Churches are famous for rummage sales.
“Rummage” is a word that gets very little play in contemporary conversation. It might be defined as “a confused miscellaneous collection.” A rummage is a mishmash, a jumble, a stew, a hodgepodge, a clutter, or an agglomeration of a great many items that at first glance appear to have little in common. We speak more often today of garage sales, flea markets, and yard sales – annual opportunities to clean out the attic or the basement.
The Right Reverend Mark Dyer, an Anglican bishop, has made an interesting observation. He suggests that about every 500 years or so the church at large has a giant rummage sale.
The church cleans out its attic, so to speak. Some things are worth keeping. Other things definitely need to be thrown away.
The late author and lecturer Phyllis Tickle agreed. She pointed out that after each of these every-500-year rummage sales, three things usually happen.
First, a new and more vital form of Christianity emerges. Second, the old, existing structures of the church – which had gradually become rigid, fossilized, and unbending – are changed for the better. And third, both the new form and the old form of the church begin to reach new geographies and new groups for Christ – something that could never have happened before.
The easiest way to examine this idea is to look at history itself.
We’re not likely to discover key events happening precisely at 500-year intervals. What we’ll find instead are general periods of growth and change. And the people who lived during these times didn’t always recognize their significance, let alone use the word “Great” to describe them. Nevertheless, if we go back 2,500 years, we can tentatively identify six “Greats” – including the time we’re living in right now.
500 B.C.: The Great Transformation. Historians have long been fascinated with what seems to have been an explosion of religious and philosophical enlightenment that happened simultaneously across the East and the West. Within a narrow window of time, the Jews return from exile in Babylon, buoyed by the writings of their greatest prophets. Buddha and Confucius introduce new schools of personal devotion. The Upanishads, some of the sacred texts of Hinduism, come into existence in India. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle take Western philosophy to new heights in Greece.
First Century A.D.: The Great Arrival. Jesus is born. After a brief ministry, he is crucified and resurrected. He and his disciples launch the global phenomenon of the church. The Romans besiege Jerusalem and destroy the temple in A.D. 70, leading to Christianity’s gradual departure from its Jewish roots.
500 A.D.: Gregory the Great. The Catholic Church’s place as the central force in Europe is secured by one of its finest popes, a man who humbly describes himself as “the servant of the servants of God.” Gregory’s advocacy of monasticism ensures that Christianity, as well as the ancient classics, will survive the so-called Dark Ages.
1054 A.D.: The Great Schism. After a thousand years of seeing themselves as members of the same universal Body of Christ, the spiritual leaders of both the West (the Catholics in Rome) and East (the Orthodox in Constantinople) excommunicate each other over fine points of doctrine and practice. Despite sincere efforts at reconciliation in recent years, this great divide remains.
1517 A.D. The Great Reformation. A German monk named Martin Luther, hoping to bring reform to Catholicism, nails his list of 95 theses (or theological talking points) on the church door in Wittenberg. Instead of dialogue he unwittingly ignites a revolution. Protestant congregations decide to separate from Rome. Catholic leaders ultimately reform their own church in dramatic fashion, and both Protestant and Catholic missionaries take the gospel around the world during the Age of Discovery.
Which brings us to today. Five hundred years after the Reformation, we live at a hinge-point in history in which virtually everything the church has held dear for the past two millennia seems up for grabs.
Is the Bible still trustworthy? Does creation still make sense in light of evolutionary theory? Should marriage uniquely remain a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman? Are denominations (all 32,000 of them) still worth holding on to? Do “real” followers of Jesus have to speak in tongues like the Pentecostals? Or try to change secular society like the Social Justice Christians? Or fight the culture wars like American evangelicals? Or return to the ancient beauty of liturgical worship like the Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans?
The rummage sale is on.
Phyllis Tickle called our time The Great Emergence. It’s a heady and exciting moment in history.
But we can’t overlook the fact that it’s also a jarring and disorienting moment for many who cherish a deep love for God and the church.
Insightful people agree that every expression of Christianity – whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, charismatic, or independent – needs to be transformed. We need a new Reformation – one that will preserve the theological and ethical treasures of what it has always meant to know Jesus (things that must never be jettisoned in a rummage sale), but which will also help us courageously say “Enough!” concerning attitudes and practices that betray the very heart of the gospel (things such as racism, homophobia, political hatemongering, and ignoring the plight of the poor).
As Jesus reminds us, the new wine of the Good News cannot be contained by old wineskins that have already expanded as far as they can. That enduring truth must be rediscovered by every generation of his followers.
So, what vibrant expression(s) of following Jesus will predominate over the next five centuries?
No one can say with assurance.
But here’s what we can say: God has always been in the business of doing something new. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19).
That new thing may not be a familiar thing.
But by the grace of the God who is Lord over history, it will be a very good thing.
The Great Emergence
Churches are famous for rummage sales.