Post-Emergence Christianity: The Era of Enfolding

T.D. Burnette
Jan 30, 2018 · 8 min read
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I sometimes get asked if what we are creating at the Way Collective is an “Emergent Church” project. I usually smirk and say, “Nah, we’re post-emergent.”

Now, if you are thinking to yourself…yet another thing that we’re now post!?

…I’d like to invite you to think with me for a moment about what it means to live into the post rather than into the past.

You see, I actually think that something has already emerged. There is a shift that has already occurred, and that we are now on the other side of an historic emergence.

But before we really get in to what has emerged and where we might be heading next, we need to take into account from where we have come.

Church historian Phyllis Tickle has laid out a paradigm in her book The Great Emergence that observes that about every 500 years, Christianity goes through a groundbreaking paradigm shift:

  • It all started in the first century with a Jewish rabbi named Yeshua who embodied a new way for humans to relate to the divine.
  • Then, as the Roman empire collapsed at the hands of the Germanic empires in the 5th century, the church was forced to go underground during the Dark Ages.
  • Then, there was the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches in the 11th century that separated Roman Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy.
  • Then, there was the Protestant Reformation of Catholicism in the 16th century.

And now, here we sit in the 21st century almost exactly 500 years from the Reformation.

Tickle set this conversation about Emergence Christianity in a wider cultural shift that she called the “Great Emergence.” I find that language to be helpful primarily because it does two things: First, it embraces that something great is happening; that there is a huge, monumental shift taking place. And second, it uses the language of emergence, which implies that something is coming forth; that something new is being birthed. And, absolutely it is. Can you feel it?

One feature of this Emergence Christianity that she has so poignantly named for us is that it is characterized by a generation of people who are now able to curate their own spirituality across denominational and even inter-religious lines. One analogy would be to say that people can basically be their own spiritual DJs, making greatest hits playlists of books, podcasts, practices, and even YouTube videos from their favorite spiritual teachers and traditions that are specifically tailored to their own, unique journeys.

Brian McLaren’s aptly named book from 2006 during the heart of Emergent Christianity entitled: “A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed- yet hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian” is, in its sheer staggering hyphenatedness, a perfect example of this confluent, emergent identity that has already arisen.

Although this hyphenated identity is such a gift to many of us who were guided by Emergent voices out of the either/or identities of Christendom, many of us who have come to inherit this slashy, “yes/and” identity from our Great Emergence culture also have an insatiable sense that we, after our exodus journeys, are still wandering without a sense of in which direction home is located.

And, as we are longing for community, many of us are also without the slightest idea as to what beloved community even looks like any more.

So, as we now stand at this new vista in the post-emergence era, we are on the cusp of an advent of sorts.

Many of us have felt the disorientation that comes with the deconstruction of our faith. But, while deconstruction and burning things to the ground is necessary and even sexy for a while, being so deconstructed that we can’t put our roots down anywhere is arguably immensely more infuriating than the gift of deconstruction’s transformational architecture.

And so it strikes me that now is a time for uniting in our wandering, isolation, and in our plurality of expressions.

So what will characterize this era of post-emergence?

My hope is that we can inhabit something I’m calling Enfolding Christianity.

A few years ago, some friends and I decided to gather people together to press into new content that would help facilitate this transition, and so we started a series of events entitled “Enfolding Spirituality, Enfolding Theology,” etc. We chose this name because we sensed this was a time for coming together. We noticed that history wasn’t simply unfolding as in a linear timeline, but that, along with many poststructuralist philosophers and theologians, we had to affirm that it was also en-folding.

Many of the large shifts in Christianity’s past were divisions that were marked by gravitational splits that created a rift within the existing church. East from West. Protestant from Catholic, etc.

And, although one characteristic of being in the time of Post-Emergence Christianity might very well be that Western people who still identify as Christians are rightly splitting off from a certain form of Evangelicalism (and that is a very real split), my sense is that this shift actually presents us with an opportunity that is the exact opposite of that. My hope is that season can be an en-folding, that is, a moment of coming together…of toppling back on oneself, one of confluence, of concrescence.

We need each other. Especially now.

Another way to say this is that it’s time to be Hyper-Christian.

And by this, I don’t mean Hyper-Protestant or Hyper-Believers. I mean Hyper-Christian as the prefix hyper means excess.

As we draw from the wide stream of various expressions within our tradition, we are able to see the beauty of our differences precisely in their plurality, and in turn, we might walk its well-worn paths anew for the 21st century as we curate a new way forward.

One concept that is important to note here is that this is not a return to some previous form of Christianity, or a digging in of one’s heels to a singular, ancient expression of it. In my tradition in the Disciples of Christ, there is often talk about restoring ourselves to the early church. This is not what I mean.

Actually, to use The Disciples as an example, we have one of the richest opportunities to embody a radical turn toward being Enfolding Christians. As we were the ones who historically split off from the Presbyterians so we could have an open communion table and be inclusive of all who identified as Christ-followers without judgment of how they performed their faith, there is a new potential for us now to turn toward catalyzing this same type of movement yet again in a new way.

As Protestantism, as well as much of our Western religious landscape is being reconfigured almost by the minute, Enfolding Christians are able to come together in such a way that we might facilitate the emergence of an enfolding of traditions without dismissing their particularities, but while letting them mutually transform one another so that something more beautiful may emerge.

I once asked a friend of mine who is a widely read Christian author:

“What should we take with us from our tradition into this new era of Christianity?”

His answer to my question was provocatively and profoundly simple:


Thing is, although his answer seems perhaps overly simplistic at first, I think he was actually right. Whatever a person’s relationship with Christianity has been, one thing is for sure: most people don’t have problems with Jesus. That is, the homeless, compassionate, healer and Nazarene prophet walking around the Galilean countryside in the first century.

So, where do most people’s huge problems with Christianity stem?

This answer is also pretty simple: Christians.

Things must change. Things have already changed. Things are still changing.

So as we move forward into the era of Enfolding Christianity in its Hyper-Christianity, my encouragement to all those journeying into this new space is to be courageous, playful, and innovative with what we have inherited. As we are lured forward, we are curating our own human journeys and also opening new spaces for people to belong in their becoming, and this is an exciting time to be doing this work.

If Jesus still gives us a central point of reference to guide our sacred human journeys, the ways in which Christ fleshes out in us will necessarily be multiplicitous. Here’s a peek into my sense for that will characterize Enfolding Christianity:

  • Enfolding Christian expressions’ models will be uniquely organic, localized, and cultured by the places they inhabit and the people who make them up. They will be similar to the new monasticism movement in the way they cooperate and work for common good in a region, but will be in a plurality of forms rather than in a uniform movement.
  • Enfolding Christian expressions will be rooted in shared practices, values, and rhythms of life not over or against belief, but while making space for the full spectrum of belief and non-belief. And it will continue to be our shared human virtues that drive us toward collective action for the betterment of our world.
  • Enfolding Christian expressions will necessarily be justly apocalyptic. As my friend Tripp has noted: “The shape of our faith puts us in a dynamism that judges the world as it is (in its injustice) and promises the world as it will be” if we would just live into it. This is what I mean by apocalyptic as we move toward a more just civilization.
  • Enfolding Christian expressions will be hyper-rational and mystical. One way to talk about this is to think of the pre-modern, modern, and post-modern constructs for seeing the world. We will not be returning to the mystery of the pre-modern mythic worldview, but will rather venture forward into a post-modern, hyper-rational form of dance with the mystery that integrates the era from which we have emerged and instead of being post-rational (that is, leaving rationality behind), we will be hyper-rational as we include both enlightenment advancements and a turn toward mystery and mysticism once again, but not mystification.
  • And lastly, Enfolding Christian expressions will be hyper. They will be mashups of people living into the stories, symbols, sacraments, and sacred calendar from the wide stream of the Christian faith, with inter-faith and non-faith entanglings. They will necessarily leave some things behind and also cultivate the tradition in such a way that new things can grow and blossom in a sort of hyper-confluence. This proposes that new ways of being will emerge in this time of enfolding that haven’t been before.

So, what does this all mean? It means that we’re creating this together. It means that the invitation is being held out to you and to all of us to explore and play and love and connect and grieve and midwife and steward and leave and come home again and again and again.

And so, at the advent of this moment of Enfolding Christianity, we recite with one of my favorite theologians, Jack Caputo, who picks up on a line from Jacques Derrida:

“Viens oui oui.”

Which is translated, “Come, yes yes” to that era of enfolding to come.

T.D. Burnette

Written by

Articles on the soul’s journey of becoming & wholeness. I’m singing the world using theopoetic & contemplative Christian languages. It’s a #processparty.

T.D. Burnette

Written by

Articles on the soul’s journey of becoming & wholeness. I’m singing the world using theopoetic & contemplative Christian languages. It’s a #processparty.

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