Thursday, May 29, 2008

Book Review: Signs of Emergence by Kester Brewin

"…for the church to retain a vibrancy about its faith, it must 'adapt and survive.'" (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 19)

I just read Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Organic/Neworked/Decentralized/Bottom-up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving by English school teacher Kester Brewin. This books has the "Emergent Village" imprimatur on it and is highly endorsed well-known names in the various streams of the Emerging/Emergent conversation/movement. Brewin's writing style is smart and reflective without getting bogged down in scholarship or floating away with charming anecdotal stories.

Change is an unavoidable absolute, urges Brewin, and the church must respond through adapting, maturing, and evolving. There are a couple of overarching themes that Brewin uses to make his various points along the way. In resisting the term "revolution" for its proclivity towards violence and disruptive change, the author leans on the word "evolution" to describe the appropriate response of the church (my thoughts on that later). The other rubric used to move the book along is the idea that a person's life, the road to mature belief goes through different stages. This is drawn from Stages of Faith: Psychology of Human Development by James Fowler. Fowler seeks to map out the journey to a healthy mature faith through six stages. Brewin picks up on this psychological work and applies it sociologically to the church developing in maturity through history. In essence, he posits that the church has long been in a stage of naïve belief (synthetic conventional) marked by conformity. Brewin responds to this saying that it is high time to progress through stage four (Fowler: individuative reflective stage) and move on to stage five (conjunctive).

Brewin uses the posture of evolution (the concept not the biological theory) through the rubric of these stages to implore his readers to rethink/reimagine the church. Brewin then explores Jesus' movement through advent, incarnation and emergence as paradigmatic for the church. He then challenges the church to rethink its essence and structure in light of the model Jesus provided and in our ever-changing (evolving) context.

Many of the emphases introduced by Brewin are great and ones that I along with many others have been calling for, such as many of those things listed in the subtitle of the book. But I struggle more with the twin foundation of evolution and plodding through stages of faith. Brewin juxtaposes the concepts of revolution and evolution. Revolution is normally accompanied by violence and presupposes that a massive change in structure will make the reparations necessary in a society. This I can agree with. Brewin goes on to make a good argument for the exigency of continued incremental change. The way he chooses to capture that is by using the word evolution. I struggle with the word choice on this—and, no it is not simply a matter of semantics—because evolution communicates much more than simply incremental change. This is not about the creation/evolution debate really. My education has been more informed by the social sciences. Anthropology and sociology once assumed that societies evolved in their culture, religion, and social structure to become complex, pluralistic civilizations. More often than not this meant that societies would eventually grow-up to be like western civilization (enlightenment thinking at its zenith). It has since then been realized that this kind of evolutionary thinking was enormously ethnocentric as it made us the goal of all societies. The wars, violence, and abuses in western civilization in the last century have revealed that we had not actually become quite the noble society as we thought. To summarize my thoughts, evolution connotes a notion of unaided progress that does not reflect the extent of brokenness of humanity. An added thought is the idea of the survival of the fittest goes against the primary themes of kingdom of God that Jesus taught and exemplified.

An alternative word that captures the Jesus-like posture is "regeneration." Thom Wolf has described this as a "spiritual revamping" as it honestly wrestles with the intrinsicness of our brokenness (Wolf, "How is Society Changed?: Five Motifs of Social Change"). This word comes closer to describing our posture although I might tweak the definition a little. I believe the revamping must be holistic. Even though it starts with a spiritual reorientation, it must impact every corner and crevice of life.

Brewin also builds heavily on the notion of progressing through the stages of faith. While Fowler's work is insightful and offers loads of discussion material for college kids going through the fourth stage, individuative reflective, it remains psychological observation. I'm reticent to use a psychological matrix to discern the future of the people of God. For example, Brewin implies that passing through the "dark night of the soul" is a prerequisite to mature spirituality. While it can be observed that faith can grow deeper during times of hardship, we are encouraged to enter the kingdom lie a child would (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17).

This is all to say that Brewin develops his ideas of the emergence of the church on a less than stellar foundation. Yet, he offers some rich material in the midst of his work. Here are some of notable things:

  • Incarnation- Brewin posits that we, both individually and as the church, must undergo the Incarnational process in the pattern of Jesus.

    "As we wonder how the church could change…I am going to suggest that, like God, we must be born again. That we must re-emerge. That there will be no revolution, only evolution. That what will be in the future body of Christ must be what Christ was: the embryonic cooperation of divinity and humanity." (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 67)

    As cultures and societies continue to change we must continue in the process of facilitating new birth. This, once again, is imagery that is more suited to regeneration than evolution.

  • New organization/structures- Culture is not static. The structures and organizations of society have undergone inestimable change. "Yet our models of church have not kept up with this radical change." (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 74)
  • Decentralization- Bewin draws from theories of complexity in grappling with how to be church in an increasingly urban and complex society. He uses examples of ants, brains, and cities in helping understand decentralized structures that operate beautifully. These examples are fascinating, but I do wish he had drawn more from the Scriptures.
  • Urban reality- "Urbanization has marched on at huge speed over the last centuries, but our theology has not." (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 122)
  • Gift- Lewis Hyde's book The Gift shapes Brewin's commentary on the commoditizing of the church. The church should reframe its approach to the world as offering a gift and not operate in economic terms.

Overall, the book was interesting and provides a good challenge to explore practicing the Way of Jesus in some fresh ways. I believe the author uses some unhelpful rubrics for developing his ideas, but some of his ideas are good. The added bonus is that I learned how ants operate, which I had long been curious about.

1 comment:

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