(RNS) 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 www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

KRE/AMB END EHRICH

5 Comments

  1. David Thompson

    How people adhered to religious beliefs less than 100 years ago is still understandable, but any major claims that have been made by the holy books, regarding factual information, have been disproved in the last 75 years. Unless of course you close one eye and do a back-flip; then maybe it’s still believable (not). It’s amazing it’s lasted this long after The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Apparently there is nothing people won’t believe and nothing that they can’t deny.

  2. Comment marked as low quality by the editors. Show comment

    The United States is controlled by Jews. Jews control the media, hollywood, magazines, banks, and politics. Jews own the publishing houses and print the school textbooks. A lot of these public figures of other races are members of the secret society “Freemasonry” including Julian Bond. Freemasonry is controlled and led by Jews. This is about power, and protecting the Jews who have taken over all white countries. Jews view the white race as their enemies because the white race are the only ones who stand in their way to obtaining total world government control. The Jews want to make whites a minority in their own countries. Jews call any whites who bring this up racists because they don’t want white people to have political power. The Protocols of zion is the Jewish plan. All Jews and their freemason puppets of all other races are enemies of the white race. They are the racists. They hate the white race, they hate Christianity, they hate white traditions, they don’t want the white race to be independent. Jews want to dominate the white race. This is war, a race war. The Jews who have the power call the other races that they dominate racists. The Jews are pathological liars. A pathological liar is someone who lies to get what they want no matter who it hurts. White nationalism is the only logical response to this political domination by Jews in all white countries. This is about POWER! Whites must take back the power in their own countries. The Jews must be thrown out of power and freemasonry will be outlawed. If you don’t want whites to have power in their own countries, the you are a anti white racist and enemy.

  3. Gerald Ostroot

    I agree that the church thought it could stand still. It is a tradition bound institution and tradition is old knowledge. It has failed to keep up with the new knowledge provided by science. This has been fueled by two traditions, that of ‘inerrancy in the Bible’ (actually theirBbible interpretation) and that ‘God is in control of all events’. I could add the ‘Doctrine of Original Sin’. All are loosing credibility in our modern world. As a result the church is loosing its authority. The people are finding that science is more in tune with our modern world. Science is becoming our new authority. And the church has been fighting to retain its ‘old knowledge’. The answer, as I see it, is to join them rather than deny their findings. It is possible to do just that with some new interpretations They have already been suggsted. They are just not public knowledge as yet. Gerry

  4. And the mighty shall fall…
    We tend to forget that we are only a Christian nation because we usurped the spirituality of the people who lived here first. We spread the word that they were wrong and we were right. Then we set up barriers like a palisade that no one could commit the same atrocities to us that we had perpetrated on the First Nation’s peoples that we encountered. What a double edged sword!

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