Many public pundits and prognosticators, including the new prophet of the emerging church, Phyllis Tickle, have announced that we have entered a "Third Reformation." Unlike the first reformation - often identified as the 'Great Schism', a theological break over the filioque clause in the 11th century between Orthodoxy and Catholicism; or the second reformation - often identified as the Protestant Reformation, a schism in the Roman Catholic church over ecclesial practice and doctrinal reform - the third reformation, which, according to Phyllis Tickle is "The Great Emergence." This new third reformation, "The Great Emergence," signals the death throes of the Constantinian church and the rise of the "age of the Spirit." For Tickle, the rise of the age of the Spirit is the mark of the emerging church in western Christianity, which has not yet fully emerged. So the third reformation cannot yet be fully identified. Nevertheless, Tickle cites the marginalization and decline of the traditional church, the rise of technology and its influence on ecclesial practice, the charismatic rise of Christianity in third world countries, as well as a general cultural malaise towards the Western church in its current form. She notes that the "emerging church" movement in the U.S. and other Western countries are a prelude to what the future holds for Christianity.
In principle, I agree with Tickle. The church has been a politically pliable organization since its inception. Christ gave the church a body, a power source and a mission; but never really identified a permanent structure, doctrine or liturgy for which the church would give its life. Hence, the contemporary church continually debates the issues of structure, doctrine and liturgy, rather than focus on that which it was given in the beginning - exercising and care of the body, cultivating the power source and constantly fine-tuning its mission. And so today, theologians, ministers and Christians-in-general constantly wrangle over what the church should look like, how it should operate, and, what it should do. Indeed, this has become a cottage publishing industry!
Whatever the church will become is still to be seen. It seems to me that we are still in the process of fragmenting in the West. The traditional church is in serious decline while other ecclesial expressions are rising quickly and, in some cases, declining just as fast. We are seeing the rise of the emerging mega-Church pastor and the mega-Church pastor 'concert' tour (e.g. Rob Bell: Everything is Spiritual Tour 2006). Disaffected contemporary Christians are leaving the traditional church under the guise of 'spiritual but not religious' and are experimenting with hybrid forms of spirituality, often combining religious liturgical traditions, or substituting alternative philosophical and recreative practices for them altogether. Whatever the church will become is truly, yet to be seen - but what we do now is that it is being transformed, and we are now in a time of deconstruction and transformation.
What are some of the possibilities?
1) The Renewed Ecumenical and Catholic Church. Many of my colleagues envision the church coalescing into, or better, re-forming into the one apostolic and catholic church. They see a return to a renewed Rome within a vibrant ecumenical framework. The church retains its Constantinian status, but doctrinal divides are dissolved through ecumenical dialogue.
2) The Underground Church. In light of continuing political disenfranchisement in the West, many see the church going into an 'underground', pre-Constantinian existence, with lay pastors and simple social ministries. Much more of a first century model.
3) The Apostolic Church. Several contemporary 'apocalyptic' prognosticators believe that the present church will simply die away and that a new church will arise, founded on new apostles and prophets. This understanding of the purpose of the third reformation is questionable.
4) The Missional Church. The missional church is a reconfiguration of the contemporary church. It consists in a change of focus - whereas the contemporary Constantinian church is focused on doctrine and liturgy, the post-denominational missional church is focused more fully on the mission of Christ.
5) Or maybe a reconfiguration even more radical…
I have my own ideas and will explore them even more in the following blogs. If you - my readers - have ideas about what the church could or should, look like or be like, I would enjoy hearing about it!