ways of processing represent a radical break with those of the past. Their processing is integrative instead of analytic, systems instead of systematic, presence instead of pragmatic.

So, if we are to understand this movement, offer constructive critiques at any level from processing to practices, and see where gaps in our own perspectives require some “spiritual spackle” that emerging people can provide — then we must create our own sidebar curriculum to learn about systems-related ways of processing. This will include technical topics like: paradigms, paradox, complex systems, organic concepts, parallax, decentralization, integration, discontinuity, fractal processes, cultural contextualization (it isn’t just a missional concept!), consilience, etc. — and how they mesh or conflict with appropriate hermeneutics for interpreting Scripture.

I realize that for most of us, that probably does not sound like fun. But the reason for doing it anyway is that “emergence” is not just some little church-based movement. This shift to systems thinking is a major global phenomenon. Emerging/Emergent are some of our pioneers in this shift, even when we don’t like the land they are exploring or the findings they send back home. So, if we don’t grapple ourselves with this shift and its implications, we’ve basically decided to ignore the present and future context in which our churches find themselves. In that case, we shouldn’t be surprised if we end up dissolving into a passively irrelevant past, instead of emerging into a providentially preferable future …


So, I’ve had 12 hours to mull over what I posted early this morning. Think there are a few points I’d maybe have added to it, had I let the pre-post sit a half-day longer. Such as:

I would add more technical topics to the list of sidebar studies on systems thinking: set theory, chaos theory, simplicity, elegance, symmetry, interdisciplinary theory, complexity theory, eco-literacy, semantic domains, antinomy, macrohistory, and virtual ethnography. [And yeah, I do have books on such topics in a huge pile of stuff to read when I need a snatch or a snack to give my brain a change of pace.] I just don’t think we can learn to crack and decode cultures with only the traditional systematic tools, like: philosophy, generational dynamics (especially the cyclical theory of Strauss & Howe — sorry, it’s an interpretive theory, not fact), and racial-ethnic-gender-zipcode demographics.

I would say more about how difficult this shift is for many people, and try to encourage them toward realistic engagement. There are those of us inside the emergence movements who use systems thinking intuitively. Systems is our normal way of processing life, and it’s relatively easy for us — we just do it. I understand that systems thinking in the emerging world represents cross-cultural engagement for those whose cultural homeland used to be the dominant paradigm. It will take more intentionality for them to make the shifts required to both (1) contextualize Christianity in this new setting (that task requires a lot of thinking and praying and studying — and not in that order!) and (2) live counterculturally (a task that requires a lot of effort for anyone, but when one’s culture has been in the dominant role, it’s a new and potentially culture-shock experience to find ones self at the margins).

I would say more about the dynamics of power and graciousness for those of us who now find ourselves on the other side of the equation. Such as, many of us who resonate with the thinking processes of emergence have sought grace and understanding from those in established churches and agencies; more often than not, we have not felt like we received it. However, in the world that is emerging, the time is coming when roles will be predominantly reversed, and our paradigm will be far more dominant globally. How will we respond to systematic thinkers when we systems thinkers are in a position of cultural power? The Fool’s Gold Rule is “Do unto others what was done unto you.” Will we succumb to remembrances of anger and slighting, frustration and fighting? Or will we embrace the concept of “redemptive reversal,” and seek to help those who are now marginalized even more as they sojourn in the global world of systems thinking? Are we ready to relate graciously to our siblings who ask us to give them insight and guidance for their disorienting journey beyond their homelands? Are we willing to receive their critiques of our paradigms and practices may still contain important biblical discernments that we do need to take as correctives?

And I would perhaps say something about the gnawing question that I am just now beginning to be able to articulate: I hope I am proved wrong on this, but when many Christian leaders talk about analyzing emergence phenomena, why do I sense they intend to conduct their research from the highly abstract, philosophical, systematic processing perspective they are comfortable with and sort of use us emergence pioneers as guinea pigs — instead of partnering with us and actually letting us as emergence insiders lead the process from a highly concrete, culturological, systems perspective? Please, please, please, Lord, I hope I’m really, really, really wrong on this, but I fear …

And I did think about adding something about how there are lots of people who didn’t seek to “join” emergence or to “become emergent.” One day, they simply realized they already “were” emerging because their thinking processes were already different from the standard paradigms of the past. They may have discovered this from a theological point they agreed with from a so-called emerging author or blogger. Or, they were dissatisfied with an empty [choose: fundamentalist, conservative, moderate, liberal, evangelical, etceteral, other] perspective that was all [choose: theory, action, blah-blah-blah talk, other] and no [choose: action, theology, processing, other], and they felt deeply that they needed to be more [choose: authentic, hands-on, missional, involved, grounded, reflective, post-whateveral, other], so they identified, finally, with emergence [and chose to end the agony of the run-on sentence of choices].

We are fun and funny, you know. OOOH! THE FOLLOWING IS SPEED-TYPING STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS. READ IT ALOUD REAL FAST AND SEE HOW IT GOES, EH? Restart: We are fun and funny, you know. I would talk about that too. Actually, I did that, not just talked about doing that. But then, if you didn’t think it was funny, I guess that would be indicative that either you aren’t emergenal or perhaps I’m not your brand of emergenal, even though we’re trying not to make a brand out of this, because that would, like, be marketing and hyperpragmatism, and you know how we emerging kinds of peeps really hate those, or are supposed to, but then, if we impose our supposed-to’s on others, that isn’t very emergent, is it? So, I suppose I won’t impose my supposes on others, lest I be supposed to be a poser. Whew!
The end.

Old Entish. Yeeeeeesssss … indeeeed.


2 thoughts on “The Core Strength of Emergence

  1. Brad, yes, well, I think I’d come under the umbrella of those who do systems thinking intruitively. I rationalize it after the fact, but it is largely after the fact.

  2. Hi Matt, Yeah, I relate to the after-the-fact linear-logical attempts to reverse-engineer my intuitions. It’s a tough call at times to keep from second-guessing myself and doubting the intuition. Sometimes I do the reverse engineering thing in order to attempt to explain my outcome to someone who processes things in sequential terms. Like most cross-cultural attempts, it’s never perfect, but it’s important anyway relationally to make the attempt. This may be even more true in decades to come, as intuitive/random thinking becomes the dominant form of processing.

    On another note, I recall Joel Barker in his book Pardigm Shift noting that “Intuition is the ability to make wise decisions in the absence of sufficient information.” Actually, I think that missed the boat. Intuitive processing happens so fast and takes in so much information – a mega-gestalting as it were – that it actually makes wise decisions exactly for the reason that it has more-than-sufficient information. (And sometimes we make goofy/horrible decisions, but hey, so do those who process by traditional logic, when they ignore their blind spots!)

    Okay, enuff esoteric stuff for this late in the evening. Anyway, thanks for your comment. Always good to hear from you, bro!

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