Phyllis Tickle Book Review: Emergence Christianity – Are Emergence Christians Making History?

tickle emergence christianityIn her previous book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008), Phyllis Tickle was among the first to argue that what has been variously called the emerging church, the emergent church, fresh expressions, emergence Christianity, the church: emerging, and the missional church, among other monikers – could prove to be the most significant development within Christianity for the next 500 years.

Given the often relatively small size and embattled nature of many of these “emerging” communities, this claim could seem fantastical. But in her latest book Tickle is back to make that same argument, this time marshalling greater evidence and adding commentary on some of the most significant developments within the movement since 2008.

In Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Baker Books, 2012), Tickle imbues what she prefers to call “Emergence Christianity” with a weighty historical significance that may make readers who are already sceptical of the movement’s importance uncomfortable, and ultimately dubious of her analysis.

But for those who are involved in or sympathetic to Emergence Christianity, the book is a ringing affirmation of it.

For not only does Tickle claim major significance for this religious movement, she endorses figures such as Brian McLaren and books such as McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity and A New Kind of Christian as key milestones in Emergence Christianity’s development.

It is difficult not to pick up on an enthusiasm that exceeds scholarly interest when Tickle equates McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian (2001) with Martin Luther’s 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg church (p. 101), or declares the publication of A New Kind of Christianity (2010) ‘the Emergence analog to Luther’s “Here I Stand” declaration of faith and principles in 1521’ (p. 143).

In the afterward of the book, Tickle does admit that she is enthusiastic about Emergence Christianity, writing that: ‘I no longer enjoy the distance or objectivity that I enjoyed twenty years ago when I first began this line of study’. Yet she says that ‘this volume is as near to neutrally rendered fact and impersonal history as possible’ (208).

While I tend to agree with Tickle that Emergence Christianity is a major rather than a minor development in 21st century religion, I think that the tone of her book will not feel ‘neutral’ or ‘impersonal’ to those who disagree.

The book also focuses disproportionately on Emergence Christianity in the United States. Tickle acknowledges the American-centric approach with some humility, noting that Emergence Christianity had become visible elsewhere before it surfaced in the US, but this too is a limitation of the book.

Having said that, Emergence Christianity is a valuable guidebook for anyone seeking to discover what Emergence Christianity is all about. And it builds on the Great Emergence in significant ways:

A better grounding of her argument about Emergence Christianity in the wider social/economic/political/cultural/cyber milieu known as the “Great Emergence”

In part one of the book, Tickle rehearses many of her arguments from The Great Emergence, arguing that Western Christianity is at a tipping point in one of its cyclical, 500-year ‘hinges’ or ‘rummage sales.’ During such times, the churches are re-formed through a dialectical process with the societies, cultures, political systems, and so forth in which they are embedded. In this book, she explains how scholarly understandings of our period of history have drawn on Emergence Theory and Systems Theory to come to be called the Great Emergence.

But I am not so sure just how much this term the “Great Emergence” has entered our everyday lexicon. Are you aware that you are living through a period of time of which Tickle writes: ‘[the label] we hear most often and that now seems destined to stick is that of “the Great Emergence” (p. 25)?

Having said that, Tickle’s list of the characteristics that the Great Emergence and Emergence Christianity have in common (p. 137) is extremely useful and demonstrates how Emergence Christianity seems better-equipped than other expressions of the faith to adapt to this new context. They are:

‘deinstitutionalization; non-hierarchical organization; a comfortable and informed interface with physical science; dialogical and contextual habits of thought; almost universal technological savvy; triple citizenship* with its triple loyalties and obligations; a deeply embedded commitment to social justice with an accompanying, though largely unpremeditated, assumption of all forms of human diversity as the norm; and a vocation towards greenness …’

(*For Tickle, triple citizenship includes religious citizenship, political citizenship, and an electronically-enhanced, nongeographic, non-political cyber citizenship, pp. 133-137)

A welcome analysis of the British/Irish Contributions to Emergence Christianity

Despite Tickle’s focus on the United States, she does give due recognition to significant UK/Ireland developments, including the importance of the Church of England’s report: “Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context” (2004). Along with McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, she deems the publication of this report one of two major events in the key year of 2004 (p. 105-109). She also notes the impact of the Greenbelt Festival as a space for Emergence Christians to gather, and of thinkers such as N.T. Wright, Ian Mosby, Kester Brewin and Belfast’s own Peter Rollins, of whom she writes that his involvement in the Ikon collective and his Ph.D. in philosophy ‘make him singularly well-equipped to be one of the outstanding thinkers and theologians of the twenty-first century’ (p. 222).

An intriguing analysis of the ‘rebirth’ and ‘split’ within Emergence Christianity in 2009-2010

Tickle notes a crisis within Emergence Christianity in 2009-2010, which crystallized when Andrew Jones asked ‘if 2009 was to be the end of the Emergent ethos?’ (p. 112). (You can read Jones’ original blog post here.)

But, she argues, Jones’ comments stirred debate within the movement and ultimately revealed plenty of life. By the close of 2010, Emergent Village had been included in the American Handbook of Denominations (p. 113-114), a sure sign of significance in the American religious landscape.

Tickle also says that 2010 was the year of Emergence Christianity’s ‘Marburg,’ catalysed by the publication of McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. The subtitle of that book is Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith, and it was his answers to those questions that confirmed a split. She writes (p. 143):

‘The howl of protest over his proposed answers was as loud almost as were the opposing cries of affirmation. Skilled theologians like Scot McKnight, who had always proclaimed himself as emerging/emergent, now went on record as Emerging, no longer Emergent. Pastors like Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, who had claimed and operated originally under the two labels as interchangeable, now reemphasized his place as Emerging and not Emergent in any way, shape, or form. Emerging Christianity and Emergent Christianity would forever be distinguishable one from the other, both between themselves and before the world at large.’

These fault lines continue to show, as evidenced by the controversy over Rob Bell’s Love Wins, which Tickle discusses when contrasting Emergence Christianity to evangelicalism (p. 186-187).

I agree with Tickle that this divergence within the movement is very real. But I am less sure that people have coalesced around the labels Emerging and Emergent in as definitive a way as she claims – at least outside of the United States, where the term Emergent is less-used and less-associated with the originally US-based Emergent Village.

More information about the role of technology and the significance of cyber church in Emergence Christianity

Emergence Christianity includes a welcome and much more sustained analysis of the role of technology, including insights into ‘cyber church’ (p. 151-157). Tickle discusses how people go to church in Second Life and conceptualizes Emergence Christians as the ‘apostles’ to ‘a vast new mission field in what we call virtuality’ (p. 153).

A 32-page ‘photographic report’ and a 19-page annotated bibliography

These features provide the book with much-welcome additional dimensions – adding visual stimulus as well as useful avenues of further reading that can be pursued. Given Tickle’s emphasis throughout on ‘virtual’ Christianity, a similar annotated list of websites would have been valuable.

In sum, Emergence Christianity is a fresh and up-to-date look at how this expression of Christianity has developed.

Presented as a sort of ‘the story so far’ account, it is a solid (if at times surprisingly enthusiastic) history of the movement in its American forms. While not all readers will agree with Tickle’s assessment of the significance of Emergence Christianity, she makes a good case that all those interested in the future of religion should sit up and take notice of it.

2 Responses to Phyllis Tickle Book Review: Emergence Christianity – Are Emergence Christians Making History?

  1. andrew jones November 14, 2012 at 5:35 am #

    HI Gladys. GOod review. I share some of the same thoughts. regarding my statements in 2009 – i actually said that the ec networks and ministries around the world (i think i looked at 50 of them) had matured and Emergent Village’s acceptance into the Handbook was actually one of the factors in my analysis that supported my thoughts rather than being contrary.

    i miss Ireland. havent been there in ages. peace.

  2. Gladys Ganiel November 14, 2012 at 6:09 am #

    Thanks for the clarification. You are welcome back in Ireland any time!