The Great Emergence – Where is it going?
Over the last two weeks we have been exploring the history of the Christian church and the great disruptions that seem to have come every 500 years. Each of these major disruptions changed the accepted way that the church viewed its mission and its purpose. Each disruption brought a change in the authority that guided the church. Each disruption in the church’s life was also associated with a similar disruption in the wider culture of the world.
The coming of God in the person of Jesus Christ caused the very first disruption as Jesus’ teaching brought a message from God that challenged the ruling authority and brought into question a number of practices being followed by the Jewish nation.
The second disruption occurred in the 6th century and was the culmination of a number of events including councils that debated doctrinal issues such as the human and divine natures of Jesus and the status of Mary. And while the church leaders were grappling with how to be the church of a great empire from the time of Constantine in the 4th century and resolve differences of thought surrounding the faith, the Roman Empire collapsed and with it came the start of what has been termed the Dark Ages. During this time community was organized into small kingdoms and estates. The anarchy that followed led the church to seek for a place of safety for the writings and traditions of the faith. This led to the establishment of monasteries and convents.
The third disruption came with the dawn of the Middle Ages in the 11th century. This time saw the rise of tensions between the Eastern Church in Constantinople and the western church in Rome. Significant issues such as whether Greek or Latin should be the dominant language of the church liturgy; what type of bread to use in communion; and whether the Holy Spirit just proceeded from the Father or came through both the Son and the Father divided the church and was not reconciled for nearly a thousand years. This period also saw the rise of kings came to be seen as ruling by divine right. Church leaders saw this as an opportunity to reassert the church of preservers of the holiest of all places – Jerusalem; and so began the Crusades.
The fourth disruption came with the Reformation of the 16th century. The abuses of authority and power that had come to mark the leadership within the Western Church led many to search for an authority that they felt could be trusted to remain without corruption. The Reformers believed that the church and the faith belonged with the people and not with the clergy alone. They advocated that all were priests and all could seek forgiveness for their sins from God; and so developed the belief in the priesthood of all believers and a push to make the Bible accessible to the population at large. What emerged from this time was a culture that felt the openness to question and explore. Through the freedom brought to the people of faith through the Reformation came the freedom felt in the society in general that led to discoveries that rocked the world of the 16th centuries. And so began the period we know as the Enlightenment, rationalism and industrialism.
Authority in the Church had shifted from the hierarchy of ecclesiastical leaders to the Scripture itself. The study of Scripture was encouraged. But the encouragement people found in the study of Scripture also led them to discover conflicts in the texts and left them often with more questions than answers. Eventually this led to a new discipline in religious studies known as the historical-critical method. The Bible was no longer viewed as one long homogenous book but a series of books written by different authors in different times. This led scholars and others to ask whether the Jesus of Western history and thought was the same as the Jesus of Nazareth. One of the most famous books on the subject was written by Albert Schweitzer called The Quest for the Historical Jesus. It also led scholars to search for what indeed were the true words of Jesus.
It is fair to say that we have seen a number of changes in the church generally and in our denomination specifically. We have seen shifts in our own interpretation of Scripture that has led to the acceptance of women as both clergy and elders within the Church. We have changed our ideas surrounding those who can participate at the Lord’s Supper or communion. We now celebrate an open table allowing children of all ages the right to take part. We have developed new confessions such as The Living Faith document which came out in the 1980s. And we continue to be challenged in our approach to the Scriptures and to the role of the Holy Spirit in shaping our life and directing our future as the church. No doubt this is where this Great Emergence will lead us allowing us to respect and honour the Scripture while looking for the leading of the Holy Spirit to make the Word of God and the presence of God be a living force in our lives.
Without realizing it, I have been embracing the Great Emergence as I have debated, discussed and grown with Christians from different branches of the Church. I have come to appreciate the places that these different Christians come from and the perspective on faith and life that they bring. I have found that my struggles with matters of faith and life have not really differed from the struggles of others. I have come to realize that no one denomination holds the path to God. Each offers a perspective that can enrich our own journey of faith.
Something else that I have come to realize over time is this. I grew up in a church that put adherence to certain rules of doctrinal belief and human conduct as prerequisites to membership but I have to understand more and more that today people first seek to belong to a gathering of Christians because of a shared sense of humanity and an affinity with the individuals sharing in the activities of that group. From there belief comes. And so people do not believe in order to belong but belong in order to believe.
How do we encourage the dialogue that will bring the church to a place where it can find its path with God? By being open to receiving all who want to be part of the journey, encouraging the sharing of ideas and letting the Spirit of God show us how we can be the Church that we need to be for this time and so help one another to grow in faith.
Feeling like your foundation of faith is being blown out of the water? Well, take heart. This has happened before and those who went through it found the path that God was calling them to take. They found themselves not discouraged or distraught but strengthened in their faith and life with God. They discovered that God indeed was a God not of the past alone with nothing new to share but rather a God who was very much a God of the present and a God of the future.