Hitting the 500-year Wall

Every half a millennium or so, waves of change rock Christianity until they cause the kind of earthquake that forces historians to start using capital letters.

"What happened before the Great Reformation, we all know," said Phyllis Tickle, author of "God Talk in America" and two dozen books on faith and culture. "We know, for instance, that some sucker sailed west and west and west and didn't fall off the dad gum thing. That was a serious blow."

So Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and then a flat, neatly stacked universe flipped upside down. Soon, people were talking about nation states, the decline of landed gentry, the rise of a middle class and the invention of a printing press with movable type. Toss in a monk named Martin Luther and you're talking Reformation — with a big "R" — followed by a Counter-Reformation.

Back up 500 years to 1054 and you have the Great Schism that separated Rome and from Eastern Orthodoxy. Back up another 500 years or so and you find the Fall of the Roman Empire. The transformative events of the first century A.D. speak for themselves.

Church leaders who can do the math should be looking over their shoulders about now, argued Tickle, speaking to clergy, educators and lay leaders at the recent National Youth Workers Convention in Atlanta.

After all, seismic changes have been rolling through Western culture for a century or more — from Charles Darwin to the World Wide Web and all points in between. The result is a whirlwind of spiritual trends and blends, with churches splintering into a dizzying variety of networks and affinity groups to create what scholars call the post-denominational age.

Tickle is ready to call this the "Great Emergence," with a tip of her hat to the edgy flocks in the postmodern "emerging church movement."

"Emerging or emergent Christianity is the new form of Christianity that will serve the whole of the Great Emergence in the same way that Protestantism served the Great Reformation," she said, in a speech that mixed doses of academic content with the wit of a proud Episcopalian from the deeply Southern culture of Western Tennessee.

However, anyone who studies history knows that the birth of something new doesn't mean the death of older forms of faith. The Vatican didn't disappear after the Protestant Reformation.

 This kind of revolution, said Tickle, doesn't mean "any one of those forms of earlier Christianity ever ceases to be. It simply means that every time we have one of these great upheavals … whatever was the dominant form of Christianity loses its pride of place and gives way to something new. What's giving way, right now, is Protestantism as you and I have always known it."

It helps to think of dividing American Christianity, she said, into four basic streams — liturgical, Evangelical, Pentecostal-charismatic and old, mainline Protestant. The problem, of course, is that there are now charismatic Episcopalians and Catholics, as well as plenty of Evangelicals who are interested in liturgical worship and social justice. Conservative megachurches are being forced to compromise because of sobering changes in marriage and family life, while many progressive flocks are being blasted apart by conflicts over the same issues.

In other words, the lines are blurring between once distinct approaches to faith. Tickle is convinced that 60 percent of American Christians are worshipping in pews that have, to one degree or another, been touched by what is happening in all four camps. At the same time, each of the quadrants includes churches — perhaps 40 percent of this picture — that are determined to defend their unique traditions no matter what.

The truly "emerging churches" are the ones that are opening their doors at the heart of this changing matrix, she said. Their leaders are determined not to be sucked into what they call "inherited church" life and the institutional ties that bind. They are willing to shed dogma and rethink doctrine, in an attempt to tell the Christian story in a new way.

"These emergent folks are enthusiastically steering toward the middle and embracing the whole post-denominational world," said Tickle. "We could end up with something like a new form of Pan-Protestantism. … It's all kind of exciting and scary at the same time, but we can take some comfort in knowing that Christianity has been through this before."

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    Like – uh – ummm – what am I supposed to get out of this?

    From reading it, I guess I’m a ‘Death Before Emergence’ guy. But, that tells me nearly nothing.

    Remember, I love you, too .

    In our delighted glory in our Infant King,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @catholicexchange.com or … yahoo.com)

  • Guest


    That Protestants themselves realize that all their structures of the past 500 years are dissolving.  They have been splintering since the beginning — Luther, Calvin, Zwingli — but now they are disappearing completely.  Will they even be recognizably Christian in a couple of generations?  Will they still have valid baptism?  All these questions should be of deep concern to Catholics since they affect the way we relate to them both ecumenically and evangelistically.

  • Guest

    As technology has advanced these "change" cycles have grown briefer and briefer. Recall that along with the Reformation came the printing press. For the next two centuries Western Civilization saw another wave, which turned into an ideological tsunami, called "the Enlightenment." Enlightenment thinking changed forever the way we (in the West, but also now those in the East) think about religion, politics, culture, science, even interpret history, and not necessarily for the better (Rudolph Bultmann, anyone?).

  • Guest

    I think you are supposed to get a chuckle as Ms. Tickle sees this seismic change in Christianity worldwide based on her observations of just the American Protestant church.  "The simplification of anything is always sensational." – Chesterton, Varied Types

  • Guest

    It sounds to me like Protestantism is heading for a lot more splintering.  The problems American Episcopalians are having with the world-wide Anglican union are an example of this.

    On the othe hand, this makes me all the more greateful to be Catholic.  After 2000 years, Rome is still Rome,  and in fact in the Vatican, there seems to be a push nowadays toward reconcilliation between eastern and western Catholics, and toward some sort of pax with Islam and the other great religions of the world.


  • Guest

    I do see this as a seismic change but I don't see the Emergent church movement being it. What we are seeing is an acceleration of a liberalizing trend that has been in protestantism from the beginning. It is self destructing. The emergent church movement will last a few decades but it won't be the long term answer either. This is Cardinal Newman's theory becoming reality. All reflection ultimately leads either to Catholicism or to atheism.

    This is why Pope Benedict's emphasis on the church having the fullness of truth is so key. He has made that point a few times and there is another document coming out next week to make it again. He sees the church as the only port in the coming storm. He is determined to make clear the distinctions between the church built on the rock of Peter and those built on foundations of sand.

  • Guest

    It seems Phyllis Tickle and by quoting her, Mr. Mattingly are trying to lump Catholicism in with Protestantism and sweep both out the door.

    As mentioned by one person above, the Vatican has been clear.


    “According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery19 cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense”

    Mr. Mattingly, the Catholic Church has survived many heretical attacks. When others come and go, as history indicates they likely will, please do not assume that the Catholic Church will follow them into the wasteland of failed religions.

    Jesus said to the Church of Apostolic origin, that the Gates of hell will not prevail.

    Please come home to the Catholic Church.

  • Guest

    When Paul Potts, a shy cell phone salesman from Wales, can attain worldwide fame in a matter of weeks and have his debut album become a bestseller – all due to the phenom called youtube – we gotta know we have entered a new era.  Little can be carved in stone anymore, largely due to instant computerized communication – a communication not commandeered by multi-media moguls with their politically correct take on news, ideas and culture.  Despite all the hype over the Iowa and New Hampshire caucus frontrunners and potential up-the-middlers, this upcoming nomination race and election can turn on a dime overnight – all it takes is one gaffe by a nomination frontrunner or presidential candidate and be assured the gaffe will become an instant youtube hit reaching inboxes exponentially in days – and potentially changing nomination or election selections. 

    While I sometimes despair over the future of Christianity in North America, and especially the potential of anti-Christian culture my children and grandchildren could live in, I recall that the same enormous power that is the multi media which helps shape the North American mind today could also become the instrument to effect a conversion of minds to Chrisitianity.  Just imagine what would happen were Oprah Winfrey to announce she had converted to devout Catholicism and appear on Marcus Grodi's Journey Home on EWTN.  The ripple effect would be immense.  A society tapped into television, the town crier of the 21st century, can just as easily become mesmerized and convicted by the big T Truth as it is by the swillish fare that fills our screens today. 

  • Guest

    I think the reason Protestantism has struggled since it emerged 500 years ago is preciely because it was willing to throw out dogma and rethink doctrine.  I also think that is one reason why the gates of hell will not prevail against Holy Mother Church is because She will not throw out dogma and rethink doctrine.  She does of course refine doctrine as times change, but that is completely different from rethinking doctrine.  After all is said and done, humans need something reliable in which they can trust.  They will always find that something reliable in which they can trust in Holy Mother Church!

  • Guest

    Without a doubt we are called to engage whatever culture comes into being-but not at the expense of Truth. And I think we can do this in new, exciting and compelling methods. This is exactly when I begin smiling while reading the Scriptures comments about houses built on sand. Indeed, from my analysis it is the social cultures that are as much in flux as the various "communities of faith".


    The "windier" it gets, the more one needs the Rock. And that Rock we have. And the gates of hell will not prevail–so have heart and keep on sharing the Truth. And BE NOT AFRAID.


  • Guest

    I wonder how many reponses on here about Protestants are based on actual experiences with them, any decent amount of reading what they believe or what?

    Joseph Bailey

  • Guest

    Sure they are — many of us have Protestant friends and relatives; we work with Protestants; we sometimes pray and have Bible studies with them; we work with them in pro-life work; we listen to them on the radio, etc.  Some of us even were Protestants. You are not supposed to be on this thread.  Are you begging me to lock you off this site?

  • Guest

    Look, let me save you the dilema since it is apparent that you feel inclined to single me out and say where and what I can read.  Good grief, grow up.


    Joseph Bailey

  • Guest

    I think Phyllis Tickle has confused "post denominational" with "post modern" and also confused "Pan-Protestantism" with "Pan-Theism" which are both where the "emergent church" will lead.

    Regarding Mr. Bailey's question about [Catholics'] experiences with Protestants, I can only say that I am a Protestant who is currently getting more solid teaching from this website, and links I have followed from it, than I would have thought possible even just a year ago. I've read a couple of Pope Benedict's books, some of the works of the Church Fathers, and various Papal encyclicals, and, to my surprise (because of my own lack of "actual experiences with [Catholics], any decent amount of reading what [Catholics] believe or what"), God's grace and the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ on the cross are the central teachings of all of these writings/teachings.

  • Guest

    It takes very little experience with or reading into Protestantism to know they have rejected dogmas such as the True Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.  They have also rethought and reworked the doctrines regarding Holy Confession and salvation through faith demonstrated by works inspired of the Holy Spirit.  Finally, in the late 19th Century, they created the idea of "the Rapture."


    Please do not think I am a Protestant basher — I am not.  My Grandmother was a devout Methodist.  I just recognize they are wrong about much of their doctrine and many of them have strange and very wrong ideas about the Catholic Church.

  • Guest

    It's those strange and very wrong ideas about the Catholic Church that I am admitting I had. But since I have been reading Catholic writings and perusing various websites linked to this one, I realize that my ideas were, in fact, strange and wrong. So I'm recommending that Mr. Bailey might want to apply his own criticism/question to himself. 

  • Guest

    The United States of America is overwhelmingly a Protestant country. It is difficult for a Catholic living in the USA to avoid "actual experience" with them. I'm sure that we have all met both Catholics and Protestants who have never charitably considered the other's beliefs.

  • Guest

    Come back, RandyGritter, come back!!!  Where did Cardinal Newman say this???

  • Guest

    Fizzist, I apologize if you thought my second comment above was aimed at you.  I did not have have the benefit of your comment when I posted mine.


    I also agree with Protect the Rock that there are probably many on both sides of the fence who have never considered, much less charitably considered, each others' belief.


    I have to confess that there was a time that I actually considered Holy Mother Church for Protestantism.  There are three major reasons I did not:

    No other Christian Church teaches the True Presence — and I would not and will not ever give that up.


    A letter I wrote to Pope John Paul II was answered with charity and a pastoral tone.


    Two letters I wrote to the local Archbishop were also answered with charity and a pastoral tone.


    Since that time God has allowed me to come to know more in-depth truth about the doctrines and dogmas of Holy Mother Church and to recognize wher I went wrong.


    What an awesome God we serve!

  • Guest

    I meant I considered leaving Holy Mother Church for Protestantism.

  • Guest

    I returned to the Catholic Church through the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus over fifteen years ago. I will never leave "His Side" again. At every Mass I continue to offer up the conversion of all hearts to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus for all my Christian brethren, including the harden hearts of many Catholics. The Lord has blessed me in miraculous ways ever since I've opened the door of my heart to His. I also believe that the next "phase" of the Church will be the full knowledge and grace of His Eucharistic Heart. What a great witnessing for all who are called to His Table!


  • Guest

    Does it seem that Ms. Tickle confuses popular belief (flat world) with dogma (absolute Truth)?  Popular belief said the world was flat but in truth is was not.  Comparing faith with mans limited knowledge of science isn't apples to apples.