Book Club Discussion: The Gathering Center

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

In The Great Emergence, internationally renowned religion expert Phyllis Tickle puts forth a theory that Christianity is currently experiencing a significant paradigm shift, the kind that only happens every 500 years or so. She calls it “the Great Emergence.”

In Part 3 of the book, she describes this shift in terms of a “gathering center” in which Christians from the four corners (or quadrants) of Western Christendom—conservatives, renewalists, liturgicals, and social justice Christians—are moving toward the center, grabbing bits and pieces from each tradition and putting them together to make something entirely new. (The video above is especially helpful for visually communicating this point.)

Describing the initial emergence of this new church, Tickle writes, “Where once the corners had met, now there was a swirling center, its centripetal force racing from quadrant to quadrant in ever-widening circles, picking up ideas and people from each, sweeping them into the center, mixing them there, and then spewing them forth into a new way of being Christian, into a new way of being Church.” (p. 135) The center—the emergence itself—occupies no quadrant, coming instead from all of them. Tickle believes that this new form of Christianity will not mean the end of the traditions found within the four quadrants, but it will eventually become the most dominant of all.

According to Tickle, this is the natural result of urbanization and the information age, the result of “people swapping stories and habits, people admiring the ways of some other people whom they liked, people curious and able now to ask without offense.” (p. 135) She writes, “As a whole culture, as a social unit, we had at last become truly post-modern, post-denominational, post rational, post-Enlightenment, post-almost everything else that only a century before we had been, including post-Christendom. And these emergents, whose numbers increasingly include the white-haired as well as the young could now use the term inherited church to name the goods being placed on the rummage sale table. Inherited church was that from which they had come and to which they, literally, now had no means of returning.” (p. 136)

Of course, not everyone wants to get swept in by the centripetal force! Tickle explains that, in reaction to the gathering center, many Christians will retreat to their respective corners, or religious traditions, which isn’t an entirely bad thing because it serves as a sort of ballast to keep the boat of Christendom from tipping during the upheaval of the Great Emergence. You might call the people riding this current "reactionaries.

Those riding the currents of the gathering center fall into four loose categories, according to Tickle:

  • Traditionalist: Traditionalists “lend stability to a faith in transition.” But unlike the reactionaries, traditionalists are willing to adjust to and welcome gradual change. Many will reconfigure, or reform, their particular quadrants in reaction to the Great Emergence.
  •  Re-Traditionalists: According to Tickle, re-traditionalists “have also chosen to stay with their inherited church, but at the same time energetically wish to make it more fully what it originally was.” (p.141) 
  • Progressive Christians: Progressive Christians are somewhat traditional, but they feel the pull of the great swirl toward the center that characterizes the Great Emergence. While wanting to maintain their position in institutional Christianity, “they also want to wrestle with what they see as the foolheartedness of holding on to dogma-based ideas and doctrinally restricted governance and praxis.”(141) This group wishes to adapt to realities of postmodernism while remaining within their religious communities.
  • Hyphenateds: These are the so-called “Presby-mergents, the Metho-mergents, the Angli-mergents, the Luther-mergents” and so on. Hyphenateds live on the margins and are the closest to the Emerging Center. It is unclear whether they will eventually land within their quadrants or if they will be drawn more toward the center and leave their old communities behind to start something new. 

And then there are the "emergents," who, for now, can best describe their position as “a conversation.” Tickle describes the Emergent Church as global, radical, relational, non-hierarchal, and a-democratized. She is a bit vague here, but she puts forth some interesting ideas about how the Emergent Church might come to operate using the basic principles of network theory and crowd sourcing...which is interesting, but more detailed than I can handle in a single post—so read the book!

So, do you sense this overall gathering at the center? Which quadrant do you come from, and on which “current” do you travel—traditional, re-traditional, progressive, or hyphenated? Or do you consider yourself emergent? If so, what does that mean to you?

Don’t you think we should make a Facebook quiz entitled, “On which current of post-Enlightenment, post-modern Christianity are you surfing?” Fun times.

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