Today’s blog continues the conversation about Emergent Church – inspired by Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence. Today, I’m moving beyond Tickle’s observations to add some of my own. Having had my ministry formation in the Catholic Church, being employed in the Catholic Church for ten years and now having worked in secular ministry for another ten, I have seen some interesting things about what is happening and what seems to be coming in the emergence of a new way of being church that is trying to break forth into the world.
Where is the authority?
As Phyllis Tickle frequently reminds in her book, every past major transition in Western Christianity has been defined by the question and settled in the answer, “where is the authority?” This transition is no different. I have had a deep sense of this for a very long time and my suspicions were confirmed and words were given to what I felt emerging in the writings of Joachim de Fiore. A twelfth-century theologian, Joachim predicted a time in the history of the Church when people would no longer look toward the Institution as an intermediary between themselves and God, but would instead, seek to know God directly and would bypass the Institution and go directly to God for guidance, direction, comfort, learning and support. He called this time, “The Age of the Holy Spirit.” I believe that this is EXACTLY what is happening today and will ultimately become the ground upon which the new way of being Church will take root and grow and the answer to the question of authority. Authority – in the church that is trying to be born, will be GOD. What is interesting about this is that this is the EXACT answer that distinguished the first generations of Christians from just another sect within Judaism and by default, created a new way of being church:
Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! (Acts 5: 29)
The causes of this trajectory toward authority resting in God instead of Church are as follows:
Searching Stage of Spiritual Development
Collectively, we are in the midst of the searching stage of spiritual development (See Fowler). We are asking questions. We are seeking knowledge. We want to understand the whys and the hows and if things don’t add up, we challenge it. This is a critical and important stage of spiritual development and needs to be supported and encouraged if the Church ever hopes to have educated and empowered members. The problem is that the Institutions, by and large, resist this stage of spiritual development, and some even condemn it. “Sit down. Shut up. Don’t ask questions. Do what you are told.” But more and more Christians are growing up and want more, which leads me to my next point.
Longing for God
I believe this trajectory of authority is arising first, out of our longing for God. Church, as we have known it, has done a great job of telling us about God from the perspective of (mostly) white men who have been placed in positions of authority. While some of what has been said about God is helpful, the generation in which we now live longs for more. This longing, I believe, has been planted within us by God and through this longing, we want to KNOW God – directly, personally, and intimately. In the Church that is trying to be born, direct experience will not only be supported, it will be encouraged and will eventually become the norm.
Uppity Lay People
The trajectory of authority toward God over Church is arising, secondly, out of an educated laity. The time of the clergy being the most educated in town is over. In Western society, the level of education of the laity (the peeps in the pew) is rising and often far surpassing that of their pastor. Additionally, lay people are seeking ministry and theological education and formation resulting in some laity that is at least as educated on matters of theology, Church practice and spirituality, as their pastors, if not more so. Furthermore, we are living in an age of reason and in the information era. Rational knowledge is king and it is readily available literally at our fingertips. And educated, knowledge-driven laity will no longer be satisfied with “because that’s the way it has always been done,” or “because that is what is written in Canon Law.” And first and foremost, for an educated laity, things need to make sense. If a member of the community has a gluten intolerance, isn’t it better to bend the rules about how communion bread is supposed to be made according to Canon Law, than deny them the Eucharist? And if abstaining from meat on Fridays is supposed to instill humility and keep us mindful of the people in the world who are hungry, then how is a $20.00 a pound perch better than hamburger at $4.00 a pound?
If authority rests is God, then is what need have we of Church?
This is the question I have been asking myself just about every day. And I have to give reader, John Backman credit for the answer that most resonates with me:
“The Church can serve well as an informer and guide to that conscience to which we are giving primacy.”
John, I think you hit the nail on the head. If authority rests in God, then the Church has the important and very valuable and necessary task of providing us with the Spiritual Formation (which differs from religious formation) that gives us the tools through which we can hear and listen for God and then discern the voice of God from that of our ego. Visually, I see the Church has a mother eagle, carrying us to the realization of our greatest potential. Additionally, I see the Church as shepherd, providing the space and the structure through which we can come together as community to DO the work Jesus sent us to do – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, set captives free. Seems like a no-brainer to me.