Towards a 21st Century Church (2): Time for the 500 year Rummage Sale?

Posted by on May 2, 2019 in Blog | 6 comments

In my earlier blog post “Towards a 21st Century Church”, I discussed four assumptions we should challenge if we are to make a constructive journey towards the future. In this post I explore Phyllis Tickle’s contested but thought provoking thesis that roughly every 500 years a “great emergence” occurs within Christianity during which a new and “more vital” form of faith emerges.

Roughly stated, Tickle’s big idea is that every five hundred years the Church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale. This enables the church to reevaluate and sometimes discard forms of faith she accumulated during the dying age she is leaving behind, and to better prepare for the new age she is about to engage – which is not to say that previous forms are invalid (though they might be), but rather that they lose their pride of place as a dominant expression of Christianity.

Tickle’s book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why was originally published in 2008 and has since had a DVD series and study guide added, and can claim to have been reasonably influential – though some dismiss the book as over-generalized and over-simplified. It looks at the “Greats” in the history of Christianity and notes that they are separated by time periods of approximately 500 years.

The first was the Great Transformation – God’s incarnation on this planet, which decisively changed all of human history, for the birth of Jesus has impacted this world far more than the birth of any other. Indeed, our current year is the estimate of the number of years from his birth.

The second was the fall of Rome in 476. Christianity had been adopted as the official religion of Rome around 380 during the reign of Emperor Theodosius. That the empire collapsed less than a hundred years later (after being the dominant world power for approximately 1200 years) was no small crisis. While Augustine’s early fifth century work The City of God had in some way prepared an apologetic for this, a major adaptation of the church was the rise of the monastic movement. Though it had begun prior to Rome’s collapse, the ministry of St Benedict of Nursia (480-543) saw its acceleration, and the progressive rise of the monasteries as a new way in which Christianity expressed itself in the world. This was also the era of Pope Gregory the Great (c 540-604), who instigated the first large scale mission from Rome (the Gregorian Mission) to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons in England to Christianity. It is hard to overestimate the importance of that move.

Roughly 500 years later another major turn took place – the Great Schism of 1054 which saw the final separation between the Eastern Christian Churches (led by the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius) and the Western churches (led by Pope Leo IX). This rift has never been healed, and has seen the emergence of two relatively different expressions of Christianity as practiced by believers in Eastern Orthodox churches and those in Roman Catholic churches.

Play it forward another 500 years and we arrive at the Great Reformation, (or the Protestant Reformation), usually dated at 1517, and famous for its affirmation of five key “sola’s” – sola scriptura; sola fide; sola gratia; solus Christus and Soli Deo gloria – in other words, by Scripture alone; by faith alone; by grace alone; through Christ alone and glory to God alone. There was a lot of sorting out done during the Reformation, and most who read this blog have been greatly impacted by the sweeping changes it introduced.

But the Protestant Reformation took place about 500 years ago. Are we on the cusp of another “Great Emergence” – or if you prefer – another very thorough rummage sale? If so, what needs to be thrown out, and what must be held on to?

Certainly some things are clearly drawing to an end… the era of Christendom, with its sense of entitlement and its often muddled quest for power; the denominational era, where splits between churches were justified on the basis of doctrines and belief systems which seemed terribly important at the time, but which a later generation find difficult to enthuse over; the dominant hold that churches in the West have had over church power structures and Christian institutions, as fresh new leaders emerge from countries which a generation or two ago were the recipients of missionary effort, but which today send far more missionaries than they receive.
Each of these changes are well documented and probably come as little surprise. Are there others that are emerging?

Here are three shifts which I detect – currently present only in embryo, but which hopefully will flourish in the future. Sorry if the alliteration is a little forced!

Shift 1: From secular to spiritual. This may seem a strange one, and some might accuse me of wishful thinking, but I sense that the church is becoming a little less secular and a little more spiritual. Was the church ever secular? Sadly yes. We have been through an era where we paid more attention to church growth consultants and accountants than to the message of Jesus. We tried to turn the church into a kingdom we could control – our own little empire. Far too often what has mattered most has been numbers, money and power. The watching world noticed, and concluded (with some sadness), that if you wanted spiritual counsel or insight, the church was not the place to look, for the churches first interest was to look out for its own interests. I think this is slowly changing. I think we want to put first things first. If this is a shift, it is one we must encourage.

Shift 2: From parroting to pondering. When you run a kingdom (as in Christendom) you have to have answers – bold decisive answers, answers that will stop dissenting voices. As new moral issues have bubbled to the surface we have been content to roll out the same old answers, often missing the altered nuance, or the seriousness of the question, and the inadequacy of our old answers. We need to move from trite platitudes quickly parroted far too quickly, to serious engagement with the questions of our time. For much of the previous 2000 years Christianity has been a serious thoughtful voice. More recently this has changed. While we tut tut our exclusion from the table of ideas, we have not seriously asked if this is because we have had so few new ideas, and that our contribution has often been unhelpful. I hope that in this new era we will ponder more deeply, listen more closely, and creatively apply the broad contours of our faith to questions that must be faced with fresh urgency.

Shift 3: From accusing to accompanying. I think here I am remembering the image of the church as an accusing pointing finger, quick to highlight the shortfall of others, whilst smugly sure that it always held the moral high ground. Now that it has become obvious that this is not the case, we can perhaps move from accusation to journeying alongside – or accompanying others. Life is difficult – the church of all places knows this. Our cry is Maranatha – come Lord Jesus. When we hear our own cry for help and deliverance, we can perhaps listen to the voices of those around us with greater empathy, and think more deeply of what our call to be the voice, hands and feet of Jesus might mean.

Put these three together, and is it too much to hope that emerging from the ruins of the previous era will be a church that is a little more spiritual, a lot more thoughtful, and which genuinely accompanies both those within and without its ranks, in the always complex and often tragic journey through life – and that as it does so it manages to breath the winsomeness and hopefulness of Jesus to all in its orbit?

While these are some of my thoughts, I thought I’d also ask the view of three notable Perth thinkers whose views I respect, Jon Bergmann, Karen Siggins and Josh Thomas. The two questions I put to each of them were: If we are seeing a 500 year “great emergence” what 3 things from the past should we discard, and what 3 things should we seek to adopt? They were naturally free to interpret and answer these questions in any way they wanted. I imagine you will find their answers as interesting as I did…

First up is Jon Bergmann. Jon is the Director of Vose Training, where he oversees our VET programs and is helping to develop our (our being Vose Seminary) soon to be launched non accredited training programs. As a 30 year old married father of 3, Jon brings a fresh and important voice to the table… Jon answers…

Some things to let go of:

1. Our obsession with simplicity. One of the things that I constantly hear from people when preaching and teaching is a desire for simplicity, as if the simplest or most obvious reading of a text/thought about God is necessarily the right one. I’ve often said to students that my goal is to complicate faith for them, because it is only in wrestling with these big ideas that we begin to think well. As well as this, life itself is inherently complex, and a faith that has been reduced down to its simplest parts is quite simply incapable of meeting the many challenges that life has for us.

2. Dualistic thinking is probably one of the biggest pitfalls of the modern Christian faith. It is connected to the first point, but is a little more pointed. Our faith as it is so often communicated is riddled with dualisms: church VS world, flesh VS spirit, good VS bad, right VS wrong… we seem so fiercely committed to breaking life down into manageable categories and refuse to acknowledge the fact that most of life is lived and experienced as nuance. Not only is dualistic thinking inherently untrue, it also only ever leads to pain. It is dualistic thinking that forces us to create “others” who we must then treat as other. It is dualistic thinking that causes us to exclude, alienate and hate. The Christian faith is one that holds the door open for nuance and complications, no matter how difficult or intimidating that is for us.

3. Cynicism. At the risk of sounding overstated, cynicism is the acid that erodes our capacity for love and hope, and is thus the enemy of genuine Christian faith. It was C.S Lewis who once said: “the point of being able to see through something is to see what lies behind it. To see through all things is the same as to see nothing at all.” This is true of cynicism; which is just the feigned practice of being sceptical of everything until there is nothing left to hope for. The tragedy of course is that cynicism is often birthed from experience of pain and suffering, and so feels legitimate and right for so many of us. The reality however, is that if we are to truly embrace a faith that is committed to the kind of Kingdom Christ proclaimed, we must abandon our role as the sceptic, and embrace our identity as the ones who speak only life, and hope.

Some things to embrace:

1. Imagination as our most important theological and hermeneutical tool. I love one of Mirsolav Volf’s sayings where he claims that “theology is not just about understanding the world it is about mending the world.” Systematic thinking, rationale and logic can get us a long way, but at some point we need to recognise that to embrace the reality of God’s kingdom we will need to unlock the power of our imagination. To be able to see what does not yet exist, and be committed to bringing that into the present is one of the key tasks behind our “on earth as it is in heaven” reality.

2. Beauty as a primary form of Christian witness. We need missionaries, we need apologists, we need preachers and we need evangelists. As we move into the future however I am convinved that the most powerful form of Christian witness will come in the form of art, literature, comedy, filmmaking, music, poetry and all forms of artistic expression. We cannot overstate the importance of being able to give voice and sight to the reality of God’s kingdom on earth and as we begin to think about how Christianity can contribute to society in an ever changing world we need to focus more and more on creating beautiful things. Alain de Botton has it right when he claims that “it is books, poems and painting which often give us the confidence to take seriously feelings in ourselves that we might otherwise never have thought to acknowledge.”

3. Empathy as one of the greatest virtues. Not just in relationships, but in our Scripture reading as well. Helen Paynter makes an interesting comment whilst dealing with the violent texts of the Old Testament. She notes that the dangerous thing for those who read these texts is not just that they would blatantly accept them as true, but that we feel no empathy at all towards the victims of such violence. She claims that we, as Christians, need to move from apathy to empathy, and allow our connection to God, ourselves and each other to move us toward developing a deeper and more robust approach to Scripture, so that we can begin to see beyond its surface into the deeper truths which lie underneath. Understanding the Bible as not simply a manuscript to conform to, but an invitation to a new kind of being in the world, brings life both to us, and to the world.

I asked the same question of Karen Siggins, who is the lead pastor of Lesmurdie Baptist Church. Karen is also the chair of the Assembly Council of the Baptist Churches of Western Australia, so she plays a very significant leadership role in our denomination. She wrote:

3 things to let go of

1. the fear of being wrong which means we are drawn to debate and the notion that when we speak with ‘others’ the goal is persuading them to our position because we need to be right. We need to let go of judgmentalism.

2. the fear of being marginalised which incites us to defend our ‘rights’ as the church (instead of pointing to Jesus) and means we are most often heard in the public space when we are unhappy with or against something – not very salt and light like! Let go of defensiveness.

3. the fear of letting ‘other’ people ‘in’ which is I think the fear of messiness and brokenness. This is quite a tragedy I think because Jesus is all about the broken and messy spaces and I do think this is where we actually live (it’s just that we try and make it look neater than it is). To this end we will probably need to let go of church membership as it currently exists (with the exception of that we need for meeting legal requirements of incorporation etc) because membership mostly counts some people with certain messiness and brokenness out while other messy and broken people get a pass in.

3 things to adopt

1. The art of genuine conversation whereby we listen to each other with a posture of kind curiosity reflecting a genuine desire to understand not persuade – this posture will mean we are prepared to ask ‘who are we not having conversation with?’ and ‘where have we not had conversations?’

2. A lighter faith pack! Not sure how to describe this well. What’s absolutely essential? What’s the good news? (i.e. God’s love and plans to restore all of his creation in Jesus). Pack that for sure and then leave space in the pack so there is relational space for the conversations at point 1 above. This will mean having a better big picture understanding of God’s story; reclaiming hope and reclaiming prayer, the Holy Spirit, life experiences (especially those experiences we have in community) as means by which we relate with God and he with us alongside the bible.

3. Intentionally promoting people into positions of influence who are under 35 years old (who naturally or instinctively understand the new world in a way a 50-60 year old can never do and who understand that the church needs more than a fresh look at the old ways) expecting and accepting that they will lead differently; allowing generously for mistakes and false starts; liberating them to go again and praying like crazy for them.

And then we have these helpful insights from Josh Thomas. Josh is the Associate Pastor at Lesmurdie Baptist, a father of two (and a third on the way) and while I’m not sure of his exact age, I don’t think he is yet 30…

Three let go and embraces I thought about were:

Let go of control and embrace movement. Similar to your first movement from secular to spiritual. As we let go of trying to control outcomes we become free to move where God is moving, which we can stifle when we try to dictate outcomes. There is more fruit in this space but it is scary to act faithfully and we have to trust God is guiding the movement where it needs to go.

Let go of Pride and embrace being surprised. Being wrong can be a marvelous thing as we learn more about the God we love and the people we live alongside. When our expectation of reality runs into the truth of reality there is opportunity to embrace what is true. When we are prideful, we rob ourselves of the chance to see the world as it really is.

Let go of the bible as God and embrace the God of the bible. I am not smart enough to weigh into this debate properly. My only insight that I have stolen from Andy Stanley or someone else is; When we use the bible to mistreat others, we are acting against God. I personally would go as far to say that correct use scripture must lead us to a greater love for God and a greater love for our fellow people.

Well, lots to ponder there. Naturally I am hoping that you will start thinking about your let go of and adopt list – and because the times are indeed serious, perhaps we will move from simply thinking about these things, to working and praying them into reality.

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Excellent post Brian and only just scratches the surface. I suspect the church has moved considerably further in this 500 yr change, but that church is not easily seen from within the established institutions. I am hopeful that this church will be more diverse and less visible in structure but more powerful and united in Spirit.

    • Thanks Glen. Very good to hear from you.

  2. Brian, Ian and I have both been reading this through a number of times to let it sink in, it resonates with us considerably. Thank you for sharing yours and the others profound thoughts, it’s really appreciated. We’re looking forward to seeing and hearing you at Lakelands on the 19th May.

    • Thanks Shelly. Look forward to seeing you and Ian at Lakeland’s on the 19th.

  3. Hi Brian, it is an excellent study and commentary, so very well researched and articulated. It takes some vision – and some courage – to put these sorts of thoughts out there…congratulations! And the invited inputs from colleagues give it even more strength and relevance.

    As with other opportunities in Australia, there is complacency which is quite misplaced in a relatively new ‘global village’ situation…in too many areas we and other western nations are sleepwalking our way to irrelevancy. And the Christian church appears entrenched in that.

    There seems a lack of realisation that the ‘brand’ has suffered significant damage over the past 20 years (or less). And it is difficult to find any reassurance that the Christian churches are individually and collectively working at putting that right as a priority.

    Not much value, in my (limited) understanding of what is happening churchwise in 2019 and beyond, wringing our hands at what is taking place out there in the schools, Rugby Australia, a possible Labor government(??) etc etc etc if the Christian brand is viewed as suss by a large part of the community. In turn it’s rather hard for us as individuals to channel ‘authenticism’ into much that goes very far when there’s no real marketing and strong brand identity out there, and therefore little (constructive) conversation running in the community to tap into.

    It is so refreshing to read your challenging words in the blog…I’ve taken the liberty of sending the link to a couple of leaders in 1church Lakelands/Mandurah. Your call to action should be a critical take-off point for a revival.
    ‘Could This Be God’ is likewise inspiring, I’m on my second cover-to-cover read after having dipped into various parts often at random.

    Looking forward to hearing more from you on the 19th.

    Blessings, very best wishes

    • Thanks so much Ian. These are really insightful and helpful comments. I take your point about it needing some courage to get these views out, but isn’t that part of the problem – that people don’t feel free to say what they think lest they face criticism or are shut down? But we need a range of views and serious discussions if we are to move forward. Thanks again.

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