Changing the Church – Like a Giant Rummage Sale
By Cathy Norman Peterson
CHICAGO, IL (August 31, 2009) – Editor’s note: Phyllis Tickle, best known as author of the Divine Hour and founding editor of Publishers Weekly's Religion Department, has spent the last two years speaking about what she says is the changing face of Christianity. Tickle calls the current era “the Great Emergence.” She likens the changes we are witnessing throughout both culture and the church to a giant rummage sale in which the church cleans out its attic and starts fresh. Each upheaval, she says, brings about a new and more vital form of Christianity, but it also disrupts the dominant expression of Christianity. In an interview with Covenant Companion features editor Cathy Norman Peterson, Tickle discusses how she envisions this change impacting denominations such as the Evangelical Covenant Church.
How will this rummage sale affect the church in North America?
There are four tributaries that feed into the main river of what we call Christianity. Those tributaries are Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Anglicanism, and Orthodoxy. As emergence Christianity forms, it is more and more seeking to go back to what Robert Weber called the “ancient future,” to go back to first- through third-century practice.
For emergence Christians, many of whom come out of Pentecostalism, out of Evangelicalism, and out of Roman Catholicism - it’s what we’re still rebelling against to some extent. The attitude is, “Protestantism has failed us or we wouldn’t be in this mess.” In this country there are over 27,600 distinct Protestant denominations recognized by the IRS for tax purposes. Which is divisiveness gone pathologic!
Since its inception, members of the Evangelical Covenant Church have been asking, “Where is it written?” We always go back to the text…
One of the things about the Covenant that I have discovered is that there is very little defensiveness. That doesn’t mean you’re easily persuaded. It just means you’ll hear me out, or you’ll hear someone out. Then if it doesn’t mesh with the word, and doesn’t affect the walk, it will be thrown away. If it does, it will be incorporated.
If emergence Christianity were ever going to be organized - which it probably is not - if it were going to be organized into anything, it would look like the Vineyard Association or the Covenant. There’s enough hierarchy in both of those denominations so that they’re not pure emergence, they’ve still got some cache of denominationalism, but the sensibilities are there. That makes it easier to talk here. It also means that I learn more in talking with these groups, because now we’re talking with practitioners who’ve actually been doing it. In your case, for 125 years to some extent.
You say that emergence Christians aren’t limited to “bricks and mortar” anymore.
Emergence Christians really aren’t. And there’s a certain naïveté or irony in that. Obviously if you’re going to meet physically anywhere outside of the Internet, you have to have a place to do it. A lot of that happens in public space - in public parks and pubs. If you’re going to have a real cohort meeting, you’re going to have to go somewhere. But that’s not like owning property though. It’s a social justice issue because emergence Christians would say, “Well, that building looks to me like five, six million dollars. Do you know there are hungry people in the world?”
How does a denomination like the Covenant move into this new era if we’re not tied to buildings anymore?
Denominations, as we have them established now, are already so heavily invested in bricks and mortar that there’s no way to walk away from it. To whom are you going to sell it? That structure is so specific to what you’re already doing that it doesn’t have a whole lot of turnover, unless you’re going to raze the thing and sell the land.
By their structure, denominations are accustomed to worship in the physical presence of one another. A lot of emergence Christianity can happen on the Internet and in virtual church. So that’s one of the solutions - one of the ways they get away without bricks and mortar. For denominations, I think that more and more there is motivation to begin to use that space in more ways than just on Sunday morning.
The question is how can we have alternative worship? Or how can we have something that’s really emergence? Can we even have emergence off-site? Very often the church or the congregation that’s asking these questions has decreasing numbers. And the deal breaker always is, “Are you willing to unscrew the pews?”
Why do we need to unscrew the pews?
The pews are a gift of the Reformation - or the curse of the Reformation, depending on how you look at it. That’s where we got those pews. Pews are the Reformation way of delivering the gospel. You screw the parishioner down, and you put the priest or the pastor up there in front.
A pure denomination has a hard time not thinking of itself as having a geographic locus. Whereas emergence Christians - or at least those among them who are younger - are not really as tied to space as much as they are to relationships. Now, having said that, nothing bothers me more than the notion that emergence Christianity is generational. That is so far from the truth, it’s just not true. But those emergence Christians who are thirty-five to forty and under have had the Internet experience. It really is entirely relational. You don’t get the tribal loyalty or the locale loyalty that denominations were built on - that the Evangelical Covenant Church was built on to some extent.
How much do we lose, going that direction? Do we lose anything that matters?
Every time it’s happened before, whoever held hegemony of place - five hundred years ago, obviously it was Roman Catholicism - had to drop back and make room for what was emerging. It was Protestantism that time, and it’s emergence Christianity this time.
Christianity has spread demographically and geographically after every one of these things. So it will spread the faith. It may not spread Protestantism, or it may not even spread your particular denomination. But it will spread the faith.
How do you view what is happening online with the virtual church?
That really is scary to a lot of people. Because you’re talking about a worship experience where you can’t really see those who worship with you exactly. It’s a different form of worship. The one that’s easiest to get into now is Second Life. That will blow your mind. A common service is going on, but at the same time people all over the world are talking to each other about it. It’s a kind of combination of Twitter and being in church.
There are sticking points. How do you know the confession is right? Can the elements be consecrated electronically? Can you give the Lord’s Supper electronically? In a few places there are “congregations” that are purely virtual. They’re not in Second Life - they’re just communities, almost like a Facebook group. They’ll be ordaining their own pastors before long, I suspect.
The 1950s church was held together primarily by women being on the phone all the time and checking on each other. Then we lost that idea of June Cleaver at home on the telephone. The archbishop of Canterbury says it very well. He says, “Over the last fifty or sixty years, church has become a place to go instead of a people to be.” I think that nails it - it sounds slick, but I think he’s right.
What would you say to people who think that doing church online is the destruction of the church as we understand it?
No, it’s not. Did the church end when we got on a donkey and rode to the next town for the first time? Or crossed the ocean in a boat? It’s technology, and every time it comes, I’m sure there’s anxiety.
The notion that you were going to ride in a Ford to church five miles away, instead of walking down to the village church, was absolutely decimating. Technology is scary every time we’ve gone from our feet to a donkey. But that doesn’t really assuage the anxiety entirely. There’s nothing funny about having to live with change.
What do you think the church will look like in twenty or thirty years?
Anybody who answers it is sticking his finger out the window to test the speed of the wind - and it’s about that accurate. But I think there are some things you can say for sure. Emergence Christianity is already maturing enough so that it’s splintering. Clearly the emphases are going to change.
By its very nature, emergence Christianity is self-organizing. You can’t make it happen - it’s going to organize itself wherever it springs up. That’s in yoga class or a coffee house, or wherever a church comes up. It’s non-hierarchical, which immediately gets rid of bishops and ruling elders and all of that. That means that Protestantism, which is definitely hierarchical, is going to have to drop back and find a way to be church and still watch this other thing spread and grow and become probably about 50 to 60 percent of American Christianity.
It's always a relief to realize that we are not insane.