Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

Signs of Emergence by Kester Brewin – A Literary Review

Today I wanted to share with you another literary review.  Kester’s book
really moved me and caused me to think about many things more deeply.
I hope you enjoy the review.  It’s worth the read.

I basically start with my sense of the author’s thesis, followed by a
general overview of the book, and then I focus on themes that are
pertinent to my research. With that said, here is my review.

Brewin in signs of Emergence contends that the current demise of the church in the West is not to be blamed on the lack of personal holiness, but on old wineskins, and that the church must empower people (herself) to honestly face change and evolve, or become extinct.

Brewin looks to Fowler’s stages of faith, urban theory, the science of emergence as well as the story of scripture to help us consider how to evolve, so that we might “become wombs of the divine, allowing God to fertilize our creativity and give birth to newness” (67).   Brewin calls for evolutionary change, not revolutionary change (43) and suggests that our first step is to stop.  Like the season of advent, we are to pause.  To rest.  To wait.  Just like a woman cannot speed up her pregnancy, the church cannot try and fix herself with a new program to make everything okay.  After waiting he suggests that the church needs to be born again, that is the church needs to rebirth into her host culture and to re-emerge from the bottom up.  He uses emergence theory to help describe the character of the emergent church, one that dances between the dangers or rigidity on the one hand and anarchy on the other.  He then calls the church to discover God in the city, to learn to be a gift exchange culture in the midst of a consumeristic culture, and reevaluate our dirt boundaries, what we consider clean and unclean.

I appreciate how Brewin intertwines the story of Jesus and our current post-world context in a way that frees us to imagine.  He uses the scripture, poetry, and science to call us to evolve.  By using the rebirth idea, he helps us to realize that “failure” is a natural part of evolution,  “we must be aware of our expectations.  The newness that will be born will be incomplete and immature.  It will be newness not fully formed and unable to speak.  It will be newness defenseless and unable to justify itself to its seniors.  It will be newness that is born into a culture and therefore totally and naturally immersed in the codes, the language, this history and life of that which it comes to serve.” (67,68)

Brewin reminds us that just as Sabbath was man for man, and not man for the Sabbath, structures must serve us, not us serve them (46).  Brewin also calls us to face the pain of exile and reminds us that it doesn’t matter if God abandoned us or we abandoned Him, “what is patently clear is that the church is experiencing separation, delamination, marginalization, trivialization, and exile from the world it seeks to service.  And therefore it is experiencing these things from God too, for if the church is not connected to its host culture and society, it is not where God wants it to be, and therefore not where God is” (50).  Drawing on Brueggemann’s study of Jeremiah, he reminds us that that the first step through the journey of exile is grief. Quoting Brueggemann he notes: “Indeed, he surmises that only through grief can newness become a possibility” (51).  Brewin gives a lot of rich but uncommon advice that I can appreciate.

His thoughts on the character of Emergent systems is helpful:

1. Emergent systems are open systems
2. Emergent systems are adaptable systems
3. Emergent systems are learning systems
4. Emergent systems have distributed knowledge
5. Emergent systems model servant leadership
6. Emergent systems only evolve in places between anarchy and rigidity (97-117)

I found this chart extremely helpful in thinking about how to approach leadership today.

Chapter 6 where he calls the church to be a hub of gift exchange and chapter 7 where he calls us to redefine what is dirty and what is clean.  If you get a minute, check out Kester’s blog.

7 Responses to Signs of Emergence by Kester Brewin – A Literary Review

  1. Chris Garner says:

    Hi JR 🙂

    Thanks for the review of this book – i have seen it listed here and looked into it on amazon but your reviews do give great insight mate!
    I think in Australia there is a re-focus happening, in seeing the new move no-so-much as ’emergent’ but rather as missional.
    There was a strong mixed response to ‘Shaping of things to come’ as pastors etc resisted it – words like emerging being anti-structure and i think they missed the heart for being missional in that. Hirsch, i think, has been wise since the release of it and written things that balance it out well and wins friends!

    I think emerging church was an initial reaction to man made structures – and, funnily enough,is not new – ’emerging church;’ is a term thats been around since the 70s i believe.

    Thats why i like your line: about the ‘character of the emergent church’ and i think thats what is the main focus – that it is clearly linked to the heart and purposes of God.
    I remember you posted earlier this year about our mission being a reflection of the nature of God..

    so – i think my point is that books like this seem to walk a thin line between being critical/reactionary to denominations and often appear to offer a different structure to ensure church is done more correctly – or they do well to start talking about structure but the heart of their focus is a constructive approach to being missional within your context, be it in a new structure or transforming the one you are in; the emphasis being on outward living rather than changing structure..or, emerging with a different look..

    i have seen too many people who have left church to start emerging churches..and dont really deal with their root issues of how they understand God’s nature & purposes and how His call is linked to how we should live in our workplaces, homes etc

    one doc i found captures it well –
    Talking about the church rediscovering itself, changing- ‘in the entire fabric of the Church’ – and not just in structure

    here is the link:

    JR, if this post is too long, unclear or you feel inappropriate in any way please feel free to delete it!
    I appreciate you reading it and cant wait to hear your thoughts more on missional living!
    thanks mate

  2. Chris Garner says:

    sorry,just more thing (like a PS)
    the link i gave you also has other articles on Hirsch’s writings, living missionally, Bounded Set thinking etc
    I havent read all of it yet but thought i’d link you for more missional/emergent reading

    thanks JR


  3. Kevin Chez says:

    I am curious to what he means by discovering God in the city?

    Is that a literal statement that means I should move there?

    Is he saying that not only do we see God’s creation and work in the mountains or at the beach but also in the cities?

    Thanks for the post JR.
    Happy Holidays.


  4. JR Woodward says:


    Thanks for your thoughts man. They are never too long for me. And while Kester might be Emergent, he uses the word because his book deals with the science of Emergence, which if you click the link above you can check it out.


    As far as what Kester means about discovering God in the city, he does a whole chapter about God in the city, highlighting the fact that while we started in a garden, the story ends in a city – the New Jerusalem. And yeah, he talks quite a bit about how to discover God in the city as well as the rest of creation. It is probably hard for me to do justice to his chapter in a few words, but let me give you a quote from the book to see if it whets your appetite to read more.

    “Jump forward an undisclosed period of time to a hotel room in New York City, where an African American reporter from the New York Times is questioning the theologian Matthew Fox on the relevance of his ‘creation spirituality’ to her thoroughly inner-city roots. He asks her to look out of the window and describe what she sees: bricks. He continues to question: what are bricks? Just clay hoisted hundreds of feet by humans, supported by frameworks of steel mined from the earth, with cars below running on rubber tires, burning fuel distilled from the residue of dead plants from millions of years ago. He goes on, trying to get her to see the essential naturalness in the city, and concludes: ‘A city – as awesome a place as it is – is also earth, earth recycled by humans who themselves are earth standing on two legs with moveable thumbs and immense imaginations.”

    There you go, a little taste.

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