The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why

(Taken from the book of this title by Phyllis Tickle)
The Right Reverend Mark Dyer has observed that “the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first- century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”

“That is, about every five hundred years the empowered structure of institutional Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and growth may occur. When that mighty upheaval happens, history shows us, there are always at least three consistent results of corollary events.”

“First, a new and more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge.
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.”

“The third result is of equal, if not greater, significance though. That is, every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread-and been spread – dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.”

So what we are witnessing today is the cracking open of the carapace (hard shell) of religious doctrines that have caused so much strife and divisiveness in Christian churches to allow for repentance (change of mindset), renewal and growth of understanding of formerly taboo subjects. That is, God is calling the Church to learn to see things from the divine point of view, rather than from our preconceived and narrow perspectives.

History shows us that Dyer is correct in stating that this occurs about once every five hundred years. Those of us in the reformed tradition are fond of celebrating the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century, five hundred years before our time. The Protestant tradition arose from this time, resulting in significant changes to the then extant structure of the Church.

Five hundred years before that, in 1054, the Great Schism occurred, dividing the Church between Greek and/or Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Both of these segments flourished in their respective spheres of influence.

Five hundred years before the Great Schism came the fall of the Roman Empire and the elevation of Gregory I, who became know as Gregory the Great because of his work in “leading a continent that was in total upheaval into some kind of ecclesio-political coherence and…{guiding} Christianity firmly into the monasticism that would protect preserve, and characterize it during the next five centuries.”

As Phyllis Tickle says: “When Christians despair of the upheavals and reformations that have been the history of our faith – when the faithful resist, as so many do just now, the presence of another time of reconfiguration with its inevitable pain- we all would do well to remember that, not only are we in the hinge of a five-hundred-year period, but we are also the direct product of one.”

‘It is especially important,” she says” to remember that no standing form of organized Christian faith has ever been destroyed by one of our semi-millennial eruptions. Instead, each has simply lost hegemony or pride of place to the new and not-yet organized form that was birthing.”

Tickle continues: “Christianity became a global religion as a result of the Great Reformation. A large part of that globalization was in direct consequence of Protestantism’s adamant insistence on literacy, which in turn led more or less directly to the technology that enabled world exploration and trade. As a result, Catholics and Protestants alike could, and did, carry Christianity out of Europe and into the world beyond, often in strenuous – and energizing – competition with each other.”

Unfortunately, the Church that Protestantism and Catholicism spread to other continents was largely colonialized in nature, treating the natives of those continents as subjects, or worse as slaves, with all the negative consequences and resentments that fosters. This was manifested in the United States in the 19th century as the country and its churches were sharply divided over the issue of slavery. The result was the secession of the southern states leading to the Civil War and to the split between northern and southern branches of Christian denominations.

Although the country was reunited following the end of the war and many, if not most, denominations have since reunified, lingering resentments and attempts to nullify the effects of ending slavery continue to this day.

More recently both the country and the churches are increasingly at odds once again, this time along staunch liberal and conservative lines, over issues such as systemic poverty and institutional racism, as well as immigration policy and the LGBTQ community, especially over same sex marriage and the ordination of gays. And this is not just in the United States, as racism, intolerance, subjugation, and resultant poverty are rampant in all corners of the globe.

All is not lost though. As Tickle concludes: One does not have to be particularly gifted as a seer these days, however, to perceive the Great Emergence already swirling like balm across that wound, bandaging it with genuinely egalitarian conversation and with an undergirding assumption of shared brotherhood and sisterhood in a world being redeemed.”

So be aware that it’s time for another rummage sale. It has already begun and will continue until a new and better form of Christianity emerges, one that more closely represents the kingdom of God on earth.