Messenger Dinner Hears About Emergent Christianity

223rd Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
San Diego, California — June 27, 2009

Phyllis Tickle of Tennessee has been an art teacher, dean of an art school, founding editor of the religion section in Publisher’s Weekly, mother of seven, and a prolific author. An Episcopalian and an expert on religion and the church, she spoke with wit and charm at the Saturday evening Messenger dinner.

Referring to herself as a “recovering academic,” saying “you never get over it,” she warned her audience to get ready for a fifty-minute sound bite.

She expressed appreciation for the theme of the Annual Conference, “The old has gone, the new has come, all this is from God,” then compared what is happening to the church as part of a regular 500-year “rummage sale.” Currently in another every-five-century time of radical change, the church is getting rid of a lot of junk, she pointed out. But while cleaning out the attic, she added, you inevitably find a treasure you’ve forgotten about.

Referring to the Reformation 500 years ago and the decline of western civilization 500 years before that, Tickle said, “We’re going through one (of the same kind of periods of change) right now.” Just as the Reformation was a historical, political, religious, and cultural change, so too she said we are going through another time of change across society. “Whatever form of Christianity is dominant when the rummage sale starts is going to lose dominance and another form will take its place,” she said.

Tickle suggested that there is now a Great Emergence–most people no longer live in a traditional family, the old political powers are no longer dominant, people change careers often and live more than 25 miles from where they grew up. Most are overwhelmed by information. “Nothing we grew up with appertains now,” she said.

The Christianity coming out of this change is sometimes called the emerging or emergent church. This new form of church is made up of Christians who want a personal relationship with God. They are missionally oriented, they fast, the are self-organizing, opposed to architecture and the expense of church buildings, and wear the cross, Tickle claimed. They may or may not belong to a mainline church. In the emergent church belief follows acceptance and practice, she said, and the faith is non-hierarchical.

When the dust has settled, following this great change in the church and society, the important questions will be: “Where now is the authority? How shall we now live?” With greater scientific insight into the physical universe over the past 150 years, Tickle said that for the first time the Holy Spirit is as important as the written Word when it comes to preaching, teaching, and authority among Christians.

In an announcement at the dinner, Messenger editor Walt Wiltschek said that starting in 2010 there will be 10 rather than 11 issues of the magazine, with January and February combined into one issue as is already the case with July and August.

— Frank Ramirez is pastor of Everett (Pa.) Church of the Brethren.

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The News Team for the 2009 Annual Conference includes photographers Glenn Riegel, Ken Wenger, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg, and Kay Guyer; writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend, Melissa Troyer, Rich Troyer; staff Becky Ullom and Amy Heckert. Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, editor. Contact
cobnews@brethren.org.