Author Phyllis Tickle lectures on social change, how the church needs to adapt

Saturday, March 15, 2014 | 7:05 p.m. CDT; updated 8:09 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 15, 2014

COLUMBIA — It's all about the stories.

The overarching narrative of the Scriptures, rather than isolated assertions they contain, is what is truly central to Christianity, Phyllis Tickle said.

A Q-and-A with Phyllis Tickle

Kellie Moore, the editor of Columbia Faith & Values (, conducted an interview with Phyllis Tickle about her vision of the future of Christianity and the role that technology has changed the dynamics of Christianity. Click here to read or listen to that interview.

Columbia FAVS is a local nonprofit religion news website and a media partner of the Columbia Missourian.

"It's the narrative we worship," Tickle said, citing a central view of what is known as "emergence" Christianity. This movement is the response of some believers to social change that has called for a new understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

On Saturday, the famous author and Christian thinker addressed a crowd at MU to talk about the challenges facing the church at "a time of great complexification."

Tickle is best known as founding editor of the religion department of "Publisher's Weekly," and the author of several books, including "The Great Emergence" and "Emergence Christianity."

Central to Tickle's discussion was her belief that Christianity is poised for a fundamental change as the result of the changing sociological context in which faith and religion exist. The last such change in Christianity was the Protestant Reformation, Tickle said. During these periods of change, the faithful find new answers to the questions of how they should live, what their values are and who or what has the authority to decide these things, she said.

Foundational changes in the past 150 years have fundamentally shifted American society, Tickle said. The slaves were freed, women moved out of their role as homemakers and the traditional American family structure has been upended. These changes, she said, challenged a status quo that people had justified through Scripture.

These changes have been disruptive, she said, but ultimately for the better.

These societal changes have been followed by technological advances that have reordered social life. Americans now spend, on average, almost one day out of the entire week online.

"We live in really weird times," Tickle said.

But at the same time, these changes have eroded the belief that the Bible has all authority to answer the basic questions of faith, of how Christians should live and of what they should value, Tickle said.

Emergence Christianity takes a different approach. Rather than insisting on the factuality or historicity of Scripture, the emergence movement tries to see Scripture as a coherent narrative that "is so absolutely beautiful it has to be true," Tickle said.

This movement holds that human logic cannot encompass the divine. God exists outside of space and time, which just doesn't fit into human categories of understanding, Tickle said.

Although the majority of the almost 150 people at Tickle's lecture were past middle age, her message was aimed at precisely this crowd. What the church needs, she said, is for the grandmothers and grandfathers who know the Scriptural stories to connect with the younger generations of the church.

It's important for elders to take a more prominent role in guiding the church through this difficult time of change because they are the ones who know the stories that make up the core of Christianity, Tickle said.

Traditionally, it has been the role of mothers in the home to pass along the stories and parables of the faith to their children. With women now working outside the home and extended families living long distances from each other, this practice of storytelling has largely been lost, Tickle said.

Of course, these social changes have been improvements for many, Tickle said. "It wouldn't be good to put momma back in the kitchen."

But she does think that the importance of Scriptural stories needs to be recovered. "There ain't been no storytellers since about '70," she said

Tickle hopes that older Christians will come to recognize the responsibility they have to revitalize storytelling within the church. Tickle, who turned 80 earlier in the week, said she's trying to embrace that role herself.

Saturday's lecture was part of a two-day event in Columbia during which Tickle met with leaders in the clergy and sat on a panel discussion with members of the MU faculty on Friday. A community worship service was also held Friday night at which U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II was the guest preacher.

After her Saturday morning lecture, Tickle led a discussion on her book "The Great Emergence" later that afternoon.

Supervising editor is Edward Hart.

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