By: Stephen Lewis
May 23, 2016
When was the last time you changed something that has had a lasting impact on the larger community? In light of the circumstances we find in our country and communities, how does real change, sustainable change happen?
In spite of our cultural myths and iconic superheroes and sheroes, the world has never changed because of an individual and his or her extraordinary acts. It almost never requires everyone or just one person. Instead, meaningful change in institutions, communities, and the world happens as a result of a few people who share a vision for what’s possible and work together to make it a reality.
Pentecost and the Acts of the Apostle is a case study for how God’s people make change happen. Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze of the Berkana Institute, offer a helpful framework in their article, Using Emergence to Take Social Innovations to Scale, for mapping change. It is a helpful framework for reading the Pentecost story and the Gospel activities that follow to understand how Christianity became a major system of influence. While this framework warrants further exploration in conversation with Pentecost and proceeding activities in the Acts of the Apostle and Epistles, I will offer a brief summary of this framework and the implications for Christians cultivating, training and supporting emerging leaders to help shape a more hopeful future.
Pentecost is a story about the democratizing of God. Through the coming of God’s Spirit, all of God’s people have access to God without a mediator. It is also a story about emergence—the diverse ways God emerges through God’s people to reconcile, heal and help shape a new heaven and earth, and where all people can live more abundantly.
How does large scale change happen? “In nature, change never happens as a result of top-down, preconceived strategic plans, or from the mandate of any single individual or boss. Instead, change emerges from local efforts taking place simultaneously in different places.”1 according to Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze. In other words, sustainable change is a grassroots emergent effort. Many of the activities of local leaders, which are typically invisible or unknown to each other, are not powerful enough by themselves to create the tipping point for change. However, when these activities are joined, new possibilities emerge like a new heaven and earth.
Wheatley and Frieze further note that “emergence has a life cycle. It begins with networks, shifts to intentional communities of practices and evolves into powerful systems of influences capable of global influence.”2 During the first stage, the purpose is to notice and name local networks of leaders engaged in similar activities across different places. Networks are the container for local laboratories where people are experimenting with ideas and finding others engaged in similar activities—healing the ills of people and their communities, sharing possessions, cultivating servant leaders and preaching transformative good news—as we see in the Acts of the Apostle.
The second stage of emergence is a move from noticing and naming networks to nurturing smaller communities of practice. These communities are breathing spaces from the busyness of life for people to share ideas, challenge thinking, reflect and learn together and create knowledge and insights worth sharing to a larger audience. I imagine that the emerging bands of disciples, house churches and the council in Jerusalem were early prototypes of communities of practice.
The third stage consists of transitioning from nurturing communities of practice to illuminating and nourishing a new system of influence. During this stage, we highlight and share new insights, wisdom and principles that have emerged from these small communities of practice that become acceptable and a type of standard barrier for mid and late adopters or converts. In the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles, we read the emergence of a new theology penned by the authors of the Gospels and Epistles, emerging models of church and Christian ministry, and new types of converts, leaders and positions that come as a result of Pentecost.
If Pentecost democratizes God’s agency in the world to shape a more hopeful future—bringing about a new heaven and earth—each one of us has a role to play in shaping that future, which is reflected in the words of Teresa Avila:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.”
The quality of the future is inextricably tied to the quality of our leaders and choices we make today to develop the diverse Christian leaders the world needs now. Wheatley and Frieze’s framework is helpful in understanding how sustainable change can happen in our congregations, theological schools, communities and cities across the world by the intentional choices we make today and everyday.
Over the next several months, my colleagues plan to test this framework in Atlanta and Chicago to see how FTE can nurture and support large scale change over time to cultivate the kinds of leaders the church, academy and communities around the world need now. Every once in the while, I invite you to eavesdrop on our conversation to see what we are learning from this framework and local networks of leaders cultivating faithful, wise and courageous leaders seeking to make a difference through Christian ministry and teaching.
Until then, let us look to Pentecost in anticipation of the change that will bring about a more hopeful future.
1. Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, Using Emergence to Take Social Innovations to Scale