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VBS…an Emergent Problem?

The Integrity value is one of four key elements we’ve identified as being absolutely essential for the health and effectiveness of any church or organization.

The Integrity (or “Earth”) element is particularly relevant in the areas of your church that have become “emergent.” By “emergent,” we’re not referring to the movement of self-described postmodern, post-evangelical churches, but rather using the term drawn more narrowly from the social sciences and the study of group behavior.

From this perspective, an activity—particularly one performed by a group or an organization—becomes “emergent” when it “just happens.” We do this just because we do it. The activity happens, but it would be difficult to say exactly who says it should or why, or even who actually does it or parts of it. It seems to “emerge” as a natural byproduct of the church and has taken on a “life of its own.”

As an example, consider a church that recently decided to stop doing a summer Vacation Bible School program. This church poured a great deal of money and human resources into its annual VBS program. When volunteers and parents arrived on opening night, all were awed by the decorations, the quality of the acting and teaching in the opening presentation, the complexity and elegance of the systems for moving kids from station to station, the quality of the snacks, the creativity of the arts and crafts—everything was amazing.

Over the years, in fact, this VBS program had become so big and so amazing, involving so many people in complex systems of planning and execution that worked well but in relative isolation from one another, that people working in the kitchen really could not say exactly what was happening in the gym or who was doing it. In fact, most people who volunteered to work in the program really couldn’t say who was actually running it, or who put it on the schedule or made decisions about it.

Simply put, it had taken on a life of its own.

It was great, and people took great pride in it, but it really wasn’t yielding a return in terms of outreach and discipleship relative to the amount of effort required to do it. Every year, someone asked in the debriefing meeting whether it should continue next year; many thought it might be worth considering whether the program was still effective and relevant, but before anyone could reach a decision, VBS had appeared on next year’s annual church calendar.

It had become emergent—it just seemed to happen each year automatically.

You can probably relate to this example, even if VBS isn’t one of your own “autopilot” programs. Because churches are complex entities, it’s very easy for programs to take on a life of their own. Whether or not they have anything to do with real needs or real goals, they just “emerge” from the everyday life of the organization and the cycle of the church calendar. No one thinks about these things, really, any more than we would think about why leaves emerge from trees in the spring. They just do.

The example of the “emergent” VBS program is helpful because it illustrates an essential point: even good things can threaten our integrity. Morally, spiritually, missionally—however you slice it, it would be hard to say that offering an excellent education program for neighborhood kids is a “bad thing.” But it might also be hard to show how this program is in line with a particular church’s vision, mission, and plans. In the meanwhile, it consumes a great deal of time and resources.

A church can do many good things and do them well, but it will lack integrity if these things are not grounded in the solid Earth of a unifying system that ensures that all these activities work together to advance the Kingdom.

Do you have an “emergent”—or “autopilot”—program in your church or organization?

Tom Thatcher | The Elemental Group

adapted from “The Elemental Churches Inventory Field Guide”


The Elemental Churches Inventory is a revolutionary web-based assessment system that combines individual and team learning through online tools and videos with sage coaching. It not only gives a focused snapshot of where you are, but provides a comprehensive report with recommended action steps that can be turned into your strategic plan toward effectiveness and health!


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