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Has anyone ever wondered how Christianity has gotten to where it is today? A casual glance at the Christian story has linear equivalence to the path of the shiny metal sphere in a well-played game of pinball.

There is none.

The Christian silver ball appears to have been fired fast and straight from the Lord’s hand, only to be buffeted about by many chance encounters with “the things which are” on the world’s great field of play: Roman persecution; monastic cloistering; dark ages; illuminated manuscripts; crusades against Islam; an imperial oppressive Papacy; reformation; splintering denominationalism; missionaries; liberalism; fundamentalism and our present cultural irrelevance. Is that our story or only a surface look at our narrative according to others?

Let me share with you a telling of our long story in which I find some hope. A woman with the improbable name of Phyllis Tickle (you may have heard of her; search for her to find some truly entertaining video clips) has written a little book called The Great Emergence. I will start my hope-filled reading of our story with her work.

Her basic idea is this. Every five hundred years the western Christian community, the largest and dominant wing of the larger universal Christian community, has reinvented itself. Not only have its ideas and the worldview around those ideas changed but the very structures and frameworks by which this community functioned have changed, often quite radically. Or, as Ms. Tickle put it, quoting an Anglican bishop, every five hundred years or so, the church has had a rummage sale at which it sells off all the stuff that is really not working for it any more. The first great shift came during the disintegration of the western half of the Roman empire, around AD 500. The second great shift occurred around 1000, the third just after 1500 and no surprise, Phyllis sees the fourth and perhaps the greatest transformation yet happening right now, circa., AD 2000. Each of these great paradigmatic shifts was preceded by periods of escalating upheaval and growing confusion, as well as a period of vigorous renewal. Each deep change was followed by long periods of tremendous, fruitful growth and expansion.

The Great Council (of Chalcedon)

The first great shift came in the midst of the disintegration of Roman order in the western provinces of the empire. At the very same time, great decisions were being made about the nature of the faith in the east and some of the very worst of the gnostic ideas which had been given hospitality within Christianity were firmly and decisively rejected by the great church councils.[1] If you listen to Enlightenment historians who have written so much about our history, “the dark ages” followed, the period when study of Greek and Roman classical thought nearly disappeared. When seen from within a Christian perspective this same period looks quite different. The sixth and seventh centuries were times of tremendous upheaval within the old Roman Christian communities, but also of rapid, large-scale expansion throughout most of Europe, until, by the end of the eighth century, circa., AD 800, virtually all of Europe had become Christian: no small victory.

The Great Schism

The second great change, in the tenth and eleventh centuries (901-1100), led to the establishment of newly formed universities, new art and culture and new nations,  and to the rise of the Papacy as the imperial institution toward which all other entities within European society looked with deference and dread. By the end of that period, some nations were expanding their influence abroad as whole new continents were being discovered and Christianity expanded again, exported into previously unknown places.

The Great Reformation

The third great shift came in the wake of the resurgence of scholarship, broadly defined, and became the protesting revolt of many university scholars against the excesses and oppressive policies of the overbearing institutional church. The “Great Reformation” led more to schism than to reform as millions of persons in at least half of Europe left the Catholic (Universal) Church and formed baptist-type, Lutheran, Reformed and familial communities of faith. What began as an international protesting scholar’s movement eventually yielded tens of thousands of smaller and more homogenous groups until today only a “bungler or a visionary” would try to count the myriad of separate little denominations and associations of churches, worldwide.

The Great Emergence

And so we come to our time when the great divide between Catholics and Protestants is largely over-cut by the distinction between those who confess they hold interpretation of the Scriptures more loosely (liberalism) and those who confess they hold Scriptural authority more tightly (conservatism) and in our time there are at least two other distinctions which cut as least as deeply. Ms. Tickle sees four main groups within modern Protestantism (and sees that these distinctions bleed over into the Roman church with distinctly Catholic colorations but with the same four sets of stripes). The four types of modern congregations are:


                    Social Action



In recent decades, one could say until perhaps the 1960s, these distinct types of churches had very little to do with each other.[2] There was only the most half-hearted of movements within some sectors to reach out to one another.

Since the nineteen-sixties, however, there has been movement among some within the four main modern types toward each other and some experimentation by each group with some others. Even more hopeful, writes Tickle, is the trend by many persons and groups to come together within new non-groups, finding new blends and new connections which have elements of all four streams and which experiment with other bits and pieces, contributions from other modern and even from much older Christian traditions. This is what is being called “post-modern,” “emerging” or “emergent” Christianity today. This new Christianity is at present robust, chaotic, contradictory, experimental, creative and expressive; a living, breathing implicit indictment of the brittle, traditional groups from which its people have come. “Emerging Christianity” is not anything more than a conversation yet but Tickle believes it will become more Jewish, more centered on Christ’s incarnation and more mystical than any of its modern forebears. She also believes over half of Christians will identify themselves as emergent just decades from now.

Ms. Tickle’s perspective gives me hope but it also raises a lot of questions, including the one with which I began. All this change and confusion was always a part of God’s plan, right? In what sense can we say that the way the “God Movement” has developed is what God always intended? I mean, I thought St. Matthew wrote that Jesus said the leaders of the community were going to choose (bind and loose) the direction of the new community and that its direction would be in line with the plan of God? Or not? Or has the Christian story actually been a fairly aimless, pinball narrative, with a clear beginning but with no discernible middle rising action, no turning point and certainly nothing like a climax or denouement? Have we been wandering through history, largely clueless, subject to every wind and new fashion? How, in what sense, has God been sovereign in the story of his new covenant people? Have we been blundering about in the dark, basically on our own? What gives?

This is an important and basic question not just for our understanding of our past, but also for our present and future. I think I see an answer to it but it will take some time and space to build a foundation and a framework within which to house my respone. Stick with me and I think I will be able to lay out a credible, hopeful and even exciting answer.

The next in this series: what did most “Christianities” lose between 500 and 1500 years ago?

Peace and grace, Trace.




1 Back to PostTickle mentions one of these issues and notes that Protestants of today would have insisted in that ancient debate that Mary was most certainly “the mother of God” because the other side was claiming Mary was only the mother of a human Jesus and that the God part of “the Christ” came along later and left the human Jesus before the crucifixion!

2 Back to PostThe Council on Church Union (COCU) was an energetic if largely top-down attempt on the part of many main-line and largely Social Action-type churches in the U.S. to form one large church, just as their sister churches had done earlier in the century in Canada. However, COCU was not an attempt by Social Action churches to dialog with Pentecostal (Renewalist) groups, etc. Although COCU did fail to create a U.S. mainline super-church, the confident predictions of its success by its proponents did frighten many Conservative congregations into leaving their mainline denominations, sometimes remaining independent, but often joining and/or re-forming growing conservative denominations like the Presbyterian Church in the United States.