The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The revolution is upon us

Religious historians say that every 500 years, Christianity goes through a "massive transition," as noted religion writer Phyllis Tickle puts it.

Around A.D. 500, invaders sought to subjugate Rome by wiping out its underlying religion. Christianity went underground. In abbeys like Iona, monks painstakingly copied Scripture and civilization's great writings, in effect saving Western civilization itself.

Around A.D. 1000 came the "Great Schism," when the Western church based in Rome and the Eastern church based in Constantinople (today's Istanbul) fought over creeds and doctrine, political power and cultural hegemony. That split endures to this day between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.

Around A.D. 1500 came the Protestant Reformation, when nationalism born of exploration in the New World and new commercial wealth demanded an end to Rome's domination of European life. That split, too, endures.

Now comes a new millennium, and Christianity wears so many different faces that it's difficult to speak of a single "Christian movement." We see more than 1,500 denominations in the U.S. alone, by one count. There's a vast chasm between first world Christianity and the booming churches of Africa and Latin America; the virtual collapse of both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in Europe; and now a relentless decline of institutional Christianity in North America.

Tickle calls this one the "Great Emergence." One could also call it the "un-formation of Christianity," or in religion scholar Diana Butler Bass' words, "Christianity after religion."

Conservative Christians tend to blame a determined assault by outside forces such as secular humanists and atheists. As a result, they are pulling inward and demanding that the surrounding culture return to its Christian roots.

Progressive Christianity, meanwhile, searches for an explanation that looks forward, not backward, but its infrastructure is collapsing too fast for anything but stubborn clinging to old ideas that explain too little and new ideas that promise too little.

We aren't likely to comprehend this latest 500-year transition until it is further along. But I think two things are clear:

First, Christianity in North America is being freed from its own roots. Roman Catholics in the pews are straining to find out why Rome and the pope are relevant to their faith needs. Mainline Christianity is moving beyond the captivity of white, middle-class, property-owning, optimistic serenity. Conservative Christianity is discovering that right opinion leads nowhere and a combative countercultural stance merely makes its proponents seem angry and judgmental.

Second, Christianity no longer controls the flow. Its ideas no longer shape cultural dialogue. Its leaders no longer command broad respect. Its buildings no longer draw people in by simply opening their doors. Churches' stubborn clinging to Sunday worship stopped working decades ago.

I don't see this as an attack from outside but rather a collapse from the inside. The world changed—as cultures, economies and political systems always do—and the church thought it could stand still.

Meanwhile, people began finding their own pathways to God, their own languages for accessing God, their own ideas about life's purpose, and their own forms of faith community.

Stuck with inherited facilities they can't afford, with traditions that no longer resonate outside the bubble, with ranks graying and pews emptying, established church leaders seem ready to consider change.

Most will change too little and, once the immediate bleeding stops, will circle the wagons once again. But some will look outward and be moved to compassion by a nation lost in dysfunction and by lives being lost to our own mega-rich barbarians.

It's an exciting and hopeful time. Faith communities brought to their knees by changes beyond their control will land in exactly the right posture: to confess, submit, pray and serve.


Irma Kelly

Irma Kelly

Posted at 11:55 am (U.S. Eastern) 6/25/2013

Thank you for this articulate summary of Phyllis Tickle's Great  Emergence.  Timely to share with the leaders of my faith community as we begin to grapple.

Thomas Clark

Thomas Clark

Posted at 12:28 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/25/2013

A great article that offers in compact form many of the insights that appeared in a little book by another Episcopalian Loren Mead titled The Once and Future Church (Alban Institute).

Jackie Boynton

Jackie Boynton

Posted at 3:16 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/25/2013

Thanks for opening this dialogue.   I am reminded of former Bishop Stan Olsen's comments on earlier upheavals in the '60s, which he described as "being jerked around by the Holy Spirit."  

"To grapple," (Irma's comment above) describes it.  Come, let us grapple together.

Bruce Roberts

Bruce Roberts

Posted at 3:37 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/25/2013

Thanks Tom, for encouraging us to stop using bigger hammers.  The next step is find find out who will step forward to talk honestly and listen to diverse others with respect and a willingness to accept with grace a multitude of creative alternative possibile futures.


Karin Johnson

Karin Johnson

Posted at 3:33 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/27/2013

Linda Worden

Linda Worden

Posted at 4:27 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/28/2013

I would like to "grapple together" with someone to address practical considerations like where will the new church meet for worship, study, fellowship and prayer?  I can't imagine it all happening online.  I have Christian friends on Facebook, but meeting on Facebook doesn't seem like something that would offer real spirtual food.

Times are changing, but have human needs changed?  The needs outlined in Matthew 25 seem to me to apply as much as ever.  How will we address them outside the traditional church structure?

Last, but now least, what will we do with the buildings?  Make them more available to community groups?  Partner with nonreligious groups to offer human services? 

Is it OK to plan for change, or do we just accept the evolving changes as they emerge?

Karin Johnson

Karin Johnson

Posted at 10:10 am (U.S. Eastern) 6/29/2013

Since my earlier comments didn't register, I'll try again.  Tom's article is a succinct historical view of the transitions of Christianity over time.  Karen Armstrong's book, A History of God, is a comprehensive view of the historical quest for God among the Abrahamic tradiions, intergrating the social and political contexts of the times, for those who want to delve deeper.  Having been raised with a different concept of God than I now have, I have experienced a transition in my own Christianity at a personal level.  And I do agree ... it is an exciting and hopeful time.   In answer to Linda's last question, I think the first thing we need to do is accept that a transition is occurring, and then plan for a change which honors and supports the human connections as expressed in Matthew 25.  I'm hoping that churches will continue to be places where committed believers in The Way that Jesus taught, will meet to plan ways to implement it.

Note: Karin Johnson edited this post at 10:13 am on 6/29/2013.

Bruce Roberts

Bruce Roberts

Posted at 12:53 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/29/2013

Hello Karin and others,

Is there a chance that this blog will grow some legs?

Anyway, since so many of the arguments about transitions erupt over the applied specifics of our beliefs, I would be very interested in the "specifics" you see behind your statement, "The Way that Jesus taught".   I ask with respect, and an interest in learning, not criticizing.


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Embracing diversity