Sadly, the news came last week that Phyllis Tickle is dying. The author and speaker was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. Over the past few decades she has written deeply and widely about spirituality and the future of the church. Now, at 81, she is working on her final chapter: Her own.
In 2009, I was part of a group that brought Phyllis to Winnipeg to speak; a couple of years ago I was able to have lunch with her with a group of friends when she was back in the city. I have also interviewed her twice. The first article, about her idea of a Great Emergence that is changing the face of western Christianity, is below.
Declining church membership, the breaking down of denominational loyalty, the rise of new "emergent" churches that blend ancient rituals, litanies and hymns together with contemporary forms of worship and calls for social action—something is happening out there in the world of faith in North America.
But what is it? And why is it happening now?
For Phyllis Tickle, author of the new book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, what’s happening is as old as religion itself. I had a chance to talk to Tickle about the link between the church's history of change and the new face of the church today. Here’s a bit of that conversation.
What is the Great Emergence?
Tickle: The Great Emergence refers to a monumental phenomenon today that affects every part of our lives. The world is changing rapidly, and in so many ways, that we can hardly keep up with it.
In the religious sphere, many people have observed that these kinds of changes seem to happen every 500 years—a period of upheaval followed by a period of settling down, then codification, and then upheaval again because we do not like to be codified.
For western Christianity, the Protestant or Great Reformation was about 500 years ago. Five hundred before that you hit the Great Schism, when the church divided between east and west. Five hundred years earlier you have Pope Gregory the Great, who helped bring the church out of the Dark Ages.
During these 500-year episodes the church has what Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer calls a giant rummage sale—it takes a look at its old stuff and decides to sell what it no longer needs. We are going through this kind of giant sale today.
What happens to the church during this giant rummage sale?
Tickle: History shows that at least three things always happen.
First, a new, more vital form of Christianity emerges.
Second, the organized expression of Christianity, which up until then had been the dominant one, is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self.
Finally, every time the incrustations of an overly-established Christianity is broken open, the faith has spread dramatically.
How is this change evidencing itself in the church today?
Tickle: Evangelicalism has lost much of its credibility and much of its spiritual energy of late, in much the same way that mainline Protestantism has. In their place is a new approach called the Emergent Church.
The Emergent Church is a mix of Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, the mainline Protestant churches and the liturgical tradition, together with an emphasis on head and heart—not just one or the other—along with the deep commitment to social justice.
This new style of western Christianity is not hierarchal or based on a certain doctrinal system. It’s more about community and conversation. It’s incarnational, not creedal.
How is this current upheaval different from what the church has experienced before?
Tickle: For the first time we are doing it in an age of instant media. The Internet makes it very easy to talk to each other across national and denominational boundaries.
But the Internet isn’t causing this change; it’s enabling it, just as the printing press assisted the growth and development of the Protestant Reformation.
What are people looking for during this Great Emergence?
Tickle: People are looking for a new and different encounter with God. The strength of Protestantism was its rationalism—it took religion to the head.
But today people want religion that also touches their hearts. It’s not anti-intellectual; mind and reason are still very important. But people want something that moves them emotionally, as well.
How might Christians respond to these changes?
Tickle: We need to respond prayerfully and carefully. This change isn’t happening all at once—it will occur over many years. How we should respond is not always clear on a day-to-day basis.
How do you feel about the changes you are seeing today?
Tickle: I am optimistic about the future of the church. For me, Christianity has never been more alive and vigorous than it is right here and right now.
The kingdom of God is coming in many forms and many places these days. All I can say is: “Thanks be to God!”