Last week I attended the Emergence Christianity event in Memphis featuring Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and others. The emergent crowd is an interesting group, with lots of diversity: age, denomination, and plenty of piercings and tattoos if not skin color. Basically the idea of “Emergence” is that the church is in the midst of the massive transition that can be compared to what happened during the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. Phyllis Tickle has written several books on the topic including The Great Emergence, and Emergence Christianity, and she did what Phyllis does: she held 450 participants spellbound during four 90-minute presentations… with no notes.
There is little doubt that denominations in America are on the decline, with attendance shrinking annually. And there’s a growing dissatisfaction with mainstream religion in America, as NPR is reporting this week. In some ways, these emergents are acting on that dissatisfaction. What struck me about the conference was not their frustration, rather their enthusiasm. There was a hope for the future of the church that was palpable throughout the event. It happened as the crowd responded to Phyllis, in their tweets, in the coffee conversations and as we waited in line for the lunch truck.
The positive energy reminded me of the first CBF meeting at the Inforum in 1991 – even before we were CBF. We had no idea who we would become back then, but we were ready to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty trying to figure it out. This emergent gathering has that same energy. In fact, they are not even waiting for permission or structure; they’ve jumped in and started non-traditional, non-denominational, non-conformist ministry that is meeting felt theological need across the spectrum. They are progressive – you can’t miss that. And yet they are making progress – not stalled in conflict or bound up in structures built by the moderns.
The event was theologically challenging: she asks if it is time for a new, less violent view of atonement, or how to exist in peace with other world religions. It was inspiring: we heard several testimonies of personal spiritual rebirth after years of abuse from fundamentalist churches. It was reassuring: God is always working for good – in today’s church and in the church emerging. I used to have an impatient view of denominational life – I wanted it all fixed now. What I like about the term emerging is the implication of an ongoing process. As I am aging, I am learning that small steps, solidly in the right direction, have deep impact in the life of a believer, a church or a denomination and these steps are worth the effort.