Kester Brewin is one of the sharpest thinkers on the emerging scene. For years, his community, Vaux, created worship spaces that engaged forbidden cultural and theological themes. His upcoming book, due out in July, Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Always Organic/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-Up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving, continues in this pattern and doesn’t disappoint. Brewin combines psychology, urban theory, and complexity theory with biblical reflection on church and leadership. The result? Brewin produces a fresh look at the contemporary scene with an innovative approach to leadership in the church.
Brewin pleads for new understandings of power in the church: power from below as opposed to top-down leadership. “I want to argue that the transformation of the Church will be about empowering people to face the fundamental questions of their local existence, engaging with all its complexity and emerging as a renewed organism which is faithful to the truth but disinterested in power.” Brewin argues for bottom-up leadership forms in the church, i.e. self-organizing systems that emerge. He retrieves these ideas from chaos theory and applies them to understandings of church leadership.
Brewin explains that church structures evolved over time. Our current structures were a response to a culture (rural, primarily) that no longer exists. In our global cities (Kester lives in London), a new form of organizing needs to be imagined. Brewin advocates what he calls a conjunctive church. “If we are to impact the post-Enlightenment cultural consciousness then we must be modeling a conjunctive [ability to hold two opposites in tension] faith in a conjunctive church…” He advocates a church that lives on the edge of chaos, somewhere between rigidity and anarchy.
Brewin advocates meaningful yet incremental change, from below, and he sees this as the essence of emergent
systems. Our first step? To wait. He begins with Advent, a time to
wait. Stop, go back to the valley and wait, wait for the new birth to
come. The church is in exile – it needs to accept its marginal status,
recognize it, sit with it. Drawing on Walter Brueggemann, the church
must walk through our exilic state – and grieve. Churches ought to help
us name this exile, and help us through this desolation. Instead, we
receive ‘fiction’ at church, the story that things are really going
okay. Instead, an “emergent” leader would lead differently. God let
this happen to us – why? Did God move on? Is He no longer in our
programs? To move through this time, the church must tell its stories,
remembering God’s acts in the past. In that place, a new imagination is
born. What might God be doing today?
With Jesus, God became flesh and dwelt among us – “trickle-down” truth through the prophets and kings didn’t work. God would effect change from the bottom-up. Like Jesus, we must re-emerge. We must allow God to birth in us a new way. Slowly. We must be “born again” to the cultures around us, as Jesus was born amongst his. We must re-emerge amongst the cultures of the world – in their world. It will likely happen outside the Temple, away from the authorities, in the urban city.
Brewin advocates a natural view of the city, the idea that humanity
mirrors God by creating new things with creation. God created the
materials and humans fashioned them. It might take time to see, but
there is goodness in the city. The church needs to listen for God in the city, and not just in the deserts or the mountains. “Christ approached the city in order to become a part of it, to infect it, to plant some seed with it that he hoped would take root and grow, drawing the city toward its fulfilled state; that of the place of divine and human cohabitation.”
With Christ breaking the bread with the disciples, he spread his
authority to others. Christ would no longer be confined to one place – God, through the body of Christ, becomes decentralized. The virus
escapes. “This then is the complex Christ: it is Christ disestablishing the need for the temple, for people to gain access to God only by being in one place and through hierarchies of priests; it is Christ establishing his body as a decentralized network of believers, and thus giving birth to a complex, emergent church that could not be destroyed any more easily than the Internet could be.”
Brewin goes on to describe, in much more detail, emergence theory, the city, ideas of gift, dirt, all with an eye to church leadership. Again, these are highly creative discussions around important issues for the church. Throughout the book, emergence theory is really the tie that binds all the strands together.
I really enjoyed reading the book. Brewin hits on a number of issues
that are all critical in our time. Did I have any complaints? I felt at
times the book didn’t flow from chapter to chapter – sometimes they
felt like separate essays that didn’t quite connect to the thesis of
the book. I wanted more praxis throughout the book. I know Brewin is
not an armchair theorist -- all of his ideas have been expressed in and
through Vaux. But we only receive a few stories. I think each
chapter would have been served with more of an action/reflection
structure – utilizing stories both inside and outside of worship
Overall, the book offers wonderful insights into how the church might follow God into the city in fresh new ways, consistent with God’s reign. I am grateful to Kester for this highly creative contribution to the emerging discussion.