Some Reflections on the Emergence Christianity National Gathering with Phyllis Tickle

This weekend, Vanessa and I attended the Emergence Christianity National Gathering, a conference/book party to celebrate the publishing of Phyllis Tickle‘s new book Emergence Christianity. Phyllis is a singular person in American Christianity. Because of her keen mind and unique experience, she has been able to best document the fundamental changes that have been occurring in the church over the past several decades. I’m fond of calling her the fairy godmother of the emergent church.  

phyllisFour times in two days, Phyllis held court in the magnificent sanctuary of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis TN. Without notes or hesitation, she traced church history with detail, insight, and humor. All 450 of us in the room were held spellbound when she spoke. There were other speakers and panel discussions and liturgies and conversations and meals. But they were all the sideshow. Phyllis commanded the center ring of the circus. And we gave her two standing ovations.

You have to listen fast when Phyllis speaks. She covers a lot of ground. She offers profound insights as throw-away comments. You want to laugh at her very dry wit but you’re afraid that if you do, you’ll miss something important. She doesn’t work a crowd. She goes. And you try to keep up.

I’ve read Phyllis’ books. I’ve studied church history. I’m well-versed in this whole emergent church thing. I felt like I could keep up. Until Phyllis said something that sent my mind spinning down some other trail. I kept mentally trying to stick a pin in an idea to come back to later.

But before I share a list of some of my pinned items, let me first give a clarification for anyone who might not be familiar with the term “emergence Christianity.” This term refers to a wide swath of the church, now a major tributary in Christianity. Emergence Christianity is a movement within the church that recognizes that profound, fundamental shifts have taken place in technology and culture that impact the way we live out our faith. It takes many forms – self-identifying “emergent churches” like Vintage Fellowship or neo-monastics or slow church adherents or “hyphenated” emergents who populate mainline denominations.

Given how diverse the conversation is, it may be impossible to nail down a strict definition. However, there needs to be an understanding that a broad group of Christians now have more in common with one another than they do with other Christians. At the Reformation, there was a realization that Protestants were a new tributary to the river of Christianity. Phyllis has documented that Emergence now needs to be recognized as another new tributary in its own right.

Having dispensed with that, here are some of the topics or ideas that got pinned in my mind:

Phyllis made a strong connection between emergence Christianity and the charismatic movement. She drew a bright, straight line between the pentecostal inbreaking at Azusa Street and emergence Christianity. She touted John Wimber as a tremendously important figure for emergence Christianity. I think Vanessa had to pick my jaw up off the floor when she said it. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with Phyllis on this; but as a person who is decidedly non-charismatic, it’s just that I had never made the connection.

Phyllis’ whole approach to church history is built on the observation that every 500 years, we go through a major upheaval. She suggested that these upheavals can be grouped in fours, creating sets of 2000 years of human history. Further, Phyllis suggests we understand these ages through a trinitarian rubric. The charismatic movement is peri-emergence because it ushers in the Age of the Spirit. I’m left with a couple of questions about this approach. First, does it seem artificial? Second, what happens 2000 years from now when the Age of Spirit is over? What then? I’ve got more noodling to do on all of this.

Phyllis didn’t just look back; she also keenly addressed the current challenges for emergence Christianity. She suggested that we face four big questions:

What is our authority? 

How do we exist in a pluralist society? 

What do we do about the atonement? 

What does it mean to be human?

I sniffed around the edges of these questions in Fundamorphosis. On the question of authority, I talked about how my understanding of the Bible has changed and how labeling something as “biblical” no longer resonates with me. On the question of pluralism, I suggested that we adopt the optimistic attitudes of hope and grace toward one another, especially when we disagree on the most basic issues of life. On the question of the atonement, I suggest that our understanding of the death of Jesus needs to be better contextualized, even to the point of suggesting a new atonement metaphor. On the question of humanity, I described how I’ve come to think that the essence of humanity is similar to the essence of God – found in community.

I say all of this not to toot my own horn but rather to recognize the affirmation that I am on the right track in my thinking. Further, I felt that in some ways Phyllis was giving me my marching orders. If these are the big questions facing emergence Christianity, and I have already been dabbling in them, then I must go beyond dabbling and dive in. Being in conversation about these big questions is one of the big projects I must undertake.

The point in the conference that made me want to stand up and cheer was when Phyllis said that Brian McLaren‘s book A Generous Orthodoxy was the 95 Theses of Emergence Christianity. I could not agree more. I’ve written before about how Brian McLaren saved my faith. In many ways, A Generous Orthodoxy has been my theological blueprint. Brian McLaren is my Martin Luther.

Phyllis made my mouth drop open a second time during the conference. It was right near the end, when she drew parallels between the pharmacology that led to the birth control pill and the rampant biblical illiteracy in American society. With grace and understanding but not judgment or condemnation, in my estimation anyway, she lamented the breakdown of the family unit – whatever that family might look like – and she lamented that children are not being taught the Bible via the church calendar in their homes.

I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t hear Phyllis nostalgically calling us to return to the Leave It to Beaver era. Instead, I heard an invitation to creatively craft for our children a handmade, homemade, local, and organic experience of the faith that will capture their imaginations and stick with them. While I can’t speak for Vanessa, I think we were both inspired by the vision Phyllis seemed to cast.

There is much more to digest and consider from the Emergence Christianity National Gathering. I think I will be ruminating on it much over the coming weeks. If you were there – or just following the #EC13 and #bigtickle conversations on Twitter, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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