How Millenials Question Church Authority–The Great Emergence

The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle (2012)

Summary from… North American Christianity is presently undergoing a change every bit as radical as the Protestant Reformation, possibly even as monumental as its natal break with Judaism. And it’s right on schedule. Tickle, author of God-Talk in America and PW’s founding religion editor, observes that Christianity is holding its semimillennial rummage sale of ideas. With an elegance of argument and economy of description, Tickle escorts readers through the centuries of church history leading to this moment and persuasively charts the character of and possibilities for the emerging church…


Where do we seek our authority? It seems like such an easy question for a Christian; for a church. But what if this is not really as easy a question as it sounds? What if, in fact, the response to this question has evolved over the nearly 2,000 years since the resurrection of Christ, just as the Christian Church has evolved? This question and many others help fuel some wonderful insight, reflection, and conversation within the pages of ‘The Great Emergence.’

Once again, I’m not here to write a review (there are many wonderful reviews online). I would rather spend some time reflecting on this question of authority, and my experience of Christianity growing up as one of those older Millenials in the 1980s and 90s. I grew up in the church. I was born to a Catholic father and a Presbyterian mother. I was baptized at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Parma, Ohio. I went to Sunday school at Parma-South Presbyterian Church in Parma Heights. I sang in the choir, was active in youth group, confirmed, and even served on a few committees. With all of this activity, I bet my younger self would stumble with a question about authority, and many of us do today.

Is the authority of the Christian Church in some leadership, like the Pope, General Assembly, or a pastor? Is the authority in Scripture alone? Is the authority in the human experience? Or the person of Jesus? Or maybe the authority is in what we observe today as having the power in most churches. Maybe it’s in the choir, or the older members, the biggest donors, the loudest complainers, the most aggressive Session members, or the preschool. Where is the authority in the Church today?

What Tickle would argue, and what I agree with, is that with the modernist age, we, as humans, were more easily able to identify parts of our religious life: good, bad, black, white, Christian, not Christian. Maybe authority was a little simpler then as well. Liturgy, Scripture, Spirit, Social Justice. The reality, however, is that we as a culture have moved beyond the black and white world. In fact, much of our realities are dwelling in shades of grey (some call it post-modern; some say we are even beyond post-modern thinking). Some Christians may read such a statement and react with anger, fear, or worry. After all, there is Truth in Christ.

Yes, there is Truth in Christ, and there is also the realization that the world is no longer black and white, and the Christian Church is no longer black and white (despite what Sunday mornings may show us). The Christian faith experience has become as diverse as much of the world has. The Millenial Christian experience of things like liturgy, social justice, Spirit, and Scripture are constantly being held in tension, as Christians today no longer choose simply one or the other, but experience the breadth of such tension within ones faith life simultaneously.

So what does this mean for the future of the Church? Like Tickle observes, yes, the Church is in the process of its ‘500 year rummage sale’. Ideas are being evaluated, criticized, some thrown out, and others negotiated. New experiences of Christianity are not only being observed, but celebrated. Other expressions of faith and worship…being Church…will no longer be practiced.

And I’ve got news for you. While some individuals may be fearful of this somewhat unknown future of the Church, many of us are quite excited by the uncertainty. Many of us are even energized by the unknown. Yes, Church may not be as it was 100 or 50 years ago. Church may not even be as we grew up with just a few decades past. But it is an exciting time to be listening for the movement of God in the world today. It is life-giving to envision being the hands and feet of Christ in a world that is yearning for a message of healing and love. It is a new day; a new Church, and I’m thrilled at the possibilities that the future may hold.

In a weird way, this generation has been preparing for this time. Merely by circumstance, many young people have been equipped, empowered, and afforded the opportunity to help with this Christian rummage sale. Even with declining membership, budgets, and social influence by many of the institutions that I grew up with and still identify with, we are not afraid or feeling ill equipped. Many of us are ready and excited to take on the mantle of leadership that will be the Church of this age and the future.

So the elephant in the room is still the question that Tickle asks throughout her book: where is the authority today? The authority of the Christian Church is in the resurrected Christ. Yes, people and churches will argue and disagree on what this looks like in different aspects of today’s world. But the wonderful thing about today’s generation is that we are okay with this tension. We are okay with observing the grey of the world. We are okay, and perhaps celebrate, what generations throughout the Christian tradition have called the ‘mystery of faith’. Let us live into that mystery together, as we imagine, and then live out, the Church today and share this Good News with the world.


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