Fitness Landscapes and Ecclesial Discernment, Part 2: The Emerging Church and Changing Fitness Landscapes

Chapter 3:
Changing Landscapes

In my last post we assumed that the fitness landscape was static and unchanging. But rarely in biological ecosystems is this the case. Imagine an ecosystem in equilibrium. Predators, prey, environment, parasites are all merrily involved in their Darwinian dance. But let’s say a new predator is introduced, or a new plant species, or parasitical disease. Or, let’s say a predator goes extinct, leaving no predation pressure on the prey species. Or, let’s suppose the ecosystem is environmentally challenged by drought.

The point is that all kinds of things can affect the shape of a fitness landscape. Fitness landscapes are dynamic and changing. What this means is that prior adaptive “solutions” (a good organism/ecosystem fit) might quickly prove to be maladaptive given current changes in the ecosystem. The organism must either adapt to these changing demands (via natural selection upon the population gene pool) or go extinct.

Visually, what this means is that the fitness landscape is continually morphing. Prior adaptive optima, those Alps of fitness, are slowly sinking. Meanwhile, prior adaptive valleys are now growing into mountain ranges. That is, combinations of traits which were formerly fit are now becoming less fit and less fit combinations now find themselves thriving in the new ecosystem.

(If you find this idea interesting let me recommend Jonathan Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time for a real empirical story of organisms—Darwin’s Finches in the Galapagos—finding their way through changing fitness landscapes.)

Chapter 4:
The Emerging Church

Can we use this idea of dynamic fitness landscapes to understand trends in the church? I think so. Last post I spoke of various church optima, distinctive ecclesial expressions that might be equally pleasing to God. My hunch is that those optima are changing. Church expressions from prior generations, while optimal in their day, appear to be sinking. Not that God is displeased per se, but my hunch is that God is interested in transformative ecclesial expressions. And if an ecclesial expression is no longer transforming lives I expect that God has cooled toward that particular expression. If so, given our fitness landscape metaphor, these ecclesial Everests of prior generations are sinking to sea level.

Enter the Emerging Church. I don’t know a lot about the emerging movement. I’ve read a few books, but I’m generally uninformed. So, if I mischaracterize anything here I apologize. But it seems to me that the emerging conversation can be understood via this metaphor of a changing fitness landscape. That is, it seems that many church leaders are sensing this change of optima. Former ecclesial habits and structures don’t seem to be working. The ecosystem is changing, affecting what a “fit” church should look like. Traditional ecclesial expressions don’t seem like the fitness peaks they once were.

So, there is this sense that, somewhere out there in the ecclesial fitness landscape, there is a new Everest or even a few Everests rising. These Everests are the new ecclesial optima, the “peak” church expressions in the current “ecosystem” (our current world) that are the most transformative, Incarnational, and impactful. That is, from my outsider perspective at least, the emerging movement, as examined through the lens of a changing fitness landscape, is suggesting the following:

1. The ecclesial ecosystem is changing.

2. As a result, former ecclesial optima are dropping.

3. But new optima are rising.

4. Can we find these newer optima? If so, what will these ecclesial expressions look like?

#4 is interesting. It goes to issues of search through a fitness landscape. Searches through rugged fitness landscapes can be tricky. I’ll explain why in my next post.

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4 thoughts on “Fitness Landscapes and Ecclesial Discernment, Part 2: The Emerging Church and Changing Fitness Landscapes

  1. Richard,

    Tricky? I'll say. Anticipating the future is always tricky and trend is not future. When Jesus died on that Friday cross, it appeared to all--friend and foe alike--that Jesus and the Kingdom he was ushering in were dead. What did they know? And what do we know?

    George Cooper

  2. I enjoy your blog.

    This is interesting. Perhaps it is most helpful when limited to a category, such as diversity among free church communities, or within a particular tradition such as R. Catholicism. If the later, it is something that has been recognized for a long time through the various orders not only to maintain vitality but also to stay in unity.

    Between traditions however, I wonder if the image can still hold. Where does narrative and shared memory come into play? Different traditions/species have different goals.

    In Mark Heim's book, The Depth of the Riches, he observes the difficulty of comparing distinct religious traditions from a soteriological standpoint because their goals vary. Some traditions are more interested in purity than survival and growth.

    If we're talking about the ecclesiastical system as God sees it, then it may hold together more but be of less pragmatic use.


  3. George,
    This is why I have "discernment" in the series title. The big challenge for churches will be this journey to follow God into the future.

    I see the point you raise. Here's a response that will foreshadow things I'm going to say. One of the big issues is the actual shape of the landscape. I've set out the distinction between simple and rugged but obviously there is a continuum here. How rugged is it? If the landscape is only moderately rugged, more like rolling hills, then contact can be maintained with tradition as churches change. That is, the landscape isn't discontinuous or broken. But if the landscape is very rugged then a more discontinuous break with tradition will be needed.

    My guess is that "radicals" and "traditionalists" see the landscape very differently. Traditionalists see the landscape as changing but relatively smooth. Thus, contact can be maintained with traditional forms. Radicals see the landscape as very rugged. Thus, we will need to "jump" to a new peak. Contact will be lost.

    The question is: Who is seeing the landscape accurately?

  4. Consider the "Second Great Awakening" from which the CoC spawned. Combined with a spurning of tradition, was an appeal to go "back to the Bible" and recreate the NT church. This seems to me to be both a "radical" (as opposed to "traditional") move and a denial of the value of an emergent church.

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