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Phyllis Tickle: Like an anthill

Get rid of real estate, focus on education and trim, trim, trim. That’s the advice to denominational leaders from the author of “The Great Emergence.”

August 31, 2010

Editor’s note: As the Christian landscape changes, leaders must ask and answer a new question: What’s the future of denominations? This interview is part of an occasional series that offers insight on this vital issue. To see the entire series, click here.

In her book “The Great Emergence,” Phyllis Tickle argues that Christianity is currently undergoing a massive upheaval as part of a regular pattern that occurs every 500 years, in which old ideas are rejected and new ones emerge. Ultimately, the old expression of Christianity is refurbished and revitalized, while a new, more vital form also is created, she says.

She identifies these periodic upheavals as the Great Reformation, the Great Schism, the Great Decline and Fall, and the Great Transformation, and says they stretch back into Jewish history as well.

Tickle, a speaker, author and the founding editor of the religion department at Publishers Weekly, says this Great Emergence means that the Christian church has entered a post-denominational mode. This sociological and cultural shift involves a distrust of all institutions and is forcing mainline Protestant Christianity to become less hierarchal and more communal. At the same time, she says, it offers an opportunity for Protestantism to renew and refine itself.

Recently Tickle spoke with Faith & Leadership about her book “The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.” The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: What does “emergence Christianity” mean to the future of denominations?

Religion -- not private faith, but religion -- is a sociological and cultural construct; it does not exist independent of the society in which it occurs. It informs that society and is formed by it.

That’s a significant thing when we talk about emergence Christianity. And the rhetoric matters here in a way that it did not used to matter: “Emergent” is not the same as “emergence”; it’s a division of it. “Emerging” is not the same as “emergence” Christianity.

The construct we’re talking about is emergence Christianity. In the same way that Protestantism was a set of sensibilities, a conversation, whatever you want to call it, 500 years ago, [and] it gave us Methodists and Baptists and Presbyterians and Lutherans, so emergence Christianity is the larger construct. And it’s giving us emergent Christians and emerging Christians and small-church Christians and neo-monastic Christians and hyphenated Christians and “fresh expressions” Christians -- there are about 12 divisions.

It’s important that we understand we’re talking about emergence Christianity, which is the thing that is part of or coming out of or resulting from and helping to form a larger sociological construct called the Great Emergence.

When we were freshmen in college and they taught us the Great Reformation, they said, “Oh, the Great Reformation was the rise of the nation-state, it gave us the middle class, it gave us the rise of capitalism, and oh, by the way, it gave us Protestantism.” In the same way, the Great Emergence is effecting a total shift across every part of the Latinized world, and oh, by the way, it’s giving us emergence Christianity.

Every single time one of these things has happened, whatever form of Christianity held hegemony, whatever held pride of place, had to drop back and reconfigure -- but it did not cease to be. It’s imperative we remember that.

That is to say, Catholicism did not end 500 years ago. It did have to drop back. We call it the Council of Trent, the establishment of the Order of Jesuits, the coming of seminaries -- all of those things happened, but Roman Catholicism did not cease to exist.

Instead, the faith spread farther as a result of the coming of Protestantism. A thousand years ago, Orthodoxy didn’t cease to exist when Catholicism or Roman Christianity took hegemony away from it. In the same way, the Great Emergence is seeing -- because it’s a major shift in everything about us -- it’s seeing a major shift in Christianity. And it is giving rise to emergence Christianity, but that does not mean that Protestantism will cease to exist.

It simply means we are in a post-Protestant mode. We’re in a post-denominational mode; we’re in a post-Christendom mode. All of those things have shifted just as surely as they did 500 years ago or 1,000 years ago.

Denominations aren’t going to cease to exist. Protestantism isn’t going to cease to exist. It has never been true, and it won’t be true this time. The faith will spread. It will be spread primarily by emergence Christianity as it flows out from our culture to embrace more of the world or more within our culture. But denominations will stay.

Now, the second thing that has to be said about that is, again, if history is a fair index of what’s coming, a good predictor -- and it almost always is -- those denominations are going to have to change the way they do business. Protestant Christianity is going to have to regroup and reconfigure in the same way that Orthodoxy had to, in the same way Catholicism had to, in the same way apostolic Christianity had to, monastic Christianity had to -- so Protestantism is going to have to. It will be a response to the changes that are the Great Emergence, more than to emergence Christianity itself.

And so there are distinct ways that they’re going to have to reconsider what we do in the future, but we will consider it from the point of view of history and what history has told us.

Q: What will mainline denominations need to do to survive and thrive?

If one were going to put one adjective to the Great Emergence, and thereby one adjective to emergence Christianity, one would say “deinstitutionalized.”

I’m Episcopalian, and I hear with the same sorrow as my fellow Anglicans that we’re shutting parishes every month now in the United States in the Episcopal Church. That’s alarming.

It’s not just that Christianity is changing. It’s the whole culture. Have you looked lately at the number of Rotary Clubs that aren’t anymore or the number of Kiwanis Clubs that aren’t anymore? American Legion? VFWs?

Institutionalization is being leveled. One of the characteristics of emergence thinking is there’s a flattening out.

Protestantism, because it came in a time of growing nation-states, became enormously hierarchal, and therefore the denominational structures that are standing right now are hierarchal. That’s not going to work in emergence times, or it’s going to have to change its configuration.

People under 40 right now have been born right smack-dab into a fully matured emergence, the Great Emergence. They can’t change their sensibilities any more than they can change the color of their eyes. They’re going to be non-hierarchal. They’re going to be afraid of institutions. They’re going to want to spread out horizontally. They want to be communal. They’re going to be actively involved in social justice as they define it, and not in the usual Protestant way. They are connected to the world. They’re “glocal” -- I hate that word -- but they think glocally. All of those things are sensibilities that are ingrained now; they have no choice.

There also is a kind of infiltration or, if you will, infection of emergence sensibilities in those 60 and 65 and over. It’s like that Carol Burnett joke, “Kids and their grandparents get on so well because they have a common enemy.” Well, in this case the common enemy is the age group in between -- the 40- to 45-year-olds and up to the 60- to 65-year-olds. In that generation -- which doesn’t really have a name sociologically, so far as I know -- there is a huge need for denominational work and care right now.

The first thing that a denomination needs to turn its attention to is the pastoral care of a very significant and real need in that age group. Plus which, that age group is empowered enough financially so it’s going to continue to support the institution. It values the institution, unlike the people at both ends of the stick who do not value the institution, who really want less of it.

The next thing that we need to talk about is that this upheaval that we’re going through has what’s called hyphenateds. They are the people who wish to keep -- for really deep emotional reasons -- the natal praxis in which they were formed, and infuse it with emergence sensibilities. What you get is Presby-mergents or Metho-mergents or Luther-mergents or Bapti-mergents or Angli-mergents. What they’re going to perpetuate is the tradition and not the institution. And that’s tricky.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been perhaps the most adroit in moving between Scylla and Charybdis. The Episcopal Church is showing an increasing ability to do this. It’s important to understand the denomination may never get anything out of it. But the tradition which the denomination has housed will indeed be carried on and carried forth into new permutations.

The third thing is that emergence Christianity is no more the perfect solution than is Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. It has flaws and faults.

I’m not an emergence Christian; I’m probably an Angli-mergent -- I’ve fooled with it long enough to have caught it. But I have colleagues who are pure emergence Christians who don’t like for me to say this, but one of the things is that emergence praxis does not allow for much transcendence. It allows for transport -- and there’s a difference.

What established church, be it Roman or Protestant, has is the place where prayers have been said for hundreds of years, places that have been honored with human words and human agony and human joys, where it is possible to move into a physical space that immediately takes you into the realm of prayer and worship. There is that emotional lift, that bonding with the larger human community over decades and decades, that denominations can offer and local churches can offer.

The next thing denominations are going to have to do is join forces with each other. Protestantism, whatever else its virtues are or were, is enormously divisive. That’s got to stop. The concordat that now exists between the Lutheran church [ELCA] and the Episcopal Church is evidence in which they are sharing pulpits, sharing facilities, sharing parishioners, common ministry. That’s a real step in the direction that things are going to go. There is a future out there, and the denominations are going to have to step into it.

Now, if I were a Methodist bishop, if I were a Presbyterian presbyter -- if I were in charge -- I would be doing some other things right now because of the emergence, and because it’s liberating for Protestantism as well. It’s liberating for the denominations.

Protestantism -- one of its hallmarks is divisiveness. One of its other hallmarks is deep intellectualism. The intellectual history of the last 500 years is strong testimony, incontestable testimony, to the worth of Protestant Christianity as it attempted to intellectualize the faith and to wrestle mentally with what was happening. We are sitting on the wealth of the Great Emergence because of Protestantism. Protestantism has both that tradition and that understanding among its people that it’s all right to ask questions and to investigate, and it has the institutions that are already heavily endowed. Emergence Christianity is going to have to deal with some very serious and very intellectual questions.

The role of Protestantism is the role of restructuring what was good about the Protestant tradition, what is good about it, providing ongoing Protestant definition for those who still desire it. Then, after that, trim, trim, trim. The institution is going to shrink. It would be a smart denominational body that began to get rid of programs. Programs aren’t going to get it.

Somebody’s going to get hurt. Protestantism has an obligation -- as does Catholicism -- to help people through, and you help them through by educating them. This is the first time we’ve gone through one of these upheavals that we’ve known what was happening.

You start talking about atonement, and those who have spent their lives on the Anselm theory, the penal substitution or the individualized heaven or the Sweet Jesus by-and-by -- they’re going to be decimated. Educate, educate, educate at the congregational level. An informed parish is not fearful.

Q: What new Christian institutions could emerge out of all this?

Hopefully, none will. Protestants need to get rid of their real estate. Emergence Christians are allergic to real estate because, they will say, “The minute you own a piece of real estate, then you have to have somebody to clean it, then you have to have somebody to be sure that it gets clean, then you have to get somebody to be sure that it’s insured, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a bishop.” It’s a hierarchy built-in, bound to happen.

If we mean institutional in that way, don’t do that. If we mean institutions in the philosophic way, emergence Christianity is going to organize a little like an anthill.

Steven Johnson wrote a marvelous book called “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software,” which everybody should read who’s talking about this.

“Emergence” is an unfortunate term. It came out of emergence theory in the biology lab. For centuries we had thought that a beehive and an anthill were the same thing. Both had a queen, and it worked top down. In the middle of the 19th century, scientists discovered, “Wrong; au contraire.”

They both have queens because we elected to put that label on them, and the bee queen is indeed a force to be dealt with. She does order everybody around.

However, the ant queen is only good for one thing, and that’s making babies. Anthills are built without anybody in charge. There is nobody in charge. They work by pheromones, in which one ant will say, “Food, I smell food,” and everybody comes picking up the scent, and then there’s garbage, and somebody says, “Garbage detail” with an odor, and the garbage goes out. I’m being silly, but that’s what emergence theory is.

Emergence theory was taken by sociologists and used to describe ways of human organization. Whatever happens is going to be this way -- it’s going to be an anthill.

One of the accommodations being made by Protestantism to emergence is the increasing use of bi-vocational pastors. An emergence gathering can be as few as six or eight people gathered in a home. The majority of them are small. I would say 35 and under folk, probably, gathering. That kind of group cannot afford a clergyperson.

There are accommodations in place now to allow a clergyperson to serve some five or six such groups and hope to arrive at something like a salary, but the better mode for it is to use your bi-vocationals.

There are accommodations being made in every way. But institutions? The very word is suspect. It’s an iffy thing.

Q: Thank you for talking with us. Is there anything you would like to add before we close?

You are in the Great Emergence. You may not be an emergence pastor, but you’re in an emergence society.