Kester Brewin, The Complex Christ: Signs of Emergence in the Urban Church (London: SPCK, 2004), viii + 184
In this influential text, Kester Brewin argues that the urban church be allowed to emerge in the city just as the city itself emerged from what went before. This begins by grieving the ecclesiastical top-down hierarchies of yesteryear. He is often worth quoting at length.
‘Becoming incarnate will mean the same for us as it did for Christ. We will have to experience being small and defenceless, requiring nurture from our host-world just as Christ needed Mary’s milk. We cannot and must not remain rootless people or rootless churches. Christ needed water from the earth, food from the ground, education from his elders; yet we too often experience church as an organization that has absolutely no need for its surrounding community or area. It is too often an appendage, something slightly apart and independent, not needing the neighbouring culture in order to survive. To admit our need as a church, our dependence on a host culture is a risk. Yet like Christ we must take this risk of interdependence, this risk of being born, this risk of life.
We must be born again. We must re-emerge into the city space as infants. We must stop, wait, imagine, remember. Become wombs of the divine and undergo re-incarnation in the city. And Christ’s experience tells us that if we are going to minister to the city, to speak to it in a language that will understand, to represent God without distortion, then we will have to understand thoroughly how the city works. For it is only once we understand how our host culture works from the inside that we will even begin to understand what an emerging church dedicated to serving that urban host culture might look like’ .
‘Somewhere between these two poles of anarchy and rigidity – a spectrum with death at each end – there exists a place where a system begins to live, to self-organize, to become more than the sum of its parts, to develop a character, a culture, a soul if you will – as if some breath has entered it and commanded it to live’ .
‘Regardless of the discipline we look at, the same truth rings out: “life” springs up in the complex region between rigidity and disorder’ .
‘God will not come any more, will no longer be lured into our stone traps. And yet against this huge force of evolutionary movement, the bulk of the urban Church stands rigidly still under the precarious arrangements of stones. If we cannot adapt, the pressures of them will crush us too and form our fossilized homes, leaving us to museums and history books.
Living in the emerging, complex, bottom-up city, we attend churches that are hugely top-down, mechanistic, obsessed with hierarchy and authority. Often wrapped in the guise of “accountability”, our leaders enforce dictatorial structures ensuring that every sign of life is routed through them, that nothing is given the go-ahead without their “blessing” – and the need for blessing from on high usually acts as the curse of death on innovative, creative, and cutting-edge ideas. Inspired fledglings have their wings clipped as they are forced to justify their ideas and come up with completely “sorted” plans that fit in with a monochrome vision.
We should not ask this of our children. The newly emerged, the newborn, must be allowed to make mistakes, to risk, to dribble and scribble. In a church that admits it is “not holding, winning or discipling young people”, there needs to be a radical reassessment of how we treat our young, a move to “release and support young people who are leaders among their peers”. Christ could not begin his ministry immediately he was born, and neither should we expect every sprouting of new growth to be fully formed and fully able to defend itself. So much of the church still demands immediate results from every new initiative and idea – still demands a revolution.
“Listen”, God says, “I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?” Complexity theory warns us we must listen because old-order top-down systems cannot survive in an emerging, evolving world. There will be no more revolution, only evolution. As the New York Times proclaimed, this is “not just a fascinating quirk of science: it’s the future”.
Yet if science warns us that a rigid, top-down church will not survive in an emergent world, it is also clear that a totally deregulated, anarchic church will do no better. Without any checks or balances it will disperse into obscurity, having no mechanisms for feedback and therefore no way of learning and evolving. So if the Church is to survive in the modern urban environment it must learn to to find new peaks out of the valleys by re-emerging as a complex, self-organizing system. It must be born again at the edge of chaos, just as the rigid, Old Testament God was. It must become embryonic and re-evolve within a host culture, learning from it, feeding from it and growing to understand it from the inside out. We must reestablish ourselves as the body of Christ, not the machine of Christ. Bodies are organic, dynamic, sentient, and conscious. They have hearts. Machines break down, while bodies evolve. This metaphorical re-centring from machine to body will require us to rethink our language too, away from the industrial vocabulary of “structure”, “drive”, “mechanism”, “steering”, towards more body-centred language: “nourish”, “grow”, “nurture”, “cultivate” and “adapt”.
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 of revolution are over. The cry for revival is too often a cry of 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’ [62-63].
‘Life exists on the edge of chaos’ .
‘There are … two possible modes of change: revolution or evolution. Revolution is characterized by speed and violence. It is about divide and rule. It tries to impose change from without. It is top-down and heavily dependent on hierarchies and centralized power. Evolution refuses to rush ahead and thus avoids shearing and fissures. It tries to bring about change from within. It is about empowerment. It is bottom up and dependent on distributed knowledge.
In Christ’s coming to earth, we see God finally critiquing revolution as ineffective. The top-down system of the law, the temple and the priests – all of which Paul tells us end up condemning us without changing us – are superseded in this new covenant, which promises to change us from within. In Christ, we see God modelling a bottom-up emergent system that can transform us in this new way, and calling us onto this path of spiritual evolution as we seek higher places’ [153-154].
‘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’ .