Emergence Christianity: the history and future of the church

Here is a copy of my column from Saturday’s Northwest Arkansas Times.

A month ago, more than four hundred people from around the country convened at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis to think about the future of the church. My wife Vanessa and I were among them. We were at Emergence Christianity, a National Gathering, also known as EC13.  

emergenceThe impetus for EC13 was the release of a new book by Phyllis Tickle, called Emergence Christianity. Tickle doesn’t have the name recognition of people like Rick Warren or Franklin Graham. Regardless, she is one of the most influential and important people in the church today.

For many years, Tickle worked as the religion editor for Publisher’s Weekly. Her job was to know what was happening in American Christianity and report on it to the publishing world. No one has been more uniquely qualified to spot the trends and predict the future of the church than Tickle. Now retired from Publisher’s Weekly, Tickle writes and lectures. She travels the country talking to church and religious leaders, sharing her insights and listening to theirs.

Tickle is a force of nature. Four times during EC13 she took the stage and spoke for more than an hour, without notes or hesitation. With encyclopedic recall, she rattled off names and dates from both church history and the present. Her dry wit and obvious passion kept us on the edges of our seats.

Tickle is seventy-nine years old.

Tickle has made the observation that every five hundred years or so, the church has a major upheaval that changes just about everything. During these times, the church has, what Tickle calls, a rummage sale. People of Christian faith have to decide what is worth keeping and what should be discarded.

The church was born after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, on the Day of Pentecost. About five hundred years later, the church had a major ecumenical council, formalizing its commitment to the deity of Jesus in the Chalcedonian Creed. Five hundred years after that, the Great Schism happened. The eastern and western churches split, creating the Roman church and Orthodox church. Another five hundred years later came the Great Reformation, when Martin Luther and John Calvin birthed Protestantism.

Now that we are five hundred years past the Reformation, Tickle has observed that once again the church is in the midst of a major upheaval. She calls it the Great Emergence. This latest upheaval has given birth to a movement that Tickle calls Emergence Christianity.

It’s important to note that these upheavals in the church are also connected to significant cultural and technological advancements. For instance, the Reformation couldn’t have happened without the invention of the printing press. And Emergence Christianity wouldn’t be possible without the Internet.

In this latest rummage sale, Emergence Christianity is helping the church to get rid of patriarchy and colonialism. It is questioning whether political influence is the most effective way to bring cultural transformation. It is reinforcing creative, artistic, and even post-congregational expressions of faith. Rather than seeking to grow mega-churches, Emergence Christianity is on the forefront of a missional quest for social justice. And it is popping up in both established denominations and in new entrepreneurial church and ministry start-ups.

This is not to suggest that Emergence Christianity is not without its challenges. Without a clear structure or dominating leader, this movement will need to figure out how to be sustainable. It also needs to be willing to tackle the big questions of authority and pluralism.

Nonetheless, Emergence Christianity is changing the church.

Many people in the church find change frightening. They want to preserve what they have always known. They want to hold onto their cherished traditions. They can’t imagine how things could be different. And, if things are going to be different, they can’t conceive of how they would be better.

I’m not frightened by Emergence Christianity. I’m exhilarated by it. The challenges facing the church are great, but I believe that we are up for them. I think cultural and technological advancements of our generation give us an unique opportunity for fresh expressions of our faith. We are living history.


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