The Great Emergence – Phyllis Tickle’s 500-year Rummage Sale

Posted on April 27, 2008

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If you have not yet seen or heard Phyllis Tickle’s talk from the November 2007 National Youth Worker’s Convention, it’s worth it.

Marko has blogged about it here, Terry Mattingly wrote about it here, and you can purchase the DVD or mp3 here. The Out of Ur blog has commented on it, ChuckP3 has some notes, and Tony Jones has several posts on his conversations with Phyllis, and here are other WordPress blogs as well.

TICKLE’S BASIC THESIS is that every 500 years, the Church goes through a rummage sale, and cleans out the old forms of spirituality and replaces it with new ones. This does not mean that previous forms become obsolete or invalid. It simply means they lose pride of place as the dominant form of Christianity. Constantine in the late 4th century, early 5th, the Great Schism of the 11th century, the Reformation in the 16th century, and now the Postmodern era in the 21st century have all been points of reference for these changes.

What is giving way right now is Protestantism, in the form that we know it, and what is emerging is a new form of Christianity, what she is calling “The Great Emergence.” One can only guess whether or not it is tribal form, an individualistic form, a social form, or a combination of all of them. But, what we can say is that Protestantism in all its denominational forms is losing influence and is giving way to alternative forms of Christian expression.

All this, by the way, will be published in October in her new book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Amazon’s Product Description:

Rooted in the observation that massive transitions in the church happen about every 500 years, Phyllis Tickle shows readers that we live in such a time right now. She compares the Great Emergence to other “Greats” in the history of Christianity, including the Great Transformation (when God walked among us), the time of Gregory the Great, and the Great Reformation. Combining history, a look at the causes of social upheaval, and current events, The Great Emergence shows readers what the Great Emergence in church and culture is, how it came to be, and where it is going. Anyone who is interested in the future of the church in America, no matter what their personal affiliation, will find this book a fascinating exploration.

I offer TWO MAIN OBSERVATIONS AND CONTENTIONS.

1. CULTURAL TRENDS WILL ALWAYS BE THE CATALYST FOR SPIRITUAL TRANSITIONS.

As much as we would like to decry this, I don’t think we can escape the fact that this is how it has worked and continues to work throughout history. Whether it be transportation, Gutenberg’s Printing Press, the microchip, the internet, Columbus, or even parchment paper, these tangible cultural forms greatly influence and transform our understanding and beliefs about spirituality, and our (to use Tickle’s term) interiority. In other words, the tangible influences the intangible (metaphysical) more than the other way around.

Why is this important?

Because there are many out there that suggest that the Church should be the leader of culture, not the follower of it. While I understand and appreciate the sentiment, perhaps we ought to seriously consider a couple realities. Number one, that will never be the case. Church life and spiritual life will always follow technological and culturally shaped communication forms. Why? Because of number two. The church was never designed to be a cultural purveyor, but rather, a cultural interpreter. Spiritual communities exist to make sense out of what is going on around us. (Observation always precedes explanation). And the Church exists to offer the very explanations and answers to the very real questions that cultural tides pose to the soul of humanity. To try and become a leading cultural force could in some ways jeopardize the value we have to our world as “salt” and “light.”

I also think that becoming a cultural leader is actually evidence that we’ve succumbed too far to the very trappings we’re wanting to avoid. “Leadership” is not a Biblical commission, per se. Leadership is a gift that is given to some within the Church to lead with all diligence (Romans 12:8). But to take that and extrapolate it to a “pride of place” that we ought to hold within our culture is to be unconsciously seduced by the very culture we are attempting to lead. I submit this is potentially damaging to our identities as God’s handiwork and image on earth, and we ought to think differently about the implications of our leadership yearnings.

2. CULTURAL INFLUENCE WILL ALWAYS BE A COMPROMISE, WITHOUT NECESSARILY BEING A PERVERSION OF THE GOSPEL. [1]

This point requires a lot of attending, but my basic thesis is that every theological doctrine and every Biblical expression of faith is at one level or another a compromise of the purest, ultimate expression of the Gospel that God originally desired for us. Using the story of Moses in the cleft of the rock as an analogy, we are hidden from seeing the fullness of the face of God (פני יי). All viewpoints of the Gospel miss the mark in some way, shape or form. If Marshall McLuhan is right in that the message changes according to the medium it is carried in, then this kind of compromise will continue on throughout history.

Clarification. When I say “compromise,” I do not mean a “diminution,” or a lessening of importance. What I mean is that the cultural time of the expression of the Gospel helps to inform what kind of Gospel is being taught and perpetuated. That is to say that yes, the message does change over time, according to place, according to people group, and it essentially becomes a nuanced form or expression of the Gospel. All definitions of the “Gospel” today are influenced by that kind of compromise.

While this may be heretical to some, this ought to evoke within us joy for a couple reasons. a) That while God is unchanging, through infinite wisdom He has given us a message that will continually be applicable to all people, at all times, forever. b) There is a grace in our misunderstandings and misperception of the true Gospel as we carry it, understand it, live it, and spread it. c) The Gospel continually gets better and better with time. As we are working towards the return of Christ, we can get excited about our faithful stewardship of the Gospel that reaps 10 or 100 times more than what was sown.

Again, this is brief for a blog post, and requires much more work to flesh out the nuances of this. Suffice to say, while culture is an influence, and will always be, we do not have to fear. We can take joy in discovering greater expressions of God’s love, justice, mercy, and redemption in the world. And just because we don’t fully understand the compromises that are made, we can take peace in believing that God is at work redeeming the world through flawed messages and expressions of His good news.

[1] Insight from haligweorc.wordpress.com

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