This is the 5th of 25 books I have committed to read & review this year for a project I’m calling “25/25.” Follow visual updates on Instagram (& Twitter) with the hashtag #read25in25.

The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle’s accolades include founding editor of the Religion Department at Publisher’s Weekly, acclaimed and respected authority on religion in America today, and the author of over 24 books (including The Great Emergence that I will review in brief here). However, I had the privilege of meeting her personally in March, and I’d like to add a few things to this list, like: 

  • the spunkiest 80 year old I’ve ever met,
  • a brilliantly gifted teacher––presenting huge bodies of information in clear, concise forms that are digestible and strangely retainable,
  • a person of deep and balanced love, humor, realism, and imagination,
  • a hope for the Church,
  • and an aspiration to all of us young emergents of what the adventure of aging can look like.


I briefly studied Phyllis's work before she visited Shreveport. By briefly I mean that I planned to sit down and listen to about 20 minutes of a lecture on YouTube to "just get the gist" so I'd be at least slightly in the loop. 4 hours later I was finishing up watching a whole series of lectures from her recent seminar at an Anglican Church in Toronto. How did my intended 20 minutes turn into 4 hours? Well sure, I expected to get her take on where the Church in America is, how we've gotten here, and what she sees coming for us. I got those things, but so much more. What I didn't expect to get and was totally drawn into was a pretty comprehensive look at world history through the lenses of anthropology, sociology, physics, art & music, etc. I don't remember another time when so much material was presented to me in such a clear, concise, and retainable manner.

The foundation of her work is based on tracking history through 500 year cycles. Every 500 years from the present back to at least 1 AD (though some track it back further) has resulted in a massive cultural upheaval leaving no institution or cultural norm untouched or unchanged. These upheavals have been compared to rummage sales, where everything is put out on the table for the taking or the leaving, at the very least for conversation and questioning. You can get rid of the clutter and the no-longer-relevant, but you can also find some forgotten treasures as you dig around. Phyllis tracks the 500 year cycle back through Judeo-Christian history, but writes and talks about how these changes are always directly connected to the state of culture at large, as religion is of course a cultural construct and situated in the dimensions of time and place with particular groups of people.

The 500-year "rummage sales" can be labeled like this:

  • The Great Emergence: Now (typically sited to have begun around 9/11/2001)
  • The Great Reformation: Martin Luther and 16th century protestantism
  • The Great Schism: The split of the Eastern and Western Church in 1054
  • The Great Decline & Fall (or Gregory the Great): The fall of the Roman Empire
  • The Great Transition: Jesus

What is perhaps most directly relevant to us is that we are currently living through a time of this sort of cultural upheaval, and we are the first people to be aware of our place in such a formative time of history. How exciting! And how overwhelming the responsibility could be. Long story short, the name that has arisen for our time is the Great Emergence. Here we are, approximately 500 years after The Great Reformation, and it's all happening again. It just looks a bit different...

Some of the primary characteristics of Emergence Christianity are as follows:

  • Not hierarchical
  • Deeply liturgical
  • Much like Catechomb Christianity (want to live faith holistically, want to feel it)
  • Communal 
  • Deeply passionate about social action

There are also some more auxiliary elements of Emergence Christianity undergirding it all:

  • Moving away from the dualism that has infected Christian theology from the time of Constantine and the influence of Greek philosophy/Greco-Roman culture.
    • At that time, the notion of salvation "began to shift from a means of effecting or living out God's will on earth to being a ticket for transportation into a paradise hereafter" (p161).
      • Gnosticism flourished, demonizing the body and separating it from the soul (a problematic illusion which we can still see consequences of at present).
  • Rewriting theology (and North American culture by result) back into something more Jewish, paradoxical, & narrative...something more mystical than anything the Church has had for the last 1700-1800 years. (p162)
    • Something more "Jewish" is referring to the holistic theology and holistic conceptualization of human life and structure that is inherent in Jewish tradition. Faith informing every area of life, all decisions, requiring daily discipline and practice, and identity being intrinsically connected to the community/family.
    • Phyllis even has a theory that we will again be referred to as Judeo-Christian by the year 2050. Fascinating...I suppose we'll see how that plays out.
  • Actual vs. Factual Reality
    • Logic, authoritative doctrine, systematic theology, and even metanarrative are all in narrative prevails as trustworthy.
    • Phyllis tells a compelling story about a 16 year old's response after a teaching she gave on the theology of the virgin birth of Christ. He sat perplexed at how the adults could question it's validity or truth. The problem just didn't exist for him. He said, "It's so beautiful it has to be true, whether it happened or not" (more on p149).
    • "Narrative speaks to the heart in order that the heart, so tutored, may direct and inform the mind." (p160)

Whether or not these tenants resonate with you, it is estimated that people under the age of 40 are considered "emergents" in that we have been formed in a culture and time marked by certain things. We naturally relate to the world differently than those in the eras before us, no matter where exactly we land on the spectrum of thought or theology. The rapid development of technology plays a huge role in this shift of worldview. So much so that the very nature of humanity and human consciousness has come into question, and is actually one of the central questions of The Great Emergence. In a world that is aware of the real possibility of the singularity and is pursuing transhumanism, we come face to face with these questions: What is a human being? What is human consciousness? Another question central to our time (which I feel entirely inadequate to explore here) is: What is the nature of the atonement?

Now, a question that is central to every one of the great upheavals is this:

Where now is the authority?

Essentially it seems Emergents are are claiming authority is the Holy Spirit's, not the institution's, not logic and reason's, not systematic theology or moral law's, but the living and active Spirit of the Divine. And the Spirit's direction must be discerned within a dedicated community in a particular place that is seeking, studying, praying, and actively participating in the Kingdom work of God in the world and intentional formation in the way of Christ.

Some fresh expressions of Christianity in the Great Emergence are categorized as follows. However, these are not all mutually exclusive categories (which is quite "emergent" I suppose). There is much overlap amongst them and/or with the inherited church institutions:

  • Emerging
  • Emergent
  • Neo-monastic
  • Hyphenated
  • Cyber Church
  • Small Church
  • Missional Church
  • and others...

The fresh expressions do not threaten the existence of the inherited church, and that is an important thing to be aware of as we learn to live and work together. At every upheaval, the previously dominant power or institution did not dissolve. It merely changed greatly. For example, the Catholic Church is still around, just vastly different after the challenges presented in The Great Reformation.

 A final issue I'd like to address is not perhaps directly in Phyllis's book, but the conversation inevitable gets here.  It has to do with the definitions of an institution and a movement as described by Brian McLaren, a leader of the emergent church movement. I've come to accept and deeply appreciate these definitions.

  • An institution is an organization that preserves the gains made by past movements.
  • A movement is an organization that arises to propose gains to a current institution.
Phyllis with my friends Valerie and Maegan this past March when she came to Shreveport and spoke at Centenary College's fundraising dinner for the  Christian Leadership Center.

Phyllis with my friends Valerie and Maegan this past March when she came to Shreveport and spoke at Centenary College's fundraising dinner for the Christian Leadership Center.

Both are good. Both are needed. Both need each other. Let's not assume as emergents that we must be anti-institution, and I'd plead to those of you who assume emergents are anti-institution to reconsider that assumption or to look again for evidence of something different. Being pro-institution, or pro-Church in this case, can and must still include a real criticism of the problems that have developed. But criticism must be constructive and lead to creativity in pursuit of being the body of Jesus in the world. For everywhere and every time criticism has not been offered in love and has not been paired with hopeful, creative action, I apologize. I apologize and I personally repent, as it is an ongoing challenge for me and my community to balance these things. It's a daily reality in my life that I am no where near mastering, but the words of Phyllis Tickle are coming to my aid and the aid of many as we seek to better be the Church in the world at this time. The content and the language with which it is presented are wildly valuable, and I hope you might look farther into all this if it has ignited any sort of curiosity in you! Also, if you pick up this particular book, you might consider having your dictionary app on hand. She's unashamedly an academic and has the vocabulary of one. I've learned a ton of new words from her;) 

Find out more about Phyllis Tickle and her work at