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The Great Emergence and Authority

March 2, 2009

Over the past ten years I’ve been able to read a number of books and articles related to the subject of the “emerging” church. In engaging this material I have found a number of people to be helpful in some specific areas pertaining to emerging models of church:

  • communication styles/preaching: Doug Pagitt, Stuart Murray Williams
  • evangelism and the gospel: Dan Kimball, Scot McKnight (also The Origins Project)
  • missional thinking: Dave Dunbar, Lesslie Newbigin, Allelon

These thinkers and the resources they provide for the church are very helpful (and often very specific). But sometimes viewing our situation through a wide-angle lens helps to make sense of where we are. As such, what has really captured my interest are resources that take a big-picture look at where we are at and where we are heading in the upheaval of the Post-modern/Christian/Christendom era. The first book that really did this for me was Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. McLaren helped readers to take a broader look at orthodox faith and practice and to better appreciate the various traditions within the Christian faith.

I found Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, to be another of these big-picture resources. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that she actually takes us back through history before discussing what might be coming next. Before it was published, I heard a podcast of Tickle preaching at Mars Hill Bible Church (MI) where she outlined the thesis for this book. In order to understand where we are at right now, we first must review our history. She attributes the thought to Anglican bishop Mark Dyer, that “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale” (16), and that the reason things are so stirred up in the church right now is that we are living in one of those times. Go backward in roughly five hundred year increments and the following pattern emerges (further back if considering Judeo-Christian history):

  • the Great Emergence (present-going forward)
  • the Great Reformation (16 century)
  • the Great Schism (1054)
  • Gregory the Great/monasticism (6th century)
  • Life of Jesus Christ/birth of Christianity (1st Century)
  • Babylonian exile (586 BCE)
  • Hebrew monarchy established (1020 BCE)

The idea is that at these intervals the religious institution is deconstructed in order for renewal and growth to occur. Interestingly, three “consistent results” (17) have been observed from this process:

  1. A more vital form of the faith emerges.
  2. The organization is reconstituted into a purer, more flexible form.
  3. The faith tends to spread as a result of undergoing this process

I realize this kind of “emergence” is troubling and scary to many within the church. But awareness of these type of results might temper that reaction a bit. I can already see the seeds of #1 and #2 in process already: emerging Christian faith is recognizing the value of the contributions of the world-wide Church, rediscovering the value of art, the treasures of monastic formation and Celtic Christianity, as well as simpler forms of “being church” (there are many other examples). But how #3 will play out is significant, and I wonder if the results of the Great Emergence will echo previous “rummage sales” in terms of the faith spreading to new areas (or maybe re-spreading into Post-Christendom ones)?

In this post I would like to pick up on a subject that Tickle describes as a major question for these times of re-formation: “Where, now, is the authority?” (72). This area is going to be difficult, especially as we are well into an era where sources of authority are questioned. I’m particularly interested in how we think about the idea of authority while engaging our history, our views of scripture, and our culture.

The discussion of authority reminded me of my past involvement in the United Church of Christ (where I spent a number of years as a church member and pastor). For quite a few years the denomination has promoted a campaign titled “God is Still Speaking” (the logo is a comma). 565618572_1d6cf1c898I see this campaign as one denomination’s attempt at engaging culture for the purpose of sharing a message (as well as being a reaction to Christian fundamentalism). If you believe that God is “still speaking” then that is an authoritative statement. But where is the authority coming from? Historically the Church has had certain controls for this kind of discernment: Church Tradition, Scripture (for some, sola scriptura), and community. And importantly filtering all of these through the lens of the life and teaching of Jesus. I’m wondering which “control” this campaign would draw it’s authority from most? Or to connect with Tickle’s analysis: Where would this type of engagement fit on the “Bases of Authority” diagram? (147)

Overall what this discussion has done for me is perhaps legitimize even more that we are living in a particularly special time in history. Whatever is emerging is not just a “fad” as some critics have argued. And while it might be a little scary not knowing exactly we’re headed, it is at the same time exciting as well. This emergence is something bigger than I originally thought it might be.

One Comment
  1. March 9, 2009 9:07 pm

    Good response, Chris. The question of authority makes me wonder who cares really if God is still speaking? In a time when the fastest growing church persuasion is irreligious and subjectivity reigns–it seems that only those with a relationship already would care. So the message then is directed at differentiating with fundamentalism rather than beyond a churched circuit.

    We’ll talk more in class, right?

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