The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle

Last night I finished up another interesting read called The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle.  I’ll say upfront that I’m a bit conflicted on this book.  I really liked a lot of things and where it seemed to be headed, but the main complaint is that I felt like it ended suddenly without any kind of real culmination of her points.  Reflecting on that now, I wonder if it was intentional.  It reminds me of the Book of Acts in the Bible which seems to have no culmination but is left open.  The scholarly answer to that I imagine is simply that the author (traditionally understood to be Luke) died or for some other reason couldn’t finish.  But I’ve also heard people talk about that as a beautiful theological message in itself: Acts is the story of the beginning of the church, and 2000 years later that still hasn’t culminated.  So I’ve heard churches call themselves Acts 29 churches because Acts has 28 chapters and we are the continuation.  All that to say that this book has a very similar effect.  In one sense it is very disappointing because you’re left hanging.  But in another sense, like Acts was, it is talking about recent history up to current events and there are a lot of questions still hanging in the current church’s context.  Therefore it is simply honest to leave those questions hanging in the book, too.  I’m left unsatisfied with the conclusion, but then I realize that we are the conclusion.  That insight actually just came to me as I wrote that.

But onto some of the more specific content.  There’s a really interesting historical observation that underlies this book.  Approximately every 500 years, the church goes through some kind of major shake-up.  In the sixteenth century, there was the Great Reformation: not just the Protestant Reformation but also the Catholic Reformation, and the Radical Reformation.  In the eleventh century, there was the Great Schism: the division between the West (Roman Catholic) and the East (Orthodox).  That was also the beginning of the scholastic period and of the Crusades, which without a doubt had the greatest widespread passion for Christianity in our history (of course that manifested itself in both good and bad ways).  In the sixth century was the time of Gregory the Great, the Pope who essentially held the Church together (at least in the West) after the fall of the Roman Empire largely through the development of the monastic system, without which a lot of Western history would change, like the copying and preserving of many ancient texts.  In the first century of course was The Great Transformation, the dawn of the church out of the coming of God in Jesus.  If you want you could even go back further: in the 6th century BCE was the Great Exile of Israel into Babylon, and in the 11th century BCE was the time of the Great King David (assuming you believe he was a historical figure which I do).

Of course that pattern means that the 21st century is the time of another major shake-up, which so far we’ve been referring to as emergence.  Some things make it very unique from the others but there are also lots of things in common.  Tickle lays a bit of groundwork by comparing some of the shifts leading up to this Great Emergence to the lead-up to the Great Reformation.  The main thing I’d draw from this is that the church’s radical shake-ups always come through some other major cultural shake-ups.  Before the Reformation were things like the invention of the printing press, which made the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, scriptura sola (only Scripture and Scripture only) possible.  The other I remember is the fall of Constantinople, which brought a lot of Greek scholars West and provided some radical shifts in thinking.  So then the Renaissance was essentially the pre-cursor to the Reformation and the church had to come up with some major changes to keep up with the world.  One of the other trends I liked that she pointed out with each of these shifts is that a couple of things happen: there is a new strand of Christianity, but there is also always a sort of counter renewal of the traditional form to also be reinvigorated in some way – which is why I made a point of including the Catholic Reformation and not just the Protestant Reformation in the Great Reformation era.

Fast-forward to the Great Emergence and there are similar radical changes in our world that the church is working on adapting to.  The rise of modernism and especially certain scientific findings has challenged traditional Christian understanding.  Now even that is falling in the face of post-modernism.  Arguably the rise of liberal theology in the late nineteenth century was the first hints of another radical change, starting to challenge a lot of traditional understandings and especially the question of whether the historical Jesus and the Jesus talked about in church were really the same person.  In response was the rise of fundamentalism, starting with the definition of The Fundamentals (1910) such as: The Virgin Birth, penal substitution atonement, inerrancy of Scripture, a literal understanding of Scripture, and physical and bodily resurrection of Jesus.  The other important theological movement was Pentecostalism, which now comprises the second-largest group of Christians (after Catholicism).  There was also the influence of Buddhism as more and more Asian immigration came to the West, and that led to a lot of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.

There were also radical shifts in the idea of the family because of the role of women in WWII.  What I found particularly interesting to reflect on with our own families is that the centre of our lives is now work.  Previously, the man would go to work so that he could provide for his family.  The woman would take care of the children.  The whole family saw the home as the centre of their lives, and work was what you had to do to be able to maintain that.  Now, everybody works, even the teenagers, and there has been a fundamental paradigm shift.  Now the home is where everybody comes to separately after work each day in order to recover enough to go do it again. I’m obviously not attacking women or even children having jobs, but I do wonder if the West will figure out a way to recover that sense of family being more important than career because in my opinion people are always more important than work.  Back to the point, removing the centrality of the family also takes a giant chunk of the way that the church has always functioned – children are generally brought up secularly without that presence in the home – and an hour on Sunday mornings is not enough education so most people don’t actually understand Christianity.  Things like house church movements can be directly traced to that as people try to figure out how to still have some centrality of their Christian belief.

Quadrants of ChristianityThe final section is where I thought that the book lost some of its steam.  Tickle did say outright that we can’t really predict that much where the emerging church is going, but that she was going to try anyway, so I can’t really complain.  She identifies four quadrants of Christians, at least since the rise of Pentecostalism, the final version of which is displayed to the right.  In the top left are the Liturgicals – primarily Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox.  In the bottom left are Renewals – primarily Charismatics/Pentecostals.  In the bottom right are Conservatives – those who hold to the Fundamentals listed above, especially inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture.  In the top right are Social Justice Christians – previously called Mainline Protestant but that term doesn’t really hold any meaning anymore.  She also explains the lines between them, with the horizontal line primarily being one between orthodoxy (right belief, bottom) and orthopraxy (right practice, top) and the vertical line primarily being one of authority between more church and experience based (left), and Scripture-based (right).

There are always a lot of overlap between them which are the ovals on each border, but people will always tend to go to one of them.  Tickle later adds Quakers as a border between Social Justice Christians and Conservatives, and I think Anabaptists belong there, too, but she never once mentions us in the entire book.  The mess in the middle is the emerging church, which primarily defines itself as a conversation, hence growing out of the centre of all of them and constantly mixing back and forth between them.  This diagram is not to scale according to Tickle who says that something like 60% of Christians are emergings whether they use that term or not.  About 10% are what I’d term the “stubborns” on the edge of each category who want nothing to do with change.  The 30% in between break down into four other categories, from outward in being Traditionalists, Re-traditionalists, Progressives, and Hyphenateds.  I’d be a Hyphenated, as I very much consider myself an emerging but I also consider myself an Anabaptist, in other words an emerging-Anabaptist (and I would usually put it that way with emerging as adjective to Anabaptist rather than the other way around).  Overall, I love these categories and now I think I’ll be looking at people in my classes or in my small group or in my church in terms of where they fall in this graph.

The other big theme that I haven’t directly touched on so far is the question of authority.  Tickle argues and I’d agree that each of the major four shake-ups had something to do with a questioning of authority.  The big one happening right now is the fall of Protestant sola scriptura.  Many in the Conservative quadrant still hold that Scripture is primary authority, but few – what I called the stubborns – would still argue for biblical sufficiency, that we don’t ever need to look at anything else: experience, church, science, biblical studies, etc.  The emerging church in general is calling for a more holistic view of God’s revelation that doesn’t accept just one option but sees what we would call a much bigger view of God as working in many ways.  Exactly how that will end up is largely still being debated, and those are the debates which will be largely belong to the next 50 years.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

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  • J C

    Nice summary of Tickle’s work. I haven’t read the book but I’ve heard her speak on different occasions and this is a fair summary of what she has to say. She would be first to admit that we don’t know how it is all going to be sorted out because we’re at the beginning of the “age.” For instance, the denominations that rose following the Reformation are dying – hence the UCC in Canada and the slow death of denominational churches in the U.S. Instead, we’re seeing mega churches setting up satellite campuses near and far (ala Hamilton and Driscoll). We are indeed living in interesting times.