Religious historians say that every 500 years, Christianity goes through a "massive transition," as noted religion writer Phyllis Tickle puts it.
Around 500 A.D., "barbarians" sought to subjugate Rome by wiping out its underlying religion. Christianity went underground. In abbeys like Iona, monks painstakingly copied Scripture and civilization's great writings, in effect saving Western civilization itself.
Around 1000 A.D. came the "Great Schism," when the Western church based in Rome and the Eastern church based in Constantinople fought over creeds and doctrine, political power and cultural hegemony. That split endures to this day between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Around 1500 A.D. came the Protestant Reformation, when nationalism born of exploration in the New World and new commercial wealth demanded an end to Rome's domination of European life. That split, too, endures.
Now comes a new millennium, and Christianity wears so many different faces that it's difficult to speak of a single "Christian movement." We see more than 1,500 denominations in the U.S. alone, by one count. There's a vast chasm between "First World Christianity" and the booming churches of Africa and Latin America; the virtual collapse of both Reformed and Roman churches in Europe; and now a relentless decline of institutional Christianity in North America.
Tickle calls this one the "Great Emergence." One could also call it the "un-formation of Christianity," or in Diana Butler Bass' words, "Christianity after religion."
Conservative Christians tend to blame a determined assault by outside forces such as "secular humanists" and atheists. As a result, they are pulling inward and demanding that the surrounding culture return to its Christian roots.
Progressive Christianity, meanwhile, searches for an explanation that looks forward, not backward, but its infrastructure is collapsing too fast for anything but stubborn clinging to old ideas that explain too little and new ideas that promise too little.
We aren't likely to comprehend this latest 500-year transition until it is further along. But I think two things are clear:
First, Christianity in North America is being freed from its own roots. Roman Catholics in the pews are straining to find why Rome and the pope are relevant to their faith needs. Mainline Christianity is moving beyond the captivity of white, middle-class, property-owning, optimistic serenity. Conservative Christianity is discovering that right opinion leads nowhere and a combative countercultural stance merely makes its proponents seem angry and judgmental.
Second, Christianity no longer controls the flow. Its ideas no longer shape cultural dialogue. Its leaders no longer command broad respect. Its buildings no longer draw people in by simply opening their doors. Churches' stubborn clinging to Sunday worship stopped working decades ago.
I don't see this as an attack from outside but rather a collapse from the inside. The world changed — as cultures, economies and political systems always do — and the church thought it could stand still and avoid offending pillars and pledge payers.
Meanwhile, people began finding their own pathways to God, their own languages for accessing God, their own ideas about life's purpose, and their own forms of faith community.
Stuck with inherited facilities that they cannot afford, with traditions that no longer resonate outside the bubble, with ranks graying and pews emptying, established church leaders seem ready to consider change.
Most will change too little and, once the immediate bleeding stops, will circle the wagons once again. But some will look outward and be moved to compassion by a nation lost in dysfunction and by lives being lost to our own mega-rich barbarians.
It's an exciting and hopeful time. Faith communities brought to their knees by changes beyond their control will land in exactly the right posture: to confess, submit, pray and serve.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is http://www.morningwalkmedia.com Follo.w Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.
--May 22, 2013