A few weeks ago some new friends asked me if I was going to the Emergence Christianity conference in Memphis. Apparently, it was a big deal, but I was oblivious. A sold-out event, there wasn’t much chance of attending; but that week, someone who couldn’t go offered me their spot. I took it, pretty much flying blind into unfamiliar territory.
The shindig’s main attraction was a local figure, Phyllis Tickle. I must confess, I had probably only heard of her once before and never read her work. She is the founding editor of the religion department at Publisher’s Weekly and has written several pieces on what she calls, among other things, the “Great Emergence.”
In fact, the word great came up a lot in her lectures. She spent most of her time talking about church history, mentioning the Great Schism between the East and West Church, the Great Reformation led my Martin Luther, the “Great Unpleasantness” between the northern and southern states amid the American Civil War, and other great’s. She was well spoken, not needing notes or a podium and cramming a much information into her pleasant and almost casual orations as possible, at times confessing that she didn’t have sufficient time to cover all the material (the teacher’s curse).
I can see why she has impacted the community so much, since she really is dealing with some of the most obvious problems of modern Christianity…and really religion as a whole. It’s been clear for some time that church attendance has dropped over the years, but people have retained their own private spirituality. They believe in higher power, but not in organized religion. People have lost hope in human leadership, and so spiritual anarchy looks better and better all of the time. Tickle noted that this is not unique, but is common throughout human history. She argued that history shows a pattern that about every 500 years a massive shift takes place in human authority, particularly in religious doctrines. So there were four in the common era. The first was when Constantine made Christianity the state religion (AD 313). The second was the Great Schism between the East and West Church (AD 1054). The third was the Protestant Reformation (AD 1517), splitting the church again. Tickle observed that it is about time for another shift, and all of us can feel that tension now. Religious authority has frustrated many of us. We want to express our religious views but feel that we are oppressed from every direction. [To be clear, she was not calling for any kind of split or revolution. Tickle was only observing what was happening in the current religious climate.]
So, what is Emergence Christianity, then? Here’s my take on it. It is an ecumenical movement that spans across all Christian denominations and sects that liberates from dogmatism–that is, control of human systems–and pursues the religious freedom and dignity of all people. It elevates Christ above all but does not impose Christ above all. It recognizes that Christ is the supreme demonstration of God’s love to the world, but understands that people have to come to that understanding on their own terms. In other words, the Spirit of God will move in people’s lives whenever and however he wants to, and we can’t force that to happen.
*Emergence Christianity is not the so-called “Emergent Church,” which is a movement that tends to be more conservative. As Tickle put it, the Emergent Church tends to be more sexist and homophobic. I’m not sure how fair an estimation that is.
I believe this movement is similar to the post-evangelical phenomenon. The term “convergence” also came up in the discussions, and I thought of the ‘post-postmodern’ label a few times in the lectures. There are some positives and negatives about all of this that I may flesh out later.