A couple of years ago when The Complex Christ came out, I plopped down some puny Canadian dollars, exchanged them for British pounds and bought the book from Amazon UK and eagerly waited for it to be shipped across the Atlantic. When it did arrive in Canada, I had to plop down some more Canadian dollars, this time to the Canadian Borders Services Agency to free it from them. After paying three times what the book cost in shipping and duties, I sat down and started reading. The book was worth the cost and the wait.
The good news is that the book is being released in North America by Baker Publishing under the name Signs of Emergence with the easy to remember subtitle, A Vision for Church That Is Always Organic/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-Up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving which means no more British pounds, no more voyages across the Atlantic, and no more donations to the Canadian treasury. The author, Kester Brewin is blogging at the official Signs of Emergence weblog so you can get a feel for his thinking and writing while you are waiting for your book to arrive (it doesn’t ship in North America until July 1st). Since my copy is still The Complex Christ, I am going to refer to it as Signs of Emergence in this review but when I quote from it, it will be from The Complex Christ and use those page numbers.
The book is as complex as the topic he covers and each time I have read the book, different things have hit me. Because of my context of involvement with Resonate and Church of the Exiles right now, I’ll concentrate on the ideas that from those perspectives.
Revolution vs. Evolution
What I was younger, I loved the idea of the revolution. One of my favorite books still is Rules for Revolutionaries by Guy Kawasaki and Gary Hamel‘s book Leading the Revolution had an early impact on me (for good and for bad). My own neighborhood has seen church closings and no new church plants coming in to replace them so it seems like a perfect time for a revolution to me. However Signs of Emergence reminds me that there is a different way to go and that is the path of evolution. It reminds me that we need to take a closer look at what kind of change we are asking for. Revolution brings about change but they also seed havoc, pain, and suffering as well. Is that the kind of change that the church needs to be looking at? Brewin says no and starting on page 25, he makes a powerful cause for evolution.
Our history, both ancient and modern, has been transfixed by the idea of revolution, of radical change precipitated quickly, requiring an uprising, an insurgence, a head of pressure and a focusing of force; demonstrations, coups d’etat, armed struggles, wars and regime changes. Warriors, dictators and their critics have been clear about it for centuries. Chairman Mao Zedong wrote that ‘a revolution is not a dinner party. It cannot be so leisurely and gentle… It is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another’; Paul Virilio in Speed and Politics that ‘revolution will soon be entirely reduced to a permanent assault on time. The man on the battlefield has no safety other than in suicidal entrance into the very trajectory of the speed of [the guns]‘; and Napoleon that ‘the strength of a revolutionary army should be evaluated as in mechanics, by its mass multiplied by its speed’. Through all their blood and violence many of our politicians seem to believe that these revolutions bring genuine transformation. Yet it is abundantly clear that materially, politically, psychologically and spiritually, violent change tends to shear, to break the whole as one surface part moves and leaves the rest of the body behind unaltered.
In his seminal work Future Shock, Alvin Toffler describes the psychological damage that occurs to people when they are overwhelmed by intense change. He talks about ‘future shock’ being a disease of change, a sickness that people suffer that not so much about the direction of change as the rate of it. Future shock, he says, ‘grows out of the increasing lag between … the pace of environmental change and limited pace of human response’. In other words, for our own health, we need change to occur not at revolutionary speeds demanded by power-wielding dictators or company board rooms, but at the evolutionary speeds of the empowered human body.
Party in response to Toffler’s concerns, people have begun to see that the nature of change has been itself been required to change. If we are to transform the whole, and truly alter the very nature of things for good, then the mode of change cannot be revolution but evolution. A gradual development over a long period of time. As Robert Warren notes, ‘A good case can be made for evolution being the best single word summary of an Anglican approach to change. It suggests creativity [and] responsiveness to present environment’.
The slowness of evolution certainly has a divine beauty about it with its gentle, unseen transformation so hard to plot yet so undeniable in its force. We would like change immediate effect — we want revolution — but God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are higher than our. Despite this, as we will see in the next chapter, we have projected our revolutionary tendencies onto God, and it is only as revelation has become clearer over time that we have seen that ours is not a God of violent uprising, but of slow, slow evolution. So since forever, and until whenever, those that have sought to change God’s way have had to endure a prefix of…
Waiting [from the Vaux website]
As Sarah waited: Ninety years for a son to fulfill God’s promise.We wait in hope for what we thought had been spoken to us.
As Moses waited: 40 years in the desert, being prepared by God to lead his people.We wait for emptiness and humility; for bravado to wither.
As Israel waited: 40 years of wandering, hungry, depressed, thirsting, unsure.We wait for the right time to act
As the Prophets waited: 1000 years of promises that God would raise up a Saviour.We wait for the signs that God has not forgotten.
As Mary waited: 9 months of her 14 years for the child of God.We feel the birth-pains, yet fear for the child.
As John the Baptist waited: Scanning the crowds for the one whose sandals he would not be worthy to untie.We long for an experience of the Divine
As Jesus waited: 30 years of creeping time.40 days in the desert of temptation.3 years of misunderstanding.3 days in the depths of hell.So we wait for God’s time. Preparing the way.
Our turn to toil on leveling mountains and straightening paths.Our turn to watch the horizon.
Our turn to pass on the hope that He who promised is faithful and will come back.
What do we do as we wait. Signs points us to Walter Brueggemann‘s reminder that the first stage in this is grief which is not often popular in today’s church culture where assurance and vision outweighs the acceptance that society no longer cares what is happening in most churches. Brewin asks and answers the question of where are the Jeremiah’s of today, those to help us confront our grief in today’s church. The answer is those are found on the fringes of the church culture.
Signs asks us another hard question and that is what if God no longer is interested in what we are doing? From pg 35 and 36.
Once we have grieved, our tear-washed eyes can then properly open to the shocking fact that God allowed this to happen. God allowed us to climb this little peak. The denial may be over, and the cover-ups exposed, but a deeper resistance still remains. How could God do this? In the midst of our waiting for the news, we meet this intractable issue: if we are seeking the new, then what we practicing was the old, and therefore God was not in what we were doing any more. God has moved on back down the mountain while we stayed up our comfortable hillock.
Such a divine departure is rightly shocking to us. We see an example of it described in Ezekial 10: God ups and leaves the temple. To a people that had become over-familiar and blase about God’s presence with them in the temple, to a people who had become complacent about their special status as The Chosen, God showed God’s holiness. God got us and left. Bored by our ramblings, navel gazing conversation about internal tinkering, God hung up. God walked off, displacing a true, holy freedom that shouts clearly over its shoulder that no temple, no place, no people, no box, no church, no agenda, no theological position will ever require me to stay where I don’t want, be co-opted into something I only half agree with, be pressed into the service of some cause you made up because I AM who I AM. And SLAM, the door shuts and we left alone to wonder about God’s holiness, God’s transcendence, God’s otherness, God’s separateness, God’s difference.
As we enter this dangerous place of stopping and waiting we must face the possibility of experiencing God’s disinterest. Where we have proclaimed “God is in this” we must be prepared that God can and does leave. One need only consider for a second the other point where God was unable to leave any ministry, any place, any attempt at work, and we see that it would quickly draw us down the same path to the god who, not being allowed to permit suffering, intervened every time a child stepped toward a sharp object.
God will not be co-opted into our programs. And this actually turns out to be the foundation of huge hope. For if God could no leave, then we would be bound and trapped for ever inside structures that God “might just be blessing”.
Power and the City
Power and influence is a huge part of the evangelical church. Robert Webber said in an interview with Vineyard’s Cutting Edge magazine years ago that evangelicalism was about two things. Big buildings and influential pastors. A couple of weeks ago, I read this Washington Post story on Baltimore Raven’s head coach Brian Billick. Here is the quote that stuck out in my mind, “But for generations, the mandate of the NFL coach had remained unchanged: Get as much power as you can and don’t let go.”
Brewin is calling us to do it differently. How do we walk away from power and re-orientate ourselves as the church in the world. On page 45 Kester’s call is for us to become born again.
The Church now seems to stand in the same place as God stood 2500 years ago: misrepresented, accused of bigotry, portrayed as narrow minded and in love with power, only interested in buildings, ready to smite the dirty and sinful, over-occupied with sex, and ready to lend support to unjust wars… And so we must do as God did, as Christ commanded and exemplified: we must be born again. Become nothing, removed of strength and power and voice and means and language…
We must re-emerge and grow up again in the place we are meant to serve. Understand it, learn from it, be in it, love it, listen to it, wait 30 years before speaking to it. We must, like God, discard any thoughts that revolution is going to effect change in the Church or our world, and become dedicated to change by evolution.
Brewin’s advice to the church is to leave power behind and take a different path forward. In that he is calling those in North America anyway, to take the path less followed. How do we do that? According to Kester, one of the ways is to engage in an urban theology. He reminds us that over half of us in the world live in the cities, our theology remains quite rural as it was developed largely before urbanization. My own tradition of Methodism early history was dominated by John Wesley and his horse as they traveled from town to town across England and most of my current tribe’s congregations are located in small cities and towns across Canada (well from Quebec west). It is going to take a major rethinking of what urban theology is going to look like.
In his discussion of how the cities have changed into complex, bottom up systems, Brewin says this (pg 63),
There are still those who cry for revolution, for a revival that will change things in a snap, make everything OK as thousands flock to church… But the days for revolution are over. The cry for revival is too often a cry for abdication: you do it all, God. Well God has done God’s bit, it is the systems that now need to change. This is the faith we have signed up for: the Church as the body of Christ where we have real parts to play, real responsibilities. We must not act rashly–diving in to this or that. We must do as God did. Stop. Wait. Grieve. Strip away power, might, pretence at knowledge, riches… and be born again. As Einstein famously said, “The same consciousness that created a problem can not solve it.”
So will we be the ones to solve the problem? My ego wants me to say yes but deep down I know better. What is the impact of the things like Vaux that have come out of the period of waiting and grieving? Brewin offers an interesting comparison. Punk music. As he says (pg 71), punk was never going to be the future of music but what it did was the give permission to those who did create the future of music. He points out the unsustainable energy needed to create alternative worship (something that I can relate to with the worship.freehouse) but does point out that even if like the Sex Pistols and it does implode and burn out, it has (along with other expressions of the emerging church in the west) clear the way for other things to come along and pick up the torch.
For whatever the future will look like, the book does call us back to the present. For many of us that is in the city. (pg 106).
We must learn to penetrate our communities and penetrate our workplaces. We must learn to penetrate our cities and find God in them, for the cities are our true destiny. They are where it will not be God alone, but god and us and him and her and white and black and rich and poor and illiterate and abused and day and straight and Protestant and Catholic and the whole feast of life. And only in the city can we get that message. It is not an easy message to tune into with so much white noise and hatred and difficulty and screwed up and transport and mugging and division…But with practice, with a commitment to engaging positively with the city and looking to catch it doing good rather than always on the lookout to knock it down, we can begin to see glimpses of why God is committed to the city as our future: because the redeemed city is the final expression of humanity and divinity in co-operation. It is the conjunction of God’s creation with our creativity, where we are building something together.
How do we interact in the city? There are a couple of ways we can interact with others around us. Perhaps the most popular is in a market economy. Just a grocer sells you ice cream and vegetables, churches offer you up religious services and goods for a price (tithe). Before one mocks that idea, I worked on a staff where we articulated it in those terms and so do many other churches across the western world. As Brewin points out, the most pernicious part of the market exchange is that every person needs to justify their existence and contribution to the market economy or in the lingo of the church, be aligned around the purpose/vision/mission… There is another way and that is the idea of the gift. His tie of worship to a gift was breath of fresh air for me. For too long the church growth movement has seen worship as a commodity which was to be traded for attendance and tithe. I remember talking to one worship leader who unabashedly would boast that if you gave people the worship style they wanted, the more money they would give. He was probably right in his analysis of the “transaction” but as Kester reminds us, there is another use for worship other then generating revenue and that is the metaphor and idea of the “gift”.
Looking back at to the reasons why a number of us started Vaux in the first place, it was because the churches we were part of gave no opportunity for us to give. Sitting a huge church full to the brim with about 600 people, mostly in their early twenties, many of them working as actors, writers, directors, graphic artists, and musicians, it seemed extraordinary that unless they were able to preach or play the guitar, their gifts were not welcome. There was no space within the normal weekly services for any of these other talents, yet it was these talents that were talents that were put to use in the marketplace week in, week out. Perhaps it was not less surprising that people were coming to church with an attitude of getting rather than giving, because there was actually no room in the highly structured, highly dictatorial services fortheir gifts to be given.
Speaking more on the idea of gifts and worship, Brewin captures what I think is a lost truth in the emerging church and our existence in a market driven church economy.
“Alternative worship” is not multimedia worship. It is about allowing people to use their gifts so that they can worship with integrity. It would be folly to pretend that by installing PA systems, video projectors and screens, and shipping in tea-lights by the tonne every church would suddenly be “doing alternative worship”. Buying a labyrinth or some ambient music and video loops doesn’t get you any closer to the original spirit of the movement, because what Vaux would call “alternative worship” cannot be bought into; it is not about commodity but gift, and gifts must come from those taking part, not be bussed in from outside.
In the Emergent Church, acts of worship will spring from the economy of gift. They will not be products that can be bought or sold, or commodities to be consumed in exchange for some devotion. However, we must not restrict our thoughts on gift to services. Thinking more widely about cities, they are massively dominated by market exchange – economic beats driven by capital and profit in ways that small villages a not. The Church would be foolish to try to play the city at this game and boost its “market share”, “reposition itself itself in the market” or “rebrand” its message with modern advertising and marketing methods, for the essence of what we have cannot be bought or sold. It is not to be consumed and is not a lifestyle choice. Its truth will not be fully told by glamorous girls with smiley pearly teeth, and eight out of ten people who express a preference will not express its depth and pain with richness or sorrow. In the face of the saturating and all encompassing urban market, which Hyde rightly associates with empty death that leads nowhere, the church must stand as a beacon of generosity, as a hub for gift exchange and all the relational enrichment that brings.
Of course he does cover the topic of dirt which gained notoriety after Steve Collins wrote about it in a 2002 column in Ship of Fools. I never found that much offense in the service (although back in 2002 when I first posted about it many did find a lot of offense with it). While the chapter was something to reflect on it, it does tie back into all of the other themes and ideas of the book and that is that the church finds itself in a different world and place than it has been for 2000 years and that is a missional movement that is often underground and back in amongst the city. Life is not as black and white as it once was (or perhaps as some in the church saw it then) and the nuances to live in the city are many at times contradictory.
I think I have read the book probably 20 times and I will soon retire the book as soon as Signs of Emergence comes out in North America for no other reason to give it’s battered binding a must needed break. If I had a list of the ten most important books for the emerging church and for the church in general, I think this one would definitely be on it. You can pre-order your copy from Amazon.com now, you will be glad you did.
- Signs of Emergence: Buy from Amazon.com Amazon.ca :: Ships July 1, 2007
- Official website and weblog: kester.typepad.com/signs/. Some of the prayers and liturgies in the book can be found in an earlier form (pre-evolutionary?) at http://www.vaux.net/.
- Steve Collin’s visualization of an urban church
- Len Hjarlmason writes on the urbanization of faith here which points to an article written on the topic back in 1973.
- 52 Weeks, 52 Books, 52 Reviews (I am now six days behind, excuse me while I read and review a book in the next 24 hours)