Book review: Emergence Christianity

by Phyllis Tickle


How does the Church shed its stodgy, antiquated feel while retaining its reverence for 2,000-year-old ritual? How does it jettison denominational pigeonholing and institutionalization while still clinging to Christ?

Answer: Emergence. This seems to be one of the labels that nobody understands; perhaps not even its practitioners. Emergence Christianity is a relatively new worldwide movement in the Christian world, and it’s still evolving. It generally transcends such labels as “liberal” or “conservative,” stepping sideways to address, instead, issues like social activism. It usually emphasizes the “here and now” over eternal salvation, but beyond that, its decentralized structure can make it very hard to tie the movement down in terms of doctrine. Tickle likes to think of Emergence Christianity as “spiritual Christ-knowing,” not as religion. Compared to their secular neighbors, however, Tickle says Emergence Christians are both spiritual and religious.

Maybe it’s best to explain by example. Readers of my reviews may recognize radical Christian leader Shane Claiborne and mega-church pastor Rob Bell, who share the face of Emergence Christianity. However, while the increase in mega-churches probably is a result of the same cultural pressures that evoked the Great Emergence, it would be wrong to put Emergence Christianity entirely in the mega-church corner. Most Emergence Christians may still prefer house churches, and an unwritten doctrine seems to be that the “church is a people to be, not a place to go.” Says Tickle, “Emergence Christians think of themselves as communal and relational more than sacred or holy.”

Still confused? Consider the title of Brian D. McLaren’s recent book: A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.

Yeah. Dig it. If you buy Tickle’s book—and you should—I suggest eating dessert first: in the center of the book is an annotated section of full-color pictures. Start by paging through the pictures of Emergence Christianity in practice, and read there a little about its methodology, before returning to the meat in chapter 1. I particularly loved seeing the communion table in one picture: outdoors, on the grass, lies an American flag rug, and on top of that stands a beautiful chess set. On the chess board sits a small loaf of bread and a glass of red wine. (Scotch, perhaps? For you chess enthusiasts, the opening looks like it’s transposing into the Scotch Gambit. Could this possibly be coincidence? Did anyone else notice this?)

This book hit the mark with me, because Tickle legitimizes Christianity among scholars. For better or worse, Emergence Christians generally share a higher education level, and more of a willingness to embrace technology in the service. If you find that authors like Bell and Claiborne write down to the eighth grade level of reader, you’ll find the opposite is true of Tickle. Her writing is intelligent and informative, and she knows her stuff. I have not yet read Tickle’s The Great Emergence (2008), but I’m thinking now that I must.

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