Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Big Questions: Part 1

Institutional Church versus Emerging Church

            I am a fan of the books of Phyllis Tickle, especially The Great Emergence and Emergence Christianity. (Phyllis Tickle died in 2015 but her publisher is maintaining her website at and there is also a nice Wikipedia about her.) These books discuss the idea of a new, emerging Christianity. My Big Question: What is the relationship between this emerging Christianity and our institutional Church?

            When I heard her speak at our 2010 General Assembly, Tickle discussed this point. She argued, (in part, I expect, because she was speaking to a large room of Presbyterians) the Presbyterian Church was especially poised to adopt and adapt to some the sweeping changes which emerging Christianity was introducing.

So my big question: What is the relationship between emerging Christianity and our institutional Church? Are these strands and styles of Christianity on completely separate tracks never to touch? Will the new emerging Christianity grow up into expressions and forms completely separate from our institutional Church? As an institutional church person, this answer is not adequate. I believe there are enough people in the institutional Church, like me and those younger than me, who are paying attention to emergent themes that we will bring these themes and ideas and directions into our institutions. On the other hand, I understand the institutional Church enough to know that we are not, by and large, nimble, flexible and quickly creative. Given the sheer weight of institutional inertia our institutions will not suddenly become emergent Christian communities. Thus I believe we will have, for a long time, a sometimes gentle and a sometimes clashing interaction between our institutional Church and emergent Christianity.

These interactions will inspire a host of auxiliary questions. If the institutional Church will adopt some of the important and meaningful practices of emergent Christianity, what are they? And, conversely, what practices and wisdom from the long heritage of the institutional Church will emergent Christianity need as is flourishes?

Another related, big question is how long will it take for emergent Christianity to fully emerge? We can do a little bit of fun math on this question. Let us use Tickle’s thesis that our emerging Christianity today is a reformation in the Church as significant as the great Protestant Reformation. We can date the Protestant Reformation as starting in 1517 (500 years ago this year) with Martin Luther’s 95 thesis nailing in Wittenberg. The first generation of the Protestant Reformation we can roughly count from 1517 to the death of John Calvin in 1564 which is 47 years, from the death Calvin to the writing of the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1646 is another 82 years, and from 1646 to the first meeting of the Presbyterian General Assembly in America in 1789 is another 143 years. This is very artificial but we may date the Protestant Reformation from Luther’s 95 to the advent of the Presbyterian General Assembly in America, a total of 272 years. Similarly we can date the birth of emergent Christianity in the year 1960, generally the year when our institutional Churches started our unceasing decline. Using the Protestant Reformation as our model we may guess that emergent Christianity will also take 272 to fully emerge. Thus the emerging Christian faith which was birthed in 1960 will be fully grown and mature in the year of our Lord 2232!

Big Questions in the PC(USA)

Big Questions:

We had a wonderful conversation at our Presbytery’s Education Committee last week about, what we called, the “Big Questions” in the Church today. These are questions that are best described as discussion starters. These are long term, conceptual, future-oriented questions for which there are not now clear answers. These questions generally emerge in conversations about the massive, transformative changes we are living through in church and society. At our Committee meeting we pondered places and formats in which we might discuss such Big Questions. We are not sure exactly how to ask, and nurture discussion around these questions. But the conversation we had interested me. So I started a list of Big Questions for myself. I hope to write about them now again here in this blog space. Of course, I hope you will join the conversation.