ReBe Fractalling Movement

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


In a blog post retweeted this morning by @emergentvillage, Mark Sayers makes the argument that "the emerging missional church" has already reached its critical carrying capacity as a discrete movement united against a "common enemy" and is showing signs of fracturing into what he thinks might be irretrievable dissolution.

I beg to differ.

First, go read his post (linked above and here). That will give the context, to which I will try to be fair here without simply reproducing it.

The shape of his argument depends upon comparing what is now happening in the emerging missional movement with the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation initially was pretty united against Rome. Even in their differences, everyone agreed on that, and that kept Protestantism per se coherent as a movement, perhaps well into the 18th century. But in time, he says, "definition over against" gave way to "self-definition" which meant the various groups ended up having more to fight about amongst themselves and thus splintered further and further. Over time, the trajectory of this sort of endless splintering is dissolution.

Several problems with the analysis, I think.

For one, it presumes that there was A Protestant church, per se. That's a pretty big presumption, and historically not a terribly good one. Once the various Protestantisms got going, there were always many, with many different theologies, and they were as ready to fight each other from Day 1 as they were ready to fight Rome. Witness Calvin's Geneva executing Michael Servetus, and the need for wars to occur in Germany to get to the "peace of Augsburg's" political formula, cuius regio, eius religio-- and then more wars of religion after that still! And yes, these were not just "Catholic/Protestant." They were inter-Protestant as well.

With the exception of the anabaptists and spiritualists, the various vying Protestantisms waged their "fights"(intellectual and military!) from a thoroughly institutionalized perspective-- namely, the sponsorship, armies, and laws of the states/duchies/nations/towns/cantons in which they found themselves.

Thus the only coherent thing one could actually find among these various Protestant experiments, from Day 1, wasn't theology but politics. Whatever their religion was, Rome wasn't going to call the shots for it going forward. It wasn't opposition to Roman theology per se, though that was not unimportant. It was opposition to Roman control of theology. If one can call this a movement at all, it was thus a "movement" of political revolt against the political claims of Rome or anyone else (including other Protestants from other states) to control religion and theology locally.

Honestly, does this sound like a "religious movement"? Or does it sound much more like institutional re-shuffling?

For another, Sayers argument presumes the "emerging missional church" is "A" church as well. It isn't. It never has been. I cannot imagine it will be anytime soon. That's why I usually refer to what we're part of as "the emerging missional way" and describe it more as the confluence of four streams-- missiological, theological (particularly Trinitarian and incarnational theologies), spiritual formation (approach to "faith" as "practiced faithfulness") and the worship practices that reflect whatever other confluences are present, with a particular focus on "connected indigeneity."

Several of the "fractions" or "breakaways" Sayers describes really were never part of these four streams to begin with-- including the Neo-Claphams, Digital Pentecostals, and Neo-Liberals. Neo-monastics (whom he calls "neo-anabaptists) do not generally claim that theirs is the "one right way" but rather one faithful expression of the confluence. Perhaps the only one of the groups Sayers describes that has been intentional about being a clear breakaway from "emergent" is neo-Calvinism.

So I think Sayers is misreading. It's not that the emerging missional way is "fractioning" or breaking up, it's that its ideas are "fractalling" or reproducing its DNA in all sorts of other environments, not unlike the tiny seeds of mustard weed. There needn't be one coherent crop with well-defined boundaries for the emerging missional way to spread, take root, and thrive. That it travels well in lots of places in slightly different forms is not an indicator of either dissolution or dilution of its purposes, but rather an indicator of its "evolutionary" success.

Movements that succeed in carrying forward their key causes are those that can do that very thing-- not fraction, but fractal. Methodism was doing this in England before it "fractioned" itself from the C of E officially in 1795. Even in very hostile circumstances in the US, it was doing so here as well prior to its fractioning in 1784. The Wesley brothers were right in their initially shared and re-iterated perception that breaking away to become a separate church, rather than continuing to "fractallize" as societies related to but not controlling or acting as separate churches, would lead to the very kind of dissollution of influence that Sayers describes (and I would argue, fairly correctly) for Protestantism as a whole in the West.

So as with continue to ReBe Church... how are we doing so in ways that "fractal" rather than "fraction"? And how might we keep the "fractalling" moving forward?