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The Great Emergence: If it is Real, Why is it Here?

Last week I introduced the Great Emergence, the theory that Christianity is in the midst of monumental transition.  Although the timing is certainly ripe for a major transition based upon the last 2000 years, what evidence do we have that Christianity is changing?

Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why suggests that the seeds of change were planting a long time ago and are just coming to harvest.  As she says, “the Great Emergence has been slipping up on us for decades in very much the same way spring slips up on us week by week every year” (14).  This, afterall, is how major transitions occur.

Consider the Great Reformation, another monumental transition within Christianity just 500 years ago.  Reformers and Reformation ideas are evident throughout Europe well before Luther.  John Wycliffe, who died in 1384, and Jan Hus, who died in 1415, are just two examples.  The seeds of the Reformation were planted over 100 years before Luther.  One of the reasons (though not the only) that Luther was so prominent and the others were not is that Luther had the impact of the Renaissance and the Gutenberg printing press on his side!  Luther’s message went out louder, faster, and further than any previous reformer.  But Luther himself is the product of many years of reformation.

So what has been going on recently that suggests another monumental transition?  Tickle lays out several factors that have changed culture and are changing Christianity.

  1. Biology.  Darwin and the overwhelming acceptance of evolution has changed the way people think about God and humanity.  Christianity has battled Darwin for over one-hundred years, but more and more Christians are accepting his proposals.
  2. Physics.  Einstein’s theory of relativity and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle have literally changed the world.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is principle that you can measure the speed of something (such as a particle) or you can measure its position, but you cannot measure them both.  In other words, what you see – a particle or a position – depends upon what you are looking for.  It doesn’t take to long to get from physics to literature: we know have the common belief that meaning is not found in the text, but is dependent upon the reader and what he/she is looking for.
  3. Psychology.  Freud, Jung and others have challenged they way we look at ourselves, our behavior, and humanity in general.
  4. Critical Scholarship.  At the turn of the 20th-century, it was no longer acceptable to assume that Jesus is who the Bible says he is.  Critical Bible scholars began the quest for the historical Jesus, and most concluded that the Jesus of the Bible is not the Jesus of history.  This changed how many people think of Jesus.
  5. Urbanization.  Just a century ago the United States was a rural nation but we are now an urban and suburban nation.  Urbanization has any number of societal impacts, but consider what it has done to the country/community church.  A hundred years ago we worshipped with our community, now we attend the “community” church 20 miles away.
  6. Women.  Women were around a century ago, of course, the the role of women has dramatically changed.  Women have not only become voters but Presidential candidates.  And, beginning with WWII, women’s role in the workplace has changed dramatically.  This has impacted both the family and the work place.
  7. Demise of the Nuclear Family.  The traditional definition of the family is being attacked.  There are fewer and fewer traditional families.  Where there are traditional families, many are too busy to see one another (which itself is a result of automobiles and other cultural developments).
  8. Globalism.  More recently the world has shrunk considerably.  It is no longer possible to remain an isolationist in politics, economics, or anything.  The world is now global.
  9. Communication and Information.  Think about the tremendous changes in how we communicate over the last 20 years (rotary phones to cell phones) and how we process information (paper encyclopedias to wikipedia).  Information has replaced currency as the seat of power.
  10. Pentecostalism.  Within Christianity, the 20th-century saw Pentecostalism rise to over 500 million around the world, making it the second largest Christian body behind Roman Catholicism.  It has changed how we think about the Triune God (especially the Holy Spirit) and even the role of the Bible versus the role of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life.
  11. Spirituality without Religion.  Tickle points to Alcoholics Anonymous as a fountainhead in spirituality of the 20th-century.  AA insisted upon a god, but it is a generic god, a higher power, that people appeal to.  AA is just one massive example of how people can appeal to a god and be “spiritual” without organized religion.
  12. The Bible and Culture.  Another major factor in the last 150 years is the how the Bible addresses culture.  In the Civil War, half of America believed the Bible prohibited slavery and the other half believed the Bible supported slavery.  In the early 20th-century, some American’s used the Bible for women’s liberation, some American’s used the Bible against women’s liberation.  In the early 20th-century most people agreed on a biblical view of divorce, now there are several biblical views of divorce.  The current battle is what the Bible says about homosexuality and death issues (remember Terri Schiavo).  The point is that the authority of the Bible and how the Bible is used is constantly being challenged and even changing.
  13. The iPod and Christian music.  One no longer needs to attend a concert or a church to hear beautiful and worshipful music.  Rather, the experience is now personalized on your very own iPod.  Who needs community to worship God anymore?

Please don’t read the preceding list in terms of right or wrong, good or bad.  That is not the point.  The point is that all of these things (and so many more) have occurred or are occurring.  The world that existed from the Great Reformation of the 16th-century to the advent of the 20th-century is no longer here.  Whereas the year 1900 had a lot in common with 1600, the year 2000 has almost nothing in common with the year 1900.  The world is different, and all of this has impacted Christianity.  The Christianity of the Great Reformation is no longer, Tickle contends.  But what is Christianity becoming?

In my next post on the Great Emergence, I’ll describe how Tickle views today’s Christianity and the future of the Great Emergence.

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  1. November 20, 2008 at 11:59 pm

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