emergence as a baby, born into a specific culture and a particular time, is an
archetype for change. We must stop. Wait. Allow God God’s freedom and let the
old pass away. Free our memories and open our imaginations to be impregnated;
become wombs of the divine and give birth to newness in our particular place
and time.

incarnation in a specific time and a specific place demands of us, the body of
Christ, that we too undergo incarnation and are born somewhere specific,
committing to it and putting roots down. We cannot be reborn in first-century
Palestine; we need to be incarnate to the place where we are and the place that
most needs us. We must learn how to incarnate the Church in the city.

incarnate will mean the same for us as it did 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 our host culture, is a risk. Yet like Christ we must
take this risk of interdependence, this risk of being born, this risk of life.
(p. 52)

We must be
born again. We must re-emerge into the city space as infants. We must stop,
wait, imagine, and remember. Become wombs of the divine and undergo
re-incarnation in the city. For it is only once we understand how our host
culture works from the inside that we will even begin to understand what and
emerging church dedicated to serving that urban host culture might look
like. (p. 53)

I want to
explore some of the principles of city life, and in particular the ways in
which cities can be seen to display ‘emergent’ properties. I believe that if
the body of Christ is going to become conjunctive and be incarnate in the
emergent city, then it will need to become emergent itself. (p. 53)


Jacobs wrote in her classic critique of urban planning The Death and Life of Great American Cities of the three basic
sorts of problems that science has had to deal with. First, from the 17th to
the 19th century, scientists learned how to analyse problems of simplicity,
where one quantity – say gas pressure – depends on a second quantity – say gas
volume. Second, in the period after 1900, scientists jumped from such
‘two-variable’ problems to learn to deal with problems with millions of
variables. Such problems, with half a dozen or even several dozen quantities
varying simultaneously in interconnected ways, have been termed ‘organized
complexity’. Thus the city, like many ‘organized complexity’ situations has
numbers of variables that are ‘interrelated into an organic whole’, and it is
this interrelated, many variable, evolving kind of system that has been termed
‘emergent’. (p. 53)


In his
excellent book Emergence, Steven
Johnson began reflecting on this analysis of the urban situation by looking at
two other complicated ‘organisms’ that displayed emergent properties: the human brain and an ant colony. At first
sight an ant colony, like a city, appears to be completely anarchic. A huge
mass scurrying in different directions. All in a hurry to carry out some task,
and clambering over one another in desperation to complete it. Yet closer
inspection reveals a high level of order. Some ants are collecting food, while
others are disposing of waste. Still others are carrying the bodies of dead
comrades out to the ‘burial ground’ of the colony.

So who
decides the positions of these burial and waste grounds? Who is controlling who
should be collecting food and who should be working on housekeeping? Surely
some ‘Queen Ant’ is giving orders from a central communications hub. Biologists
worked for years looking for this Queen Ant, completely sure that there had to
be some centralized control but, to their great surprise, they never found
one…. It became clear…that an ant colony, like many other structures in nature,
was an example of a ‘self-organizing system’ – a community that managed itself
from the bottom up, not needing top-down chains of command in order to
function. (p. 54)

In a time
when abuses of power have put the Church onto the front pages fro all the wrong
reasons, I believe it is vital that we learn something from these complex systems
of organization that do not require power-hungry hierarchies.

For the
ants, the answer lies in the very seething mass of ants climbing over one
another. Ants are able to secrete different types of pheromone according to the
activity they are engaged in. If they are collecting food they leave a short
trail communicating that, which other ants are able to read as they scramble
over each other and around the colony. Ants have the ability not only to
identify the different pheromone trails according to the different tasks, but
the gradient of the trail – whether it is getting stronger or weaker in a
particular direction. Hence an ant might pick up a very strong trail that said
‘There’s loads of food over here’, and by considering the strength and gradient
of that trail they could decide whether enough ants were already on that job.

What allows
ants to self-organize, and what we need to learn from them, is this principle
of low-level interaction and feedback. The colony works only because of the
high number of interactions between the ants. The stationary ant could not make
an informed decision about which task to undertake because they would be out of
the information loop, just as a ‘super ant’ moving at ten times the speed of
any other would be unable to leave or detect trails. Without the low-level,
walking pace interactions, the community could not self-organize, could not
emerge. Quite simply: no low-level
feedback, no community. (p. 55)


then argues that our brains are organized on the same line as ant
colonies….there is no central command hub. What links brains with ant colonies
is the high level of networked interaction: just as with the ants, individual
cells are in constant, simple communication with each other, feeding back
information. Stretch. Breathe in. Mind out. Scratch. Red light. Move right
foot. Produce saliva. Listen. See. Think. Smell. Touch. Smile. Remember. On the microscopic, synaptic level it looks
like anarchy, but look higher up the colony or whole brain level and suddenly
what seemed like chaos has a beautiful order and purpose to it. It is a huge
self-organizing system, emergent and complex, intelligent and conscious…just
like a buzzing and thriving city.


that…cities we live in are organized on bottom-up rather than top-down
principles. No central body legislates for the number of plumbers a city needs,
but we are rarely left for days with broken pipes. There is no central system
for ensuring enough food is imported into the city each day, but we don’t
periodically starve. This is because of the individuals on the ground reacting
and responding to one another – seeing opportunities and gaps in the market… –
all these people and transactions interconnected through a dense web of
horizontal connections, not needing to route everything up through to some
Queen Ant controller or mayor before being given permission to act. (p. 56)

So although
successful cities are not controlled by dictators, they do have to be
regulated, bringing them above the genetic cut and thrust of ‘only the strong
survive’ to protect the vulnerable and the weak. (p. 57)

In fact all
bottom-up, emergent systems are regulated in some way in order to protect
themselves from anarchy.

This is the
extraordinarily consistent truth about our cities, our brains, or ecosystems
and, I am suggestion, our churches: somewhere between these two poles of
anarchy and rigidity there exists a place where a system begins to live, to
self-organize, to become more that 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. (p. 59)

of the discipline we look at, the same thought rings out: ‘life’ springs up in
the complex region between rigidity and disorder. As the scientists like to
say, life actually thrives right at the edge
of chaos. In economic terms, that life is at the ‘edge of chaos’ means that
rigidity and anarchy will bring recession; in sociological terms, it means that
a healthy society can only develop where it is nearly chaotic, but not quite: free, yet stable. In spiritual
terms, that life exists at the edge of chaos means that the conjunctive Church
will emerge only when it ahs located itself between rigid fundamentalism and
anarchic liberty. Christ’s incarnation was God’s radical reposition of himself
right on that edge: a vulnerable child
in a chaotic world. As we seek the Church’s re-incarnation, we must seek to
position ourselves in the same dangerous place of complex life.

There is an
irresistible force of movement encompassing science, industry, architecture and
education, which is shifting everything from a modernist, mechanistic,
deterministic, Newtonian, Laplacian world view towards this complex networked,
Einsteinian, evolving one. It would be foolish if the church was left behind,
for it seems the whole of civilization is gradually catching up with what
nature already knew, and God already undertook – the vital risk of rebirth, of

There are
still those who cry for revolution, for revival that will change things in a
sap, 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
his bit – it is the systems that now need to change. This is the faith we
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, and pretence at knowledge, riches…and be born
again. As Einstein famously said, “The same consciousness that created a
problem cannot solve it.” We need
genuine newness.