Of emergent systems and transformation

An old story makes the rounds in mission circles. A British soldier is asked, “if the Queen gave the army a message to deliver to the world, how long would it take?” The length of time given in reply varies according to the storyteller, but it’s usually a few months or a few years. Why, then, has it taken us so long to deliver the Gospel, which is the message of the King of Kings to the World? ZingZing back. This is the Communication Fallacy of Missions. It falsely reduces our task to simply sharing a message, which is an incomplete view of what we were commanded to do. Jesus said, “Make disciples.” (With additional things added in, like loving each other, loving neighbors, etc.) The more complete task is far more difficult than simple communication.

A better version of the parable might be: A British soldier is asked, “If the Queen gave the army a command to recruit new British citizens from the nations around the world–who would keep Britain’s laws, promote the United Kingdom, participate in its economy, etc.–until all the world was finally part of the United Kingdom: how long would it take?”

A rather different question, isn’t it?

Sharing a message is straightforward (if sometimes expensive): (1) gather an audience and (2) deliver the message in a way that is (a) linguistically understandable and (b) ideally culturally acceptable and relatable. But this only spreads the Kingdom in an industrial, manufactured way: it is not organic, sustainable and reliable. If this is the only way the message is spread, when a problem is encountered that is beyond the scope of the original message, the message will likely be abandoned in favor of a new solution. The Gospel becomes a paradigm rather than a truth. When an unresolvable problem is encountered the paradigm will be shifted rather than an adaptive solution found within the Body.

The goal is not communication. The goal is “making disciples,” and one of the methods is communication. The goal is to see the church planted, the Kingdom spread, the world transformed.

“Okay, okay, we’ll focus on making disciples,” you say. But it’s not that simple.


Who is to be discipled? The answer would seem obvious: people. Let’s ask the question in a different way. If the result of discipleship is lives transformed–we used to behave in that way, but now we behave in this–let’s ask: who is to be transformed?

This may be the biggest challenge when talking about swarms and emergence: getting people to understand it’s not about the individual but the whole. Whether we are sharing or discipling, we are in the “mass” mindset. We look at a group and think in terms of the thousands of individual people who individually need to be transformed. In reality, the system, too, must be transformed. Simply changing the people will not change the system, and unless the system is changed, the people won’t. To understand why, we need to understand emergent systems.

You know behavior is shaped partly by genetics (what we’re born with) and partly by environment (how people around us act). You’ve probably argued the “nature vs. nurture” debate; here, let’s just acknowledge that both are powerful influencers. On the nurture side, the social environment includes loved ones, extended family, friends, fellow worshippers, teachers, business partners, business clients, suppliers, governmental leaders, media influences, celebrity idols, and so on.

Within this environment we are influenced. It’s a simple process to describe in the quaint proverb, “monkey see, monkey do.” We see behavior and we, for whatever reason, decide to emulate it. Others see us, and for whatever reason, decide to emulate our behavior. There’s many reasons why: sibling influence, advertising, business dynamics, desire for coolness, seeking a vote, wanting our patronage. Everyone both aligns with others and tries to influence others. Alignments happen in small and large ways. Most influence is through tens of thousands of tiny alignments which combine in a complex mess.

Out of it a system emerges.

An emergent system is any relatively large population–from, say, a village on up to a people group, an urban agglomeration, a fad, a social network, whatever–which:

  • is new and unique, with features not found elsewhere: student protesters in Egypt connected by Facebook.
  • endures. It has “coherence”: not a fad that falls apart in a season (like the toy-of-the-month purchasers).
  • has a greater wholeness in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and influences individual choices.
  • changes and adapts, responding to the environment (both threats and opportunities) around it
  • can be seen. Not attitudes: networks of people who interact and do things in a certain way.

An emergent system begins as the sum of actions who are trying to create something new–a new social network, a new platform, a new business, whatever–but if it survives long enough it becomes a standard, a platform. It becomes The Way. When that happens, rather than creative decisions about what The Way Is, people make creative decisions about other things based on The Way. They stop optimizing the system and start optimizing themselves to the way the system is.

When that happens, if you don’t change the system, you won’t change the people. But transforming an emergent system is hard.


Emergent systems are complex. You can’t just “tweak one thing” and change it. Facebook helped the rise of the Arab Spring, but eliminating Facebook might not prevented it. Poverty is an emergent system: simply giving people jobs or money won’t necessarily break the culture. When “to be Fulani is to be Muslim,” a Christian Fulani is a paradox: it demands that the whole idea of what being a Fulani is, must change.

What’s more, many societies are made up of multiple emergent systems which interrelate with each other, compete with each other, and feed off each other. Try to count up how many emergent societies are in Cairo alone, in the midst of the Arab Spring. The military council, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, the secularists, the Coptic Christians, the underground church, the typical business owner on the street, the families of the martyrs… and more, of course, that we can’t see at arms length!

You can’t just change a single emergent system bit by bit. That would be rather like trying to change a blue carpet into a purple one, pulling out one strand at a time and replacing it–but the carpet is alive, can sense what you are doing, and will react angrily. No: you have to convince the individual strands to change their color on their own, in place. It sounds impossible, but it’s not: just 10% can change the default opinion of an emergent system about a topic.

You have to create tiny, new emergent systems within the existing ones, support them with an environment, and grow them to a size large enough to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Conflict within emergent systems is less about the battle of weapons and more about the battle of ideas and economics. Consider:

  • The miraculous healing of a deathly ill child can open the door to a quiet belief on the part of a woman.
  • Her quiet belief can lead to a quiet change in her attitudes and behavior toward her husband.
  • The change in her behavior can lead to uncertainty and questioning on the part of the man, who comes to belief as well.
  • But he may not be willing to become public with a faith that he is more open to–because to do so would cut him off from business relationships he needs for his family to survive.

How can you support the growth of an emergent system of believers within an oppressive area? It’s less about standing up for their rights and more about establishing a quiet, unremarked-upon space for faith to thrive and spread from person to person, through social and business networks.

Part of the genius of the early Strategy Coordinator and NRM strategies was in this area: they envisioned a multichannel distribution of the Gospel that gets the ideas of the Kingdom into every facet of life: media, business, politics, friendships, books, education, health, etc. In “The Rise of Christianity,” Rodney Stark illustrates how this happened to the early church. It’s a lesson well worth looking to see how it can be repeated in modern cultures.


My goal is not to tell you what’s happened in the world–you can get to Google News for that. My goal is to place events within larger narratives, particularly at the regional level (e.g. East Africa, North Africa, East Asia, etc).

By doing this, I will show you what the events mean and what we can expect. More than that, by placing events in the context of narratives, I am hoping we will learn how to better do this together. I want you to use the same processes to identify the events-in-narratives within the emergent systems (people groups, cities, etc.) you are focused on. I can’t follow everything, but if I can’t follow the place you’re interested in, you can–and you can contribute to the greater community.

Together, we can then learn how to influence emergent systems by building narratives and environments for new systems-within-systems: Gospel systems, the salt-and-yeast inside, the redemptive light, the city-on-a-hill. That’s the ultimate goal: to unleash redemptive processes led by the redeemed, that in turn don’t just transform individuals but societies.

I hope it’s clear by now: Societal transformation is key. You cannot easily sustain the church without it; indeed, based on Genesis 12 you can argue a church that does not transform the society around it is not a Biblical church and will not be blessed by God. Even simple demographics, though, can illustrate the reason. Eventually the church will grow to 90% or more of a society. At that point there is only one way for the church to be sustained–through new babies! (Because there is no one left to convert.) If an emergent system is incapable of helping believers marry believers and raise believing children, then the church will again enter a period of decline.

Already, in a sense, you can see this in recent articles about Wikipedia. This crowdsourced encyclopedia is threatened with decline, because “old” editors are falling off–no longer interested, busy in other things, or even dying. But “new” editors are not being brought in. The editors are not reproducing themselves. As a result the emergent system of Wikipedia is decaying, atrophying. And as less and less is done, fewer and fewer want to participate: it’s a downward spiral.

I could argue that in the West, one of the primary issues is that we shifted into information transmission–into sharing a message, rather than making disciples–and thus we got to a point where a huge number of people have been redeemed, but the emergent system in which we live no longer is. And that is bad news for the long-term future.

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