It’s no secret that change is in the air. The evidence is found throughout our culture, felt in our economy and experienced in technology. Some of us are struggling to keep up with these changes, as they come so fast and from so many directions. Nowhere is that more apparent than within the church. As many Christians are struggling to reconcile what they’re seeing and experiencing with their faith, they are asking hard questions of what it all means and where we’re headed.
In the midst of so much change and the resulting angst, Phyllis Tickle offers a provocative look at where we are in history as people of faith in order to point to what’s to come. As the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly and a respected authority on religion in America, she recently penned THE GREAT EMERGENCE: How Christianity is Changing and Why. The book offers an overview of church history in which she suggests that every 500 years, people of faith have a rummage sale of sorts in which they reassess Christianity. She writes: “About every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutional Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”
Tickle is quick to point out that this emergence is not just religious but blends effortlessly into all aspects of society --- technological, cultural, scientific, even sociological. She points to shifts in church history, world history and technological breakthroughs as well as subtle but significant changes in the modern family to make her case. She argues quite persuasively that while the Great Reformation responded to the cry of sola scriptura, only scripture, that the Great Emergence is asking a similar question: Where do we get our authority from?
When that mighty upheaval happens, she says history shows us that there are always at least three consistent results: a more vital form of Christianity emerges; the organized expression of Christianity becomes more pure; and the church ends up with two new expressions rather than just one. She gently reminds readers that we’re not just at the hinge of a 500-year period, we’re also the direct product of one.
While the analysis of where we’ve been is swift in this short volume, the suggestion of where we might be going will leave many readers wanting. The conclusion is so open-ended, the question must be asked if anything can be concluded at all. But maybe that’s the point of the emergence we’re in. The dust is still kicked up and where it will settle is yet to be determined. Each of us will play a role in the outcome whether we realize it or not.
Overall, THE GREAT EMERGENCE is a great conversation piece for those engaging in the emergent church. Those who read it will be better educated and equipped to talk about the church in today’s ever-changing culture.
Reviewed by Margaret Oines on October 1, 2008