I made it to one day of the Emergence Christianity: A National Gathering featuring Phyllis Tickle in Memphis this weekend. I was one of the “Friends of Phyllis” who helped out with the event. My contribution to the proceedings was minimal: I handed out the autographed copies of Phyllis’ new book as attendees turned in the ticket they got with their name tags.
But I was able to sit in Phyllis’ presentations … and was able to draw a few conclusions.
First, Phyllis Tickle is still one of the best communicators of the emergence message. I’ve heard a few, and find that they are so busy being emergent that they don’t get around to explaining what that means. Tickle’s understanding of the great movements of human history and her grasp of Christian thinking has traced the broad arc of this movement and made it possible for a moderate like me to jump in and take the thing out for a spin.
In a nutshell, Emergence Christianity is a new expression of the beliefs and practices of Christian people. It’s not the “theological excuse for Contemporary Worship.” It’s not a reconstruction of the Didache with Micheal W. Smith singing lead vocals.
According to Phyllis, Emergence interprets Scripture differently because there is a different expectation of the text. It isn’t the embodiment of a blueprint. Scripture is the best expression of human understanding of God inspired by the Holy Spirit. But it’s not infallible and it isn’t our God. Emergence Christianity isn’t about rules and doctrine. Discipleship is about a shift in culture to embrace the teachings of Jesus as a way of life rather than a set of restrictions.
Most of the folks I met at Emergence Christianity: A Gathering were clergy. Most were progressive or liberal. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Here’s why:
In many ways, the Emergence movement is trying to claim the promises of the traditional Church. Particularly, they are the ones that weren’t delivered because of the inherent patriarchal mindset of the institution. The church was getting in the way of the Church because, at some point, the work of the people had become very, very successful. At that point, the inclination is to freeze everything, to strike the balance, and to halt movement lest the balance become upset.
That is consistent with the concepts of Max Weber‘s “routinization of charisma.” In Weber’s analysis, this is a charismatic leader (like Jesus) who changes the status quo, leaves a legacy with disciples, who, in turn, begin to catalog and legalize the teachings until the concepts become institutionalized. This happened with Jesus, Luther, Wesley, and dozens of others. For the United Methodist Church today, the institution is so overbearing, we can no longer accomplish much more than the shifting of the behemoth weight of bureaucracy. See any of the blogs about the failure of the 2012 General Conference to find out more.
Milestone or Course Correction?
So is this simply the next charismatic renewal of the Church? Yes and no. Wesley’s renewal movement was a charismatic burst of energy that coincided with expansion into the New World. But this was not a reformation or a schism, really. This was a continuation of what had happened at the Great Reformation.
“Every 500 years,” Tickle said, “the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered so that renewal and growth may occur. Now is such a time.”
- Abraham was born around 2165 BCE, ushering in the age of monotheism.
- Between 1500-1400 BCE, we find the birth of Moses, the Exodus story, the Age of Law in Judaism
- In the years between 1000-900 BCE, the Hebrew Bible records the establishment of the monarchy, Davidic rule, and the building of the Temple under Solomon.
- Within a hundred years of 500 BCE, the Jewish people are taken captive to Babylon and the temple is destroyed.
- Approximately 4BC, the birth of Christ saw the transformation of the Judaism and the Birth of Christianity.
- In 451, the Council of Chalcedon saw the Orthodox Church splitting off from the rest of Christendom.
- In 1054, Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other, causing Rome to increase in power and the gospel to reach unprecedented masses.
- 1517 saw a German monk nail his 95 Thesis to a Wittenberg church door, bringing the Protestant Reformation.
- 484 years later, on a bright day in September of 2001, Western Culture was rocked by tragedy as the al Qaeda terror attacks sent hijacked planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a lonely field in Pennsylvania.
It’s almost axiomatic when you look at a list like this.
So, according to Phyllis and a few hundred of her closest clergy friends, Christianity is again shedding the carapace of institutionalism in light of what is really important. And it just may be that the institution has become so heavy, so thick, that these terrorist attacks sparked cultural upheaval across the board in Christian denominations around the world. If the carapace is cracked, it hasn’t yet fallen off. I’m wondering what that will be like.
What does Emergence Christianity mean for the next hundred years? I don’t know. But there are some ideas about where we might be heading. For one thing, we will be the first historical paradigm shift that is “self-aware.” Most of the others have been seen in retrospect only, as far as I know (comment below if you have proof to the contrary). For another, we will be the first paradigm shift that is recorded not in scrolls or history books, but in real time on digital media. I don’t know if it will move faster because of the instantaneity of the Internet or slower because of the multiplicity of data flooding the record.
Next post, I’ll have some predictions. In the meantime, I’d love to hear yours.
What changes in Christianity can we expect in the next 100 years as a result of the Great Emergence?
Is Emergence Christianity the next step in the sweeping cultural shift toward atheism?
Author: Joey Reed
Joey is married to his best friend and they live in Kentucky. Joey serves Mayfield First United Methodist Church, the Purchase District, the Memphis Annual Conference, and the world is his parish.