the great emergence…so, uh…, what now?…

I have attended four emergent village events in the last 4 to 5 years.  Two of these events were “National emergent Conferences” held in conjunction with the Youth Specialties National Pastor’s Conference.  One was A Theological Conversation with Walter Brueggemann. And then, this past week, I attended an event based on Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.

I read this book pretty soon after its release and quickly became a fan.  It is a thin book (literally…only about 160 pages) that sums up the history of the Christian church, submits a framework that maps the various expressions of Christianity we find in North America at this moment, and begins to suggest where we might be going in the future. (obviously ambitious goals for a 160 page book).  Tickle’s assertion is that every 500 years, the church specifically, and the culture more generally, cleans out its attic…has a “rummage sale”.  (Rome, Gregory the Great, Great Schism, Great Reformation, etc.)   Tickle submits that we are in another rummage sale…the Great Emergence.  If you read the book as an academic treatise, you’ll be disappointed.  However, it is an observation of the western church from the perspective of a person whose job it has been to observe the western church. I think Tickle has been observant indeed and we need to wrestle with the frameworks she presents.

Some impressions of the event:

Overall, it was a really good meeting for me personally.  I felt totally at home among the “emergents” gathered, regardless of their tribe (there were Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, a couple of Baptists and some others that were not identified)…I would estimate 300 or so people in all.  The common ground was a group of people who gladly identify themselves as followers of Jesus and who have in common an ethos that’s been tagged “emergent”.

At the same time, the whole meeting felt somewhat pretentious.  Several statements claiming the significance of the meeting rang rather hollow to me.  While I would totally agree that there is something to the whole idea of a Great Emergence, I hardly believe the event I attended could be compared with Luther’s post on a door at Wittenberg.  (in fairness, it was never billed as that).   Whether it will hold such significance or not will depend on the movement inspired by this ethos.

At it’s worst, “emergent,” is merely a cooler, more hip form of western consumer Christianity.  However at it’s best, it is a community of people re-engaging a way of life formed by following Jesus into our broken world…tackling the biggest, most daunting problems our world is currently facing.  It might turn out to be a quixotic endeavor…or it might be prophetic!  My cynicism rests in the former.  My hope rests in the latter.