Emergence Christianity

I received a copy of Phyllis Tickle’s new book, Emergence Christianity, from the publisher. I thought I would be excited about the book. I like reading Tickle, even when I don’t agree with her, but I struggled to get through this book. (I’ve been reading some beastly books this semester and not one of them was as tedious a read as this book) It’s not because it is poorly written. Rather, I struggled with ennui as the question of “so what?” hung over my head. Had this book been published five years ago it would have been brilliant. But let’s face it, the emergent/emergence Church is effectively dead. Now of course, Tickle does address the issue of where emergence Christianity is going, but it failed to alleviate my “so what?” If anything, the publication of this book seems more like the swan song of the movement, rather than a catalyst to get the conversation going again.

Indeed, as Michael Patton notes, no one talks about the emerging church anymore, and suggests that the problem with the  emerging church is that it had no “landing gear”:

I suppose that one could say that the plane never landed. The emerging church asked Christians to re-think their faith. They asked us to deconstruct our beliefs. They asked us to doubt everything. They asked us to take a ride in the emerging plane and fly for a bit. This was to gain some perspective and let us know that we Evangelicals were not the only ones out there. They asked us to look at Christianity with new eyes. Many of us jumped on this plane with great excitement. Many of us were already on a plane very similar to this. We all wanted to gain some perspective. However, the emerging plane never landed. It soon became clear that there was no destination. There was no runway on which to land and the emerging plane did not even have landing gear. The deconstruction happened with no plans of reconstructing. The emerging journey became an endless flight that did not have any intention on setting down anywhere. Many people jumped out, skydiving back home. The rest, I suppose, remained on the plane until it ran out of gas.

In honour of the book, and of Phyllis Tickle’s legacy in general, a conference was recently held. Holly Roach notes the irony, that it was “invitation only” to a conference devoted to being as inclusive as possible, and that the take-away from the conference includes a private facebook group to discuss how the emergent church should go forward:

Sadly, the follow up from this meeting includes the creation of “secret” Facebook group called “Emergence Christianity (Memphis) Visioning Group.”  I can’t stress enough how out of alignment this private conversation is. I urge the folks involved to open up the conversation to the wider movement and create the feedback loops needed to make this process transparent. I am told the meeting was recorded and copious notes were made. I encourage the people involved to make this documentation widely available online and end the exclusive manner in which this meeting was planned and carried out.   In order to continue to evolve into this role, the Emergent movement needs to embrace transparency and openness or it will fail.


Julie Clawson has been blogging about her experience at the conference, starting with a post on the conclusion of the conference where Tickle blamed the fall of Christendom on the emancipation of women:

As she described it, when mom is not at home weaving the stories of scripture and the church calendar into her day to day activities in front of her children, they do not receive the basics of the faith. One cannot apparently have a sacred family meal over Papa John’s pizza picked up on the way home from work the same way that one can if one is baking bread, doing family crafts, and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Phyllis ended the session by encouraging us to discover ways to be back in the kitchen with our children and finding crafty ways to import the rhythms of the church year to them. Essentially to focus on the family and all that. That is the great emergence. The end.

Julie follows up with a post on those who are still “other” in Christianity and emergent Christianity: the disabled:

During the Q&A time with Phyllis Tickle at the Emergence Christianity gathering a woman who uses a wheelchair asked what I thought was one of the most important and telling questions of the event. She commented that even though emergence Christians talk about LGBT folks being the last great “Other” that the church needs to accept, in reality it is people with disabilities who are still otherized the most by the church and asked Phyllis what can be done about that.

I applauded her question.

That’s the thing to do in these sorts of gatherings. When someone dares to bring up the elephants in the room or be a voice for unrepresented voices one applauds if one cares.

I was the only one in a cathedral full of people who applauded her question. It was literally just the sound of one hand clapping.

Phyllis responded that disability is not a truly otherizing or controversial concern for the church because it doesn’t challenge the conception of sola scriptura, next question.

Ryan Robinson, over at Emerging Anabaptist, writes about the hole in the emerging church, namely that emerging Christians are failing to engage Reformed, conservative evangelicals into the conversation. True, the emerging church talks about this tradition, but it does not engage and invite members of that tradition into their dialogue:

If we believe in a god who wants to restore all people and not a minority arbitrarily chosen, we must act out of a similar desire to restore all people including those who are often promoting the exact opposite. When we simply argue that our understanding of God is better or more biblical than theirs, we are actually operating on the same modern framework that we critique. Our priority in that mindset, like theirs, is getting our theology right no matter what the cost to the humanity of those who we are engaging with.

So what do you think? Is the emerging church movement effectively over?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-MacDonald/1043189517 Bob MacDonald

    The only thing I have heard of this is the name. Well – something will emerge. The idea of the other was clear in the 50s and 60s when I grew up. Liturgy was as broken then as now, but some knew about drama and remembering. The scandals were yet to emerge. (Is that the emerging church?) Now with sin so obvious and inequity so clear from the financial messes deliberately spawned in the early 21st century, all I can see is plus ça change. But there is the call to the remnant who seek the holy. Such will never be lacking. Holy insinuates into the inner. Holy has neither bounds nor secret groupies. Holy seeks and finds and completes and includes. Not by human standards as if in isolation, yet the human alone can find shelter. It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t put in a psalm verse (4:9) in my own close translation: In peace as one I will lie down and sleep for you הוהי of solitude to trust you let me sit.

  • http://www.theruthlessmonk.com/ Leslie Keeney

    I was in class yesterday listening to my professor talk about the dangers of writing a thesis on something that’s too trendy and hasn’t yet stood the test of time. And I think Tickle’s book is a perfect example of that. I’m no expert, but I do think that what we called “emerging” ten years ago is basically dead. My own theory is similar to MCP’s-that it was so concerned with deconstruction that it never started to rebuild anything.

    However, I don’t think it was a meaningless movement. I learned a lot from asking the same questions they asked, although I often came up with different answers.

    Love your description of Tickle’s book, by the way.

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  • timmcgeary

    I think you missed the fundamental theme throughout the whole book. Tickle does a thorough job at looking at Emergence as a movement started in the late 1800s forward, not just the Emergent Village (EV) or churches who call themselves Emerging churches (ECs). The analysis of 500-year incremental religious movements is very compelling historically and currently, and EV or ECs are just a very small part of it. If you are focused only on EV or individual ECs, then you are missing Tickle’s analyses of the Anglican and Episcopal churches, the unification efforts of Moravians, Lutherans, and Anglicans, the intra-denominational shifts to re-examine political and theological positions, and the dance between Evangelicalism and science. Furthermore, the generational impact on church membership and affiliation is very significant and clear evidence of Emergence as a period, which can’t really be pinpointed (or blamed, depending on your POV) to EV or ECs.

    For my own perspective, I learned a great deal about the differences between the history and analysis latinized Christianity and orthodoxy Christianity, and particular how poorly the Evangelical church has thrown around the word orthodox to describe evangelical terms or ideas that are really reformed or latinized theology and not at all orthodox. That was eye opening to me in a good way.

    So no, Emergence Christianity is not dead at all because it doesn’t belong to any particular group (EV) or any particular set of churches (ECs). The continued pushback from fundamental evangelical churches, the highly publicized denominational conversations and struggles over theology (see PC-USA and Anglican/Episcopalian), and the sustained efforts of groups like the Red Letter Christians are all indicators that Emergence is impacting Christianity. None of us will be able to determine how accurate Tickle’s thesis is. If she is accurate, we are only 50-100 years into the 500-year period. But given her analysis of the previous 4 such semi-millennial periods, she has build a strong case.