Sometimes, it is hard to understand what God is up to. That was certainly the way it was in the days of the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah’s day, the empire of Babylon had come against Jerusalem in three waves. By the time it was over, the city and the Temple lay in ruins. The wealth and most of the population of Jerusalem had been captured and taken to Babylon. Within the preaching of Jeremiah, we can discern a deep grief and uncertainty about what God is up to and whether God is still with them. The prophet laments, questions God, and sometimes seems to despair. But amid the grief, questioning, and lamentations, Jeremiah told of a God that would not forget God’s people. No matter the circumstances, God was up to bringing something better out of what was.
Sometimes, it is hard to understand what God is up to in our lives and in our world too. Nation and Church seem to be in decline. Our churches (fundamentalist, evangelical and mainline) are all experiencing declining membership and attendance. The pandemic didn’t help that.
Church historian and author, Phyllis Tickle makes the point in her book, The Great Emergence, that every 500 years, the Church goes through a time of upheaval. She likens it to a giant rummage sale where the Church “cleans house” and decides what to dispose of and what to keep, making space for new things. Looking back over the past 2000 years, the time of Christ was the first rummage sale when Jesus created a new understanding of our relationship with God. It was the time of the Great Transformation. Five hundred years later, there was the collapse of the Roman Empire and the entering of the Dark Ages. In this era, the Church entered a time of perseveration as the Church went underground with monks and nuns practicing the monastic tradition. Next, in 1054, came the Great Schism when the Church split into the Eastern and Western branches. Then, in the 1500s, came the Reformation, resulting in new branches of the Christian tradition with different understandings of how people relate to God personally through prayer and the Bible. Every 500 years, she says, there were great shifts in the Christian tradition that resulted in changes of understanding and practice. Now, it is 500 later. Tickle says if history is any guide, the Church of Jesus Christ will again go through a Great Emergence, when new ways of thinking about and being church will begin.
I don’t know if Phyllis Tickle is right or not, although one can sense a restlessness about church and a desire for authenticity, relevance, and spirituality. So, now might be the time when we are on the cusp of the Church beginning to experience another Great Emergence.
Whatever the future holds, we can know this: Christ has built his Church upon the confession and belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and the gates of death itself will not prevail against it. Times will change. Church will change its methods and practices. But the Church, if it is to be the Church, will always proclaim that bedrock belief. I really believe God is up to something. God is always up to something. God is working through the Church to model for the world the ways God intends for the world to be and to behave. The Church is at the center of God’s plan for the future, and God has chosen the Church to proclaim the mystery of God, which is Christ in us, the hope of glory.
Rev. Brad Thornton