The Great Emergence

Phyllis Tickle recently wrote a book called, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. She contends that Christianity is in the midst of a large and significant change. She quotes Anglican Bishop Mark Dryer as saying every 500 years the church undergoes a rummage sale. The old and unnecessary are sold or given away to be replaced by something new. We are currently having one of these rummage sales.

Tickle recalls the last major changes Christianity has gone through and that they occur about every 500 years. The last one was the Reformation. Western Christianity was never the same. The Roman Catholic Church remained as a bulwark against change, but eventually they realized that they too had to change. The result is now a myriad of Christian denominations.

500 years before the Reformation was the Great Schism. Many years, if not centuries, found Christianity divided between a Greek church and a Latin church. The language was different. The theology was different. But as we look back at the differences between the western church and the eastern church, they seem trivial. I mean, who cares if the communion bread is leavened or not? Does the filioque in the Nicene Creed really change the nature of God? (We believe the the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.) Though the east makes a good argument that the addition of the filioque was never agreed to by an ecumenical council. These were only a few of the issues dividing east from west. But we still live with this division.

Then about 500 years before the Great Schism was the establishment of Christianity as the state church of the Roman Empire. The church went through a great transformation. It was no longer persecuted. Instead it became the establishment. It was no longer an outlaw. It was in league with the state. Indeed, the clergy were even put on the state payroll and the state paid for the building of churches. This required a whole new world view for the church. It was a church very different form the one described in the New Testament. This is often attributed to the Emperor Constantine, but the process was much longer and more complicated.

Of course, 500 years before the establishment of the church was the person of Jesus Christ, himself. If we want to back 500 years before Christianity, there was the Babylonian Exile – the defining crisis and moment for Judaism.

Now we have our time. The Reformation was, in part, a product of the Enlightenment, which ushered in the modern era. We believed that with the advance of science and technology, we would soon know everything there is to know about everything. Alas, we now know that we will probably never know everything about everything. This realization has brought us to a new era called Postmodernism, for lack of a better term. This is the era we are now transforming into. This process takes from about 100 to 200 years. Postmodernism claims that there is no one truth. Instead, there are many truths. Everything is relative. It seems that Einstein warned us about this but we never really understood where he was going with his ideas.

Just as the church changed to meet the changes of 500, 1,000 and 1,500 years ago, the church is beginning to respond to the new postmodern world. Some churches are experimenting with what the church will look like 50 to 100 years from now. Authority is coming from a network, not from one or a few individuals. Beauty is valued. The debates that still linger from the Reformation are no longer relevant. The issue of women in the church is fading. The human sexuality issue is the last to be debated before it too fades into a meaningless obscurity. All of the issues we argued over most fervently will become meaningless. A postmodern person doesn’t even comprehend what the fuss is all about. The ethic of love trumps all issues.

Churches who begin to transform themselves into postmodern churches will thrive. Churches who cling to the way things have been for the past 500 years will slowly fade away. Sure there will be remnants of these churches for a long time, but they will become fewer and fewer in number. Our question at Our Saviour and for many churches is this, How will we respond to a postmodern world?

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