Christianity due for a shake-up: Q-and-A with Phyllis Tickle on the future of faith

Mar 14, 2014

Religion expert Phyllis Tickle will be in town this weekend for two days of lectures and discussion on the topic, "What is the Future of Faith?"
Credit Image courtesy Missouri United Methodist Church.

Christianity is due for a major transformation – potentially, something as big as the Protestant Reformation.

At least, that's how Phyllis Tickle sees it.

Tickle is the founding editor of the religion department at "Publishers Weekly," and the author of more than two dozen books. One of them, "The Great Emergence," explores where Christianity has been, is now, and could be headed.

This weekend, Tickle is visiting Columbia for two days of talks focused around one question: "What is the future of faith?"

I spoke with her before her visit to find out more. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q:  The topic of the weekend is, “What is the future of faith?” Obviously, that’s a huge question – but could you give me a taste of what you’ll be talking about?

A: Absolutely, the future of faith is a huge title. And let’s be honest – none of us really knows, exactly. I think the best we can do is look at history and see what history teaches us about what has happened to the faith as it has moved through these evolving eras, and certainly about every 500 years we go through one of these major shifts – or at least, those of us who are within Latinized Christianity go through – the sixteenth century, 500 years ago, it was the Great Reformation. Five hundred years before that it was the eleventh century and the Great Schism. Five hundred before that it was the sixth century, and the great Decline and Fall. And 500 before that it was the first century – the Great Transition or the Great Transformation (scholars use both terms). And that’s not to say that – that’s not a predictive kind of recognition, it’s just a descriptive one. That we’ve been here before and done this, and been through something like this.

Every time we go through one of these things – one of these upheavals or rummage sales, or whatever you want to call them – everything is up for grabs. And it’s not just religion that comes into play. It’s the whole of society.

For us, it’s obviously the web, and electronics and information theory that tripped this one. For the Reformation, it was in many ways, the printing press, and advances in science that enabled it. And that made a change in the society in which Christianity functioned.

In the same way, this one is vastly changing the society in which Christianity is functioning, and Christianity has to change – or to accommodate. That doesn’t mean it changes its core message, or it changes its thrust. That’s not true. It changes its packaging or its presentation, if you will, or its emphases. And that immediately spreads right on over into theology, and ecclesiology, and spirituality.

Protestantism isn’t going to die. Every time we’ve gone through one of these things, whatever held hegemony, whatever held pride of place, has had to reconfigure, in order to accommodate the contextualizing changes around it, but it’s never died. And the truth of it is, one of the things I think inherited church is going to have to deal with first, and I may say so, is this kind of paranoia, or absolutely paralyzing fear, that 'Oh my goodness we’re not gonna be here in 50 years.' That’s – historically, that’s completely without foundation.

Q: What are some of the big questions you see as central to moving forward?

A: Every time we go through one of these things, there’s always one central question that is the same – regardless of whether it’s the Reformation or the Schism, it doesn’t matter. And that question is, "Where now is the authority." Or, put more crudely, "Who’s calling the shots." Or, as emergence Christians prefer to say, "How now shall we live?" It’s all the same question.

Every time we do one of these things, we lose the sense of who’s calling the shots. And we have to answer the question again.

Q: A little earlier you mentioned technology – the printing press during the Reformation, and the Internet today. What are some of the ways that today’s technology has played into the shifting dynamics of Christianity?

A:  It has led to identification amongst us that’s not geographic, and is not familial. Which has led to the breakdown, clearly, of the very conservative and conservatory village, or small group, or family unit that gave the individual both his or her values, and his or her patterns and his or her ambitions and aims, to a large extent. Certainly, his or her rooting was there – even if it were opposed, it still was there.

Technology also has – and I think maybe this one has not been appreciated as fully or touted as much – has meant that every man and every woman can be his or her own expert. All of the theological groups and doctrinal groups on the web, all of the people who are going forth and doing their own exegesis without benefit of clergy, all of the practicing clergy now – and their number increases almost every day – who are ordained within their communities but without any formal seminary training.

It’s a great time to be alive – it’s not for those who are of weak constitution, but for those who are of strong constitution, it’s a wonderful time to be alive. And for those of us who are 80 and about to get off the bus, it’s a fascinating time because we’re going to be made invulnerable to some extent, we’re not going to be around long enough to live with the consequences and we can watch with a certain impunity, which is of course the position from which I’m coming, whether I want to or not.

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When and where to hear Phyllis Tickle

  • 2 to 4 p.m. Friday, MU Student Center Leadership Auditorium: Tickle will be part of a panel with MU faculty members
  • 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, MU Tate Hall (adjacent to Jesse Hall): Tickle will give a keynote address
  • 1:30 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, MU Tate Hall: A lecture and Q-and-A with Tickle

As part of this weekend of events, there is also a community worship service at 7 p.m. Friday at Missouri United Methodist Church in downtown Columbia. The Rev. Emmanuel Cleaver, U.S. Congressman and retired pastor, will preach. Click here for more information.

You can also like "Future of Faith" on Facebook and follow @futureoffaith14 on Twitter.

This piece was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values. For more stories like this one, go to Columbia Faith &