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The Great Emergence: Reality or Myth?

Some believe that Christianity is in the midst of a monumental phenomenon called the Great Emergence.  If it is real, then Christianity is about to change forever.  What is this great thing that is going on?

The Great Emergence is a term coined by author Phyllis Tickle and her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.  It is a fascinating little read (only172 pages) and has this basic thesis: “every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur” (16).  Mathmatically, we are at one of those 500 year moments.  Consider the history:

500 years ago places us in the 16th-century and in the midst of the Great Reformation.  The celebrated date is the posting of Luther’s theses on October 31, 1517, but change was in the air for a long time before that (as is always the case with the 500 year changes).  The Great Reformation led to the birth of Protestantism and the reformation of Catholicism.

500 years before that places us in the 11th-century and in the midst of the Great Schism.  The celebrated date is 1054, but, again, change was in the air a long time before that.  The Great Schism led to the separation of the Eastern Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church.

500 years before that places us in the 5th/6th-centuries and in the midst of the fall of all things Roman.  These centuries saw the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which led to the separation of the Oriental Christian Church.  These centuries also saw the leadership of Pope Gregory the Great, who began an emphasis on monasticism which preserved Christianity during the dark ages.

500 years before that places us in the 1st-century.  This century is obviously the birth of Christianity.

Interestingly, Tickle believes that it is even possible to take this pattern back to pre-Christian days.  500 years before Christ the nation was in Babylonian exile.  500 years before than the Israelite monarchy began.

The point is that every 500 years there is a major shift.  These shifts are not purely religious, but are also cultural.  For example, the Great Reformation coincides with the Renesaissance, the printing press, increased literacy, nation-states, and other major cultural movements.  The first two shifts are closely associated with movements within the Roman Empire.  So these shifts are not purely religious, but they have significant impact on religion.  Tickle believes that 3 things happen during each transition:

  1. A “new, more vital for of Christianity does indeed emerge” (17).
  2. “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.  As a result of this usually energetic but rarely benign process, the Church actually ends up with two new creatures where once there had been only one” (17).  Consider the Great Reformation: the Roman Catholic Church did not die out, but underwent significant reform.  Out of this transition there were now two Western churches: Roman Catholic and Protestant.
  3. “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” (17).  Consider again the Great Reformation.  As a result of Protestantism, Christianity reached places around the globe that it never had before.

So if we are on the midst of a new transition, the Great Emergence, then a lot of great things may be happening.  Of course, at the same time, a lot of new and uncomfortable things may be happening.

Are we in the midst of the Great Emergence?  Lots of clues within culture and Christianity suggest that we might be.  I’ll describe Tickle’s observations about the present next week.

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  1. mikewittmer
    November 14, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    Did she mention that every 500 years or so a Cleveland sports team wins a championship?

  2. November 14, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    Oddly corporate worship and fellowship, incorrectly termed “church”, hasn’t changed much since Constantine.

  1. November 17, 2008 at 5:35 pm
  2. November 20, 2008 at 11:58 pm

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