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The Great Emergence: What is It?

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.  So far I’ve discussed the historical basis for this belief and some contemporary developments that support a Great Emergence.  But if it is true, what exactly is it?

It is important to note that the theory of the Great Emergence is that this monumental phenomenon permeates culture, not simply the church.  Phylis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, says “the Great Emergence, like the Great Reformation or the Great Schism or the time of Gregory the Great or the Great Transformation, is a generalized social/political/economic/intellectual/cultural shift…[It is] not limited to the Western world in its expectations, expression, or exercise” (120).  But that being said, what I’m most interested in is the Great Emergence within the context of North American Christianity.  This is the focus of Tickle’s book.

In the 20th-Century, it was possible to divide North American Christianity into four major segments (what Tickle calls “the Quadrilateral”):

  1. Liturgicals.  This quadrant is aptly named for those who hold to a more traditional, liturgical form of Christianity.  This category is largely comprised of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, some Lutherans.
  2. Social Justice Christians.   This quadrant is comprised of those who emphasize living like Jesus and helping those who are disenfranchised.  This category is largely comprised of mainline denominations such as the Methodists.
  3. Renewalists.  This category is comprised of those who emphasize the new work of the Holy Spirit and the associated Spirit manifestations.  This category is largely comprised of Pentecostals and Charismatics.
  4. Conservatives / Fundamentalists.  This category is largely comprised of evangelical churches and denominations such as Southern Baptist Convention.

There are other ways to characterize the Quadrilateral.  For example, Quadrants 1 and 2 often focus upon living the Christian life appropriately (orthopraxy).  Quadrants 3 and 4, on the other hand, often focus upon believing the correct Christian doctrine (orthodoxy).

In the middle of the 20th-century, according to Tickle, most denomination were farily homogeneous and easily placed in one Quadrant.  However, as time went on, something began to change…

The change was that the lines between the Quadrants became blurry.  Roman Catholics became increasingly involved in social justice.  Methodists developed more formal liturgies.  The Charismatic movement impacted everyone from Roman Catholics to mainlines to Baptist denominations.  Younger evangelicals became very interested in liturgy.  Rather than Christians and denominations standing firm in their own Quadrant, they all began to gravitate toward the center, sharing attributes of one another. As Tickle explains it: “The center was beginning to form.  The old, natal divisions were beginning to melt away” (133).

Of course, as many move toward the center, some in each Quadrant have dug in their heels even more.  They
have observed the changes going on around them and have reacted forcibly against them.  They desire to make the boundaries of the Quadrants even more defined.  But, according to Tickle, most of the movement in North American Christianity is toward the center.

This moving toward the center is the Great Emergence.  It is not only causing Christians to understand one another, influence one another, and tolerate one another, but it is creating a new form of Christianity.  In my next and final post on the Great Emergence, I’ll explain how Tickle describes this new Christianity.

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  1. November 24, 2008 at 1:33 pm

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