The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why

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The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why

November 20, 2013 -

Phyllis Tickle is a forefront expert and observer of the emerging church movement. You’ve likely been aware of this decades-long transformation even if you did not know to call it the emergent church. She says, “Like every ‘new season,’ this one we recognize as the Great Emergence affects every part of our lives… and is the context for, everything we do socially, culturally, intellectually, politically, economically.” Tickle characterizes the movement as not having come to full maturation but exists today as a “conversation.” Let’s have a conversation about her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why and see why it is important to understand.

In the book, Tickle set out to answer three questions:

  1. “What is this thing,” the Great Emergence?
  2. How did it come to be?
  3. “Where is it going” and “where is it taking us as it goes?”


She shows that every 500 years, the Church holds “a giant rummage sale, shattering the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity,” with three results: A more vital form of Christianity emerges, the dominant form is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified version of itself, the faith is spread.
Here are the history change points that Tickle refers to in support of her 500-year rummage sale theory:

  • Great Reformation (1517 AD)
  • Great Schism (1054 AD)
  • Monasticism, with Gregory the Great (590 AD)
  • Time of Christ
  • Babylonian Captivity (500 BC)
  • Monarchy (1000 BC)
  • Exodus (1500 BC)
  • Abraham (2000 BC)

She likens the current transformation to the Protestant Reformation. Just as papal authority was questioned and replaced by Sola Scriptura, many believers now view the church’s authority and Sola Scriptura as “outmoded and insufficient.” When asked, many emergent Christians would say authority comes from “Scripture and the community.” This “crowd-sourcing” technique of coming to a common theology views the church not as a thing but as a network that is completely egalitarian. “Neither established human authority nor scholarly or priestly discernment alone can lead, because, being human, both are trapped in time/space and thereby prevented from a perspective of total understanding. Rather it is how the message runs back and forth… [along] the hubs of the network that it is tried, amended and tempered into wisdom and right action for effecting the Father’s will.”

Tickle explains the evolution of the Great Emergence using a quadrilateral with four main groups. She calls mainline churches (Episcopals, Methodists and some Presbyterians) “social justice Christians,” Pentecostal and charismatic churches are described as “renewalists,” Fundamentalists are recast as “conservatives” and the last corner of the quadrilateral are Catholic and Orthodox churches which Tickle has characterized as “liturgicals.” The Great Emergence, according to Tickle, is the “gathering center” of this quadrilateral, where many new groups are being formed which defy the former separating lines of denominations within the quadrilateral.

The current rummage sale has been going on visibly for the last five decades but has not yet reached maturation. By the time it does, Tickle theorizes that “about 60% of practicing American Christians will be emergent of some clear variant form thereof.” There will of course be those who react strongly against the movement toward the “gathering center” of the quadrilateral, about 9% to 13% she says, and about 30% will be neither reactors nor emergers. She has classifications for them, too:

-Traditionalists: They will accommodate some gradual change, but will remain in their quadrant.
-Re-tradition Christians: They wish to remain devoted to their inherited church but are refurbishers, trying to restore the original church vision and purpose.
-Progressive Christians: “while wanting to maintain their position in institutional Christianity, they want also to wrestle with what they see as the foolheartedness of holding on to dogma-based ideas and doctrinally restricted governance and praxis.”
-Hyphenateds: “Presby-mergents, Metho-mergents…” These are closest to the gathering center but will likely eventually land in the center or outer edges as traditionalists or re-traditionals.

We will all fit into one of her three categories as an emergent, a reactor, or something in between. The rummage sale is occurring. I suggest reading this book to gain some wisdom and clarity on where the church is head in the 21st century and better understand your part in it.

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