Conversations about the future of the emerging church can be overheard at conferences, seminaries, chat rooms, or anywhere church leaders congregate. Does the movement have legs? Does it represent a passing trend or a new Reformation? Not long ago we sat down with author/scholar/editor Phyllis Tickle to discuss the subject. Tickle, a feisty Episcopalian from Tennessee with an intellect matched only by her sense of humor, has served as a religion editor for Publishers Weekly and has written over two dozen books. Her three-volume prayer manual, The Divine Hours, has renewed the discipline of fixed-hour prayer for Christians in many traditions.
What do you see happening to Christianity in the twenty-first century?
Many people have observed a five hundred year cycle in western history - a period of upheaval followed by a period of settling down, then codification, and then upheaval again because we do not like to be codified. So, about every five hundred years the church feels compelled to have a giant rummage sale, and we're in one of those periods now.
The Reformation was about five hundred years ago. Five hundred before that you hit the Great Schism. Five hundred more was the fall of Rome and the beginning of monasticism. Five hundred before that you hit the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, and five hundred before that was the end of the age of judges and the beginning of the dynasty.
So, how is the current upheaval different from what the church has experienced before?
For the first time we've done it in an age of media where we are historically informed and we can perceive the pattern, and for the first time we've had the ability to talk to each other, to be self-conscious about what is happening, and be somewhat intentional. This is very exhilarating.
We have a huge responsibility because of what we know. We are seeing the start of a post-Protestant and post-denominational era. Just as Protestantism took the hegemony from Roman Catholicism and Roman Catholicism from the East at the Great Schism, so the emerging church is now taking hegemony from Protestantism.
But would you place the emerging church with Evangelicalism, or it is something else?
No, it's not evangelicalism. American religion has four, pretty much equally divided, quadrants. Evangelicalism is one of them, charismatic Pentecostalism is another, the old mainline or social just Christians is a third quadrant, and then the liturgicals. And where the quadrants meet in the center there's a vortex like a whirlpool and they are blending.
So, much of the political energy is evangelical. There's no question about that. Much of the religious energy is Pentecostal, but that's combined with the strong ballast of social consciousness and of applied gospel that comes out of the mainline. And into the mix comes the liturgical traditions with the great gifts of the heritage of the church.
And the emerging church is bringing these different elements of the church back together.
The problem has been that since the Reformation belief for most of the people has gone north to the head. The emergents, supposedly, are saying it needs to go south to the heart. I don't think it needs to go south at all. I think it needs to meet somewhere in the strength of the life - mind, heart, spirit and strength. Belief needs to be incarnated.
The response for the emergents has been to incarnate their beliefs right in their own neighborhoods - and that's wonderful. They want to live where they worship, that's great. The problem is that the emerging church does not have enough organization within itself to get beyond the sound of its own voice. Each little cohort is very limited in its impact.
So, how can the emerging church expand its impact?
Right now we're beginning to see it organizing. It is institutionalizing. We're building the next model which in five hundred years will be thrown away. But nonetheless, the emerging church has got to find some way to reach out in a coherent and effective way beyond itself.