this is emergent

for those who hang or lurk or associate around the emergent discussion (for engagement or policing or whatever), this is nothing new — just a restatement. in fact, when i was walking through glacier national park last week, and thought about this, my first response was:

who am i to write about what emergent is? i can’t speak for emergent.

then, my second thought was:

well, now that i’m a board member, i suppose — technically — i can speak and should speak for emergent.

then, i finally came around to:

really, just about anyone can and should speak for emergent — at least anyone who is in relationship with others in emergent. because — i know you’ve all heard this language — no one’s spinning things or offering up a marketing line when we say that emergent is a friendship.

i was there on day two (literally) of emergent existing in its current incarnation (post-leadership network). this is important: no one was using the term “emerging church” at that time. or, if anyone was, it certainly wasn’t in wide use. it would be very interesting to have an anthropologist/language historian tell us all if either “the emerging church” nomenclature influenced the language of “emergent”, or the other way around, or if the two rose up independant of one another. i spent a decent amount of energy early on (as did many others) trying to explain the difference between “the emerging church” and “emergent”. whatever. suffice it to say that emergent is one componant of the world-wide expression and exploration called the emerging church.

the problem is (and has been) that, while the words are almost identical, their meaning is completely different — compatible, but different.

“the emerging church”, and the common use these days in most discussions of what emerging/emergent means, is “to come out of” or “to emerge”. and when coupled with “church”, the implication is clearly that this thing is calling itself or being called “the new church”. it’s not a perfect name, of course, and has a real ring of arrogance to it. but i think we’re stuck with it.

emergent, on the other hand, was chosen as a metaphor, from it’s botanical useage. that’s why the new-ish emergent logo has a leaf on it. it’s referring to the new growth that occurs in an old forest, the hyper-green and extra-fragile stuff that grows down near the forest floor, well below the towering trees around and over it.

why am i writing about this now (when it’s been written about so many times by so many people)? well, because i was struck by it last week while hiking in glacier national park in montana with my family. here’s a couple pictures of the visuals that captivated me:

here’s what i noticed:

– emergent growth is humble. yes, it’s beautiful; but it’s rather powerless. and from a helicopter view, you’d never even catch sight of it. it doesn’t choke out the powerful old growth. it merely flourishes in the space it has.

– emergent growth is patient. these little saplings and shoots wait. in an area where an older tree has fallen or died, the emergent growth takes off, and fills the void, reaching for the sky, becoming a full-functioning part of the forest ceiling.

– emergent growth is fragile. much of this stuff dies off each year in the snow (at least in glacier national park!). but it re-emerges, or new stuff emerges, the next spring. even that which doesn’t die off is highly fragile, green, bendable, easy to trample or snap. certainly, any time an old tree falls over, it crushes some of the emergent growth at it’s feet.

– emergent growth is experimental. look at the old trees in the pictures. they’re orderly. there’s only enough room for one of them in any given space. and in this forest, each section had one kind of tree (multiplied a thousand times over). but the emergent growth takes all kinds of wild forms — ferns and sapplings and moss and more. they grow pell-mell wherever, with no apparent rhyme or reason, only sequestering a fraction of the biological needs and demands the older trees insist on.

– emergent growth is essential. without the emergent growth, my hike would have been substantially less beautiful. without the emergent growth, the forest would be weaker — as it would not have a way of replenishing itself. without the emergent growth, the older trees would lack many of the nutrients they need.

– emergent growth is dependant. this is an interesting one to consider applying to the emerging church: without the older trees, the emergent growth wouldn’t exist. without the older trees and the protection they offer, the emergent growth would quickly be snuffed out.

no, i’m not saying that the ‘generative friendship’ called emergent has always been all these things (well, it’s been fragile and experimental, to be sure, but not always humble and patient, and not always aware of its dependance on the old growth church). but i can and should say this: emergent growth is a beautiful and right metaphor, a worthy model, and a noble aim.

26 thoughts on “this is emergent”

  1. I do appreciate your metaphor. My husband is teaching an ’emergent church’ class this semester. It has been difficult to label and define all the aspects of ’emergent’. It has provided some fantastic discussion with a shocking realization of how ‘modern minded’ some committed Christian students are. Your word picture really helps with perspective.

  2. just got this email from dan kimball:

    Hey— just read your blog and you were asking about term origins…..and here’s what I remember….

    When we were in Minneapolis that day after emergent was named when we met with tony, doug and brian, the title of “the emerging church” was already selected for the emerging church book and both of us were even looking at domain names I remember for “emerging church”. Mikey from YS got while we were in Minneapolis and I ended up getting (but never have used it) that month also. I was looking for the domain name, since the book was going to be called that.

    the name “emerging church” was first used by Leadership Network in their tag line “advance scouts for the emerging church” in 1996 or 97 (I emailed them and they couldn’t remember which year it was, but one of the two). so when they started putting on Gen X 1.0 and Gen X 2.0 conferences – the word began being used for what is new and coming and since the whole Gen X conversation was new and upcoming, and the new the phrase began slowly getting used for what was “Gen X” and all that was being discussed at that time. but Leadership Network was the initial source for its entry into what is now the current emerging church discussion from everything I understand and from where I first saw it. Karen Ward got right around the time we were in Minneapolis also, so she began publicly using it then too and it spread from all that combined is my best understanding.

    Emergent was then first used by brian, doug and tony the day before we got to Minneapolis for that meeting when they were coming up with a name to carry on what they started with the theological group from Leadership Network’s Young Leader’s network that had ended.

    it also turns out that there was a book written in 1970 called “The Emerging Church” by ralph osbourn and someone else, I forget the other name. which actually was a great book. I read it around 3 years ago when someone found it in a used bookstore in Texas and sent it to me.

    So there is my best perspectives of the origins of the two terms I know of as we are using them today…….

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  4. to extend the metaphor further you could say that emergent growth is nourished by the dead parts of the larger trees – decomposing and enriching the soil.

  5. This needs to be restated, repainted, reappreciated. Seeking to be “new” shouldn’t be a goal, or we would never write, never explore, never create and re-create beauty.

    Thanks for your post. The metaphor inspires.

  6. Great metaphor. Excellent way to think of the different kinds of churches and how they actually are dependent on one another. Each serves a different role, but each is necessary for the whole, sort of like, maybe, a body…

  7. Mark, what a beautiful metaphor, it’s amazing how often when I’m in the mountains here on Vancouver Island that His creation reveals His wisdom. It is amazing how diverse ecosystems are, and yet all the inhabitants have learnt to live together.
    Thanks for this!

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  9. wonderful metaphor, Mike – a further thought, you stated:

    “- emergent growth is essential. without the emergent growth, my hike would have been substantially less beautiful….”

    Maybe we can visualize the Lord Jesus as the one hiking here, surveying the beauty of his whole church, the old trees, the emergent growth, enjoying the sights…

    Thanks for the post!

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