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EmergAnt.:1 Emergent Vocabulary

[Here is the first in a week long series on the understanding the emerging church around the world. Let me know if you think it sucks. You may recognize bits and pieces from my blog-  I am trying to capture it all and aggregate it here.]

1. An Emergent Vocabulary
“Emergent” is a popular name and concept. No wonder the word keeps appearing in emerging church circles. One of the most significant gatherings this century for the emerging church in Europe was an event in Frankfurt sponsored by Cultural Shift called “Emerge”. In USA, the Young Leaders Group changed their name to Emergent. The word “emerging church” is now taking its place on the internet and other words to describe its growth (scale-free networks, seeding, aggregating, etc) are words shared with emergent theory in new media, biology or the business world.

As for church, “Emergent” is a name that is being used at the moment, to describe the church’s response to the current emerging culture, and the peculiar aggregation of believers being called up out of this culture to follow Jesus back into it.

“Emergent”, as it is used in “emergent theory”, is a name given to the phenomena of how new organizational structures progress from low-level chaos to higher level sophistication without a hierarchical command structure. Emergent theory explains how birds change direction, how slime mould moves, how ant colonies are built and how knows so much about us. The process involves constant communication and feedback among the lowest level of organization, pattern recognition, local action affecting global behavior, and takes into consideration the element of unpredictability in a chaotic system. Solomon was wise in suggesting that we observe the ways of the ant and be wise (Proverbs 6:6) And the emerging church has been wise in allowing the vocabulary from emergent behavior to give a window of insight to the traditional church.


This is a map of our virtual 3D rooms on the internet after only 2 weeks of the first one being started. We were able to link the rooms with teleporters. Jonathon Gardener created a map that makes it look like an ant colony. He called his post “emerging virtually” which is a good way of describing how these rooms starting popping up spontaneously, self-organizing, and connecting together. This enabled us to have an online alternative worship event inside our virtual rooms.

-  New churches among the emerging culture generally have an organizational structure that is best described as “emergent”. Emergent organisations (ant colonies, slime mould) organise from below rather than top-down, they depend on feedback for adaptation, show decentralised thinking, and responded locally in a way that affects the global situation. In writing about the “Character of the Emergent Church”,  Kester Brewin sees emergent systems as being open systems, adaptable systems, learning systems, having distributed knowledge, and modelling servant leadership.“ From ”The Complex Christ: Signs of Emergence in the Urban Church

”Our minds may be wired to look for the pacemakers, but we are steadily learning how to think from the bottom up“ (Steve Johnson, Emergence)

Emergent behavior is a good way to describe how new churches are responding to a complex world of chaotic unpredictability and multiple possibilities. One of the defining features of emergent churches is that they are usually started with no predetermined ideal of what they will mature into or what size and shape they will become, since they will be also be shaped by the culture they transform. Another word for this is ”missional“. Unpredictability opens the possibility for a miraculous intervention and retooling by God during the process, as long as structures are simple, and communication is constant.

On a simpler lever, ”Emergent Church“ or ”Emerging Church“ is the replacement term for what we used to call ”Youth Church“ in the 80’s, ”GenX Church“ in the early 90’s, and ”Postmodern Church“ in the late 90’s. This shift transcends the problem of associating the term with an age group, a cultural preference or a controversial and misunderstood philosophy. Many countries have adopted the term ”emerging church“ to represent the new networks of churches started by younger people among the new emerging cultures in their respective countries. Churches in the UK often use the name ”Alternative Worship“.

- The emerging church definition has been reinforced by its use in recent books, highlighted by current criticism, established on the internet through a well thought out definition on Wikipedia, and its acknowledgement by bloggers and new media communicators. Books will come and go, but new media content is consolidating a global database that will inform us for many years to come.

- At the recent ”Global Roundtable for Emerging Church“ held in UK (Aug 2004) emerging church leaders from almost a dozen countries agreed that the name is helpful and should be kept for the time being.  Although not everyone finds the term helpful.  Mirko, one of the leaders of Jesus Freaks International, doesn't like the word ”emerging church“ but prefers to call his network of 80 churches simply ”churches“.

i have toyed with other words in the blog post When We Stop Emerging, and summed up in my final comment.. I also listened to other words that might work better. Taking into consideration the idea of ”submergence“ (incarnational evangelism) I suggested this:

1. Emergence - as the new [church] is birthed, takes shape and defines itself against the old, dead or dying.
2. Divergence - as the new [church] defines itself in relation to the One/Established/Dominant, caresses the edges of culture to find justice and to realign previous imbalances.
3.Convergence - as the new [church] finds its place alongside the residual, finds definition by comparison rather than contrast, seeks to aggregate rather than agitate, harmonize rather than homogenise, and to create vocabulary not for itself but rather for the newly-created, holistic, complex system of church-life that has developed around and including what was previously called emerging.”  From 'Emerge, Diverge, Converge'

Although we may disagree on the vocabulary, we are all agreed that words have a short life span and we are flexible enough to drop the name if we decide it best.

The series: EmergAnt - The Skinny on the Emerging Church:
1. Emergent Vocabulary
2. Countercultural History
3. Postmodern Sensibility