Review: The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle


Phyllis Tickle’s newest book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, arrived yesterday. At 172 pages, this small but elegant volume (aren’t all Tickle’s books elegant?) both informs and disappoints.  Tickle takes on the daunting task of reviewing the major turning points or ‘Great’ events in the life of the Christian church.  Her contention is that every 500 years or so the church goes through a ‘great’ transformation.

Counting back from the present, the Great Reformation took place about 500 years ago — 1517 to be exact. Prior to that, The Great Schism occurred when the Eastern and Western churches split over icons and statues. Five hundred years earlier, Gregory the Great blessed and encouraged the monastic orders which would preserve the Christian faith through the Dark Ages.  Of course, 500 years before that, we’re back in the first century and the time of the apostles.  Today, Tickle contends, the church in in the throes of The Great Emergence.

But, the Great Emergence is not just religious.  It is also cultural, technological, and sociological.  Of course, context shaped each of the other ‘great’ church transformations as well, and this time is no different.  Tickle takes the reader on an overflight of church history, world events, and charts the shifts in the center of authority in the life of the church.  In the Great Reformation, of course, the cry of authority was sola scriptura — only scripture.  Tickle traces the diminution of the authoritative place of scripture in culture and Christianity from its heady beginnings in the Reformation to its marginalization in the current postmodern era.  The book provides thoughtful tracing of influential elements as Tickle leads the reader on a quest for a center of authority.

But, while Tickle’s insights and examples provide clues to the transformative forces in our culture and society, the book disappoints when we arrive at the present.  Tickle sees all denominations, all churches, all movements in the quadrilateral of Christianity — conservative, liturgical, renewalist, and social justice — as converging toward the center.  Granted, there are those denominations and groups that cling to their identities in a kind of resistant pushback, but Tickle’s vision is that we are all being swept up into the next great moment of the church — The Great Emergence.  Every church, not just the cool emerging church types, are part of The Great Emergence.  I’m not sure that is happening, but I could have lived with Tickle’s opinion except for some examples she uses.

Tickle uses John Wimber and the Vineyard churches as an example of this new kind of emergence.  She correctly credits Quakers — Richard Foster, Parker Palmer, etc — with great influence on the spirituality of the Great Emergence.  I might add Elton Trueblood to that list, as mentor to Foster, but Tickle doesn’t.  But, in her citing of John Wimber, she goes off track.  She credits Wimber with being a “founder” of the Church Growth department at Fuller, and calls Peter Wagner his colleague.  I was present at Fuller during Wagner’s tenure, and I was enrolled in the DMin program in church growth.  I attended one of the Signs and Wonders classes, heard Wimber speak, and got a sense of his idea of ‘power evangelism.’  

Wimber was not a founder of the church growth movement.  He was an adjunct faculty member at Fuller.  Dr. Donald McGavran was the founder, Peter Wagner was his protege.  I met McGavran once, although he had retired when I was enrolled at Fuller.  Tickle misunderstands Wimber’s approach, and also overestimates the Quaker influence on Wimber.  Wimber left the traditional church in which he had become a Christian because he wanted to ‘do the stuff’ — heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and so on.  I also attended the Vineyard church that Wimber headed, and it was no Quaker meeting.  So, at the end of the book, Tickle disappoints.  Simple fact-checking could have offered a corrective to her inclusion of Wimber.  

While Wimber did create a powerful new church community called Vineyard, he used signs and wonders as power evangelism to win people to Christ.  All of that was very much part of the church growth movement that believed in attractional evangelism.  Wimber’s brand just happened to be one of the more interesting versions of church growth techniques being used to gather people.  She also wrongly attributes the concept of bounded sets and centered sets to Wimber when actually it was Paul Hiebert, the missiologist, who used those concepts to illustrate new approaches to understanding the place of persons in the Kingdom of God.  

Would I recommend the book?  A qualified yes is in order here.  The book succeeds in all but the last chapter.  If you want a great overview of where Christianity has been, what the influences were that got it there, and where it might be headed, Tickle’s book provides a good, concise overview.  My disappointment was that it fails to see clearly the way forward, and misinterprets some of the church’s most recent experiements, such as Vineyard.  But, Tickle is an elegant writer, and the book is a valuable resource to those aware of its short-comings.

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9 Comments

  1. It sounds like a lot of fact checking is needed. Ikons vs statues was not one of the big issues in the East-West schism of the 11th century, though it is certainly one of the differences today. Another, and perhaps more significant difference, was the Western adoption of the penal substitution theory of the atonement, which never caught on in the East because of the schism, and if it has not been for the schism it might not have caught on in the West to the extent that it has.

    And though I’ve never been to Fuller, I did know that McGavran was the founder of the “church growth” school. So it sounds as though it’s not very well researched.

  2. Chuck, curious about your closing comment re: “the way forward.” Are you saying that she implied a commitment to spell that out then did not? Or that based on what she had said she could have spelled out a future? Or that based on her writings or others the way forward is now obvious? Just not sure what you are implying. Thanks for your review. I read the book so quickly and now find myself ready to reread the closing chapters.

  3. By ‘the way forward’ I simply meant that given Tickle’s use of Wimber as her example of the current ’emergence’ it fails to hold. Wimber’s role is overblown in her account, and misstated as well. In my estimation, she overstates the convergence of all denoms to the center, and the book concludes with an inaccurate picture of the current state of the church. Tickle seems to be stretching to find the current emergence in her 500-year cycles. Of course, that’s my opinion and certainly her book is being well-received, perhaps in a rush to ‘all things emergent.’ Thanks for your comments and hope that helps clarify my thinking. -Chuck

  4. thanks bro. Interesting.. initially I didn’t think the book so important, my second take is that it is quite significant. Perhaps only that it helps us “know ourselves” a little better. I think in particular her identifying the key questions that underlie much discussion: where is the authority – and what does it mean to be human? bang on

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