the great emergence…so, uh…, what now?…

I have attended four emergent village events in the last 4 to 5 years.  Two of these events were “National emergent Conferences” held in conjunction with the Youth Specialties National Pastor’s Conference.  One was A Theological Conversation with Walter Brueggemann. And then, this past week, I attended an event based on Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.

I read this book pretty soon after its release and quickly became a fan.  It is a thin book (literally…only about 160 pages) that sums up the history of the Christian church, submits a framework that maps the various expressions of Christianity we find in North America at this moment, and begins to suggest where we might be going in the future. (obviously ambitious goals for a 160 page book).  Tickle’s assertion is that every 500 years, the church specifically, and the culture more generally, cleans out its attic…has a “rummage sale”.  (Rome, Gregory the Great, Great Schism, Great Reformation, etc.)   Tickle submits that we are in another rummage sale…the Great Emergence.  If you read the book as an academic treatise, you’ll be disappointed.  However, it is an observation of the western church from the perspective of a person whose job it has been to observe the western church. I think Tickle has been observant indeed and we need to wrestle with the frameworks she presents.

Some impressions of the event:

Overall, it was a really good meeting for me personally.  I felt totally at home among the “emergents” gathered, regardless of their tribe (there were Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, a couple of Baptists and some others that were not identified)…I would estimate 300 or so people in all.  The common ground was a group of people who gladly identify themselves as followers of Jesus and who have in common an ethos that’s been tagged “emergent”.

At the same time, the whole meeting felt somewhat pretentious.  Several statements claiming the significance of the meeting rang rather hollow to me.  While I would totally agree that there is something to the whole idea of a Great Emergence, I hardly believe the event I attended could be compared with Luther’s post on a door at Wittenberg.  (in fairness, it was never billed as that).   Whether it will hold such significance or not will depend on the movement inspired by this ethos.

At it’s worst, “emergent, et.al.” is merely a cooler, more hip form of western consumer Christianity.  However at it’s best, it is a community of people re-engaging a way of life formed by following Jesus into our broken world…tackling the biggest, most daunting problems our world is currently facing.  It might turn out to be a quixotic endeavor…or it might be prophetic!  My cynicism rests in the former.  My hope rests in the latter.

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4 thoughts on “the great emergence…so, uh…, what now?…

  1. I might have to pick up the Phyllis Tickle book. Good points in your post about how ‘Christianity’ is always changing. But what exactly is ‘Christianity’? When you boil down all the doctrine, denominations, legalism, etc, the bottom line is Jesus died for all sinners and you have the free choice to receive and accept the gift He provided. Everything else is just fluff and Bovine Scatology (BS). So should the definition of ‘Christianity’ be the boiled down basics of Jesus’ life & purpose, or is Christianity all the BS that we surround ourselves with in worship style, doctrine, legalism, etc? I guess I’m asking this – is the ‘Great Emergence’ just another Christian era, or is it really a new light being shed on the pursuit of a relationship with Jesus and other believers in Christ?

  2. You are asking some great questions (poster and commenter)!! Occasionally when I read some of the books by Emergent Village, most recently The New Christians by Tony Jones the same feeling creeps up. Is it truly new, of just another version (Christianity 20.08) of the same. I would have to say that some of the ideas are truly, but whether it will flesh out in something truly new, I’m not so sure of. I have said this before: when you try to put an idea into a structure (for instance faith into an institution with dogma’s) you immediately loose something and will immediately create a new movement to move away from the structure. Right now many groups are considered emergent. the strength of the group is that it allows a pluralism both within each group as well as between groups. The future of a Great emergence as an organized movement will depend on its ability to ‘manage’ this pluralism, which is nearly impossible in my mind.

  3. Mark – I have to agree that the ability to ‘manage’ an organized movement is almost impossible. I go back to an earlier statement about being like-minded. “Try out several Bible Study classes until you find the one you like.” Translation – “try them out til you find the one you most agree with”. However, all that being said, I’m up for anything new – or anything not “Herb” or Southern Baptist, or any church for that matter. I guess I should save the rest of this post for Jack’s but I got my copy of “A New Kind of Christian” this morning. Had to go to the Dr and knew I’d have some time. I am already well into Ch. 2 and forgot that we’re supposed to be reading and discussing the Introduction. I’ll leave it at that and “C U at Jack’s”!

  4. I do like the term “ethos” that is creeping into the emergent lexicon. Dictionary.com defines ethos as “the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period: In the Greek ethos the individual was highly valued; the character or disposition of a community, group, person, etc.”

    The whole idea of organization and control is really what bugs all of us to some extent when it comes to religion, particularly when we disagree or become frustrated with it. I think that is what myheartsinlynchburg is saying in the first comment. “What is the essence of Christianity?” Where I tend to disagree is when we lump the entirety of the structures in the category of “fluff or Bovine Scatology” (although I feel that way quite often, especially while working within the proverbial bovine scatological system).

    I think the disparity we see when comparing the “ethos” of the systems that have become synonymous with Christianity to “ethos” we find in the gospel is enough to make anyone cynical. The gospel ethos I am alluding to is dangerous, pervasive, and all-encompassing. What modern church has done is package it for re-sale. I believe the emerging ethos has potential to rediscover the untamed and comprehensive gospel of Jesus.

    “The issue” of each of the rummage sales that Tickle identifies is the question, “Wherein lies the authority?” Various answers to that question has formed the church throughout history: the Temple, Rome, Vatican, “sola-scriptura” (by scripture alone), etc. The question for “The Great Emergence” is “wherein lies the authority”. Tickle suggests “sola-Christus” as a possible answer. I think when you get right down to it, the true emergents I have conversed with are all about rediscovering Jesus.

    I need to quit and take a breath. I need to do a blog post about this as I clear up my thinking on it…

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