July 4, 2013

The Great Emergence - Phyllis Tickle

For some reason, ever since February, Phyllis Tickle's name kept coming up in conversation, generally by people whose opinion I respect.  And so when I noticed this book among the 16 pages of electives to choose from for the Lay Worship Leader course I am taking, I had to pick it up!  (Incidentally, this will be the last book that I read for the course, as we are finished in a few weeks.  But for this last interval, we had to read 3 electives and I couldn't narrow it down to just 3, so I ordered 8 and still have 5 left on my bookshelf to read!)

Anyways, getting back to this book, anyone in Christian circles these days has surely heard about the "crisis in the church" - shrinking attendance, small or no Sunday Schools, amalgamations, church closures, financial burdens, increasing policies and procedures to follow, aging clergy... the list could go on for quite some time.  What this book does is it takes this so-called crisis and puts it into perspective - both a historical perspective and a cultural perspective.

From a historical perspective, every 500 years or so, the church goes through a ground-shaking earthquake.  Tickle calls this a giant rummage sale - put everything on the table, decide what is essential to keep, and get rid of the non-essential trappings.  500ish years ago was the Protestant Reformation followed by the Roman Catholic counter-reformation.  500ish years before that was the Great Schism with the Roman Catholic Church dividing from the Eastern Orthodox Church.  500ish years before that was the splitting off of Oriental Christianity (Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian) from Western Christianity, along with the founding of monastic orders.  500ish years before that, Christianity was a renegade off-shoot of main-stream Judaism.  The name given to the upheaval that we are in the middle of is The Great Emergence.

From a cultural perspective, each of these "church rummage sales" has accompanied a massive cultural upheaval.  2000 years ago, it accompanied the Roman Empire and all of the good and bad that went with that.  1500 years ago was the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Dark Ages.  1000 years ago ushered in an age of broadening borders (Vikings and the Norman Conquest anyone?) as well as local fiefdoms.  500 years ago saw expanding scientific discoveries (Copernicus and Columbus) as well as the possibility for a middle class.  And the past century has included another seismic shift from Newtonian to Quantum mechanics, the harnessing of electricity, and internal combustion engines. Is it any wonder that the church has to shift as well?

And that is what I loved about this book.  If you just listen to the media and church board meetings, it may seem like we are seeing the end of Christianity.  But in each of the previous upheavals, the Christianity that has emerged has been more vital, less ossified, and has been able to spread to new geographic and demographic locations.  And so, rather than mourning the death of the church as we have known it (at least for the past 400-500 years), we should be celebrating the fact that we get to be a part of this shift.  I am rejoicing!

In the last section of the book, Tickle tries to predict how the church is going to move in the future, and the model that emerges is quite beautiful.  Flavours of Christianity from across the multi-dimensional spectrum converging around the centre, along with those that resist this convergence moving to the margins and re-defining and re-strengthening their beliefs, and various other points in-between.  It was fun to try and place my own beliefs, as well as those of my church into the model.

If I had one little quibble about this book, it is that it focused on Western Christianity rather than a more global perspective.  As someone who spent a few years involved in the church in another part of the globe (Tanzania), I couldn't quite see how the non-Western perspective would fit into this model.

But a great book overall.  I'm glad that I read it, and it left me filled with hope for the future.

No comments: