The Common Good
August 2008

The Great Emergence

by Phyllis Tickle | August 2008

Every 500 years or so, the church—and the world—experience huge social, political, economic, and cultural shifts. What does this revolutionary evolution mean for the church?

Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer, an Anglican bishop known for his wit as well as his wisdom, famously observes from time to time that the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as 21st-century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. And, he goes on to say, we are living in and through one of those 500-year sales.

While the bishop may be using a bit of humor to make a point, his is nonetheless a deadly serious and exquisitely accurate point. Any usable discussion of the Great Emergence and what is happening in Christianity today must commence with a discussion of history. Only history can expose the patterns and confluences of the past in such a way as to help us identify the patterns and flow of our own times and occupy them more faithfully.

The first pattern we must consider as relevant to the Great Emer­gence is Bishop Dyer’s rummage sale, which, as a pattern, is not only foundational to our understanding but also psychologically very reassuring for most of us. That is, as Bishop Dyer observes, about every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace, or hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur. When that mighty upheaval happens, history shows us, there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events.

First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge. Second, the organized expression of Christianity that up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self. As a result of this usually energetic but rarely benign process, the church actually ends up with two new creatures where once there had been only one. That is, in the course of birthing a brand-new expression of its faith and praxis, the church also gains a grand refurbishment of the older one.

The third result is of equal, if not greater, significance. Every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread—and been spread—dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress. Thus, for example, the birth of Protestantism not only established a new, powerful way of being Christian, but it also forced Roman Catholicism to make changes in its own structures and praxis. As a result of both those changes, Christianity was spread over far more of the earth’s territories than had ever been true in the past.

OVER THE COURSE of previous hinge times, the church has always been sucked along in the same ideational currents as has the culture in general, especially in matters of governance. The result has been that, at any given time, the political structure of one has always been reflected in and/or exercised influence upon the organizational structures of the other.

Gregory the Great, in wrapping up the chaos of the 6th century, created a church run by monasteries and convents, a system that was in every way analogous to the manors and small fiefdoms of Europe’s Dark Ages. The Roman Church, in emerging from the Great Schism, positioned the exercise and definition of authority in a single position, the papacy, and the council of appointed cardinals surrounding that throne. As a pattern, it was a religious expression of the system of kings and lords growing up in the centuries of pre-Reformation culture.

The Reformation, with its shift to the democratic theology of the priesthood of all believers and its insistence on literacy for the sake of sola scriptura, created a governance exercised by elected leaders subject, in theory anyway, to the will of the people whom they served. Modern Pro­testant bodies reflect this flow of authority for the same reason that America itself does. Both are products of the same stimuli and circumstances. Given all of that, what logically can be expected of the Great Emergence, especially in terms of authority in religion?

When one asks an emergent Christian where ultimate authority lies, he or she will sometimes choose to say either “in scripture” or “in the community.” More often though, he or she will run the two together and respond, “in scripture and the community.” At first blush, this may seem like no more than a thoughtless or futile effort to make two old opposites cohabit in one new theology, but that does not appear to be what is happening here. What is happening is something much closer to what mathematicians and physicists call network theory.

That is, a vital whole—the church—is not really a “thing” or entity so much as it is a network in exactly the same way that the Internet or the World Wide Web or, for that matter, gene regulatory and metabolic networks are not “things” or entities. Like them and from the point of view of an emergent, the church is a self-organizing system of relations, symmetrical or otherwise, between innumerable member-parts that themselves form subsets of relations within their smaller networks, in interlacing levels of complexity.

The end result of this understanding of dynamic structure is the realization that no one of the member parts or connecting networks has the whole or entire “truth” of anything, either as such and/or when independent of the others. Each is only a single working piece of what is evolving and is sustainable so long as the interconnectivity of the whole remains intact. No one of the member parts or their hubs has the whole truth as a possession or as its domain. This conceptualization is not just theory. Rather, it has a name: crowd-sourcing, and crowd-sourcing differs from democracy far more substantially than one might at first suspect. It differs in that it employs total egalitarianism, a respect for the worth of the hoi polloi that even pure democracy never had, and a complete indifference to capitalism as a virtue or to individualism as a godly circumstance.

The duty, challenge, joy, and excitement of the church and for the Christians who compose her, then, is in discovering what it means to believe that the kingdom of God is within one and in understanding that one is thereby a pulsating, vibrating bit in a much grander network. Neither established human authority nor scholarly or priestly discernment alone can lead, because, being human, both are trapped in space/time and thereby prevented from a perspective of total understanding. Rather, it is how the message runs back and forth, over and about, the hubs of the network that it is tried and amended and tempered into wisdom and right action for effecting God’s will.

Thus, when pinned down and forced to answer the question, “What is Emergent or Emerging Church?” most who are part of it will answer, “A conversation,” which is not only true but which will always be true. The Great Emergence could not be otherwise.

Phyllis Tickle is founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly. This article is adapted from her book, The Great Emergence: How Christ­­ianity is Changing and Why, with permission from BakerBooks. Copyright 2008.

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