This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most brilliant and enjoyable economic essays ever written. It's titled I Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read. It beautifully illustrates that no one is in charge of making pencils (there is no pencil czar) and yet there is always an abundant supply of pencils. It demonstrates the concept emergence within economies.
What I find particularly fascinating is that this essay, now fifty years old, captures many of the dynamics that led Emerging Church leaders to label their movement emergent or emerging. Order seems to spontaneously emerge from largely independent entities pursing their own aims without direction from large institutional structures. With emerging church folks, there is a decided bias against structures that try to shape and control how things should operate based on this understanding of emergence. Anti-denominational sentiments are strong or there is at least a denominational minimalism.
It was my appreciation of emergence encountered in my studies of physical science and economics that attracted me to the emerging church conversation as it was forming ten years ago. But over the years I've become less and less interested this conversation as I've tried to engage with economic issues. Generally speaking, emergent Christians are among some of the least emergent thinking people I encounter when it comes to economic questions. There is a widely shared embrace of social progressivism with its belief that a centralized government entity can produce the best and most just economy.
If you read my blog, you know I'm a big believer in market economies but I repeatedly acknowledge that people are not entirely rational utility-maximizing machines and markets do no function with perfection. I'm not a libertarian. There is a place for government. But on the church front, unlike so many Emergent folks, I do believe there is a role for larger institutional structures. Whether it is governments or denominations, their role is to "tend the soil" so that vibrant and healthy things can emerge. They also help resist the parasites and other threats to the environment.
My frustration with the Emergent conversation is that I think folks frequently overplay the issue of emergence within the church and are virtually oblivious to emergence in economic matters. I think we need better reflection on how emergence works and the role of large entities across a range of social contexts.