Arthur Lough and I agreed to meet on Monday afternoon for coffee and conversation at our favorite downtown hangout. He was already there when I arrived, although I was not late. (Neither of us has patience with people who are always “running late.” In fact, during the first few minutes of our last meeting, we listed a number of people, mainly clergy, who were always late to their appointments, no matter what kind of meeting and no matter who they were meeting with. We agreed that it showed disrespect and was decidedly unprofessional.)
We had also agreed that we would each pay for our own drink whenever we met like this and thus avoid the uncomfortable whose-turn-is-it-today? moment when it was time to leave. Arthur was stirring his decaf Americano as I set my mocha latte on the table and took a seat across from him.
“It used to be that, when somebody asked me if I preferred decaf,” Arthur began, “I would always say something like, ‘Decaf? What’s the point?’ I don’t say that anymore.
“I remember the time I met right here with a guy who drank decaffeinated coffee with non-dairy creamer and artificial sweetener while wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘Keep It Real’ printed across the front. When I pointed out the irony, he grinned at me, showing a front tooth with a gold heart inlaid in it, and said, ‘Only in America, huh?’ I have no idea what he meant, but we both found it endlessly amusing.”
I laughed too, not so much because the story was all that funny, but mainly because Arthur so much enjoyed telling it. That meant that he, who could be depressed and gloomy by turns, was, for today at least, in a good mood.
We took a sip of our coffee, set the cups back on the table, and before any awkward pause could intrude on the moment, I said, “So, Arthur, where do you go to church?’
I knew that he had left his teaching position at a Free Church Bible college in order to attend an Anglican church, which violated the college’s bylaw requirements for full-time faculty. I also knew that he had spent several years preparing for the Anglican priesthood, but, for some reason, he was not serving as a priest right now. I assumed we might talk about all of that at some point, but I had not asked the question in order to move the conversation in that direction. I was simply curious.
“Truth is,” he answered, “I’m not much of churchgoer right now.” I must have given the impression I was going to ask why, since he sort of waved his hand over the table and said, “It’s a long story.”
I almost said something like, “I’m in no hurry,” but before I could mouth the words, he asked me, “Have you ever read anything by Phyllis Tickle?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, “although I think I have heard of her.” I so much wanted to say, “Nor have I tickled anything by Phyllis Redd,” but I resisted the impulse, fearing it would destroy the moment. I sensed that Arthur was coming to the main point he wanted to focus on in this conversation.
“She is something of a chronicler of contemporary religious trends,” he said, as he reached into a well-worn leather satchel on the window sill behind him. He pulled out two small volumes and laid them on the table in front of me.
“Read this one first,” Arthur said, tapping the cover of one of the books. It was called The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing, And Why. The second book, which was obviously a sequel, was called Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, And Why It Matters.
“You have heard of something called the emergent church or the emerging church?” he asked.
Again I nodded.
“Well, Phyllis Tickle is very keen on all things emergent. In that second book she even distinguishes between the terms emergent and emerging and tries to make it clear why the distinction matters. I think she is only partially successful in that.
“I am suggesting that you read her books because I think she may be onto something when it comes to understanding the contemporary Christian scene in America.”
“And what is that?” I asked. “Can you give me a thumbnail sketch?”
“Well, in that first book, she sets the stage for her description and analysis of the emergent movement by summarizing a perspective on church history which she finds particularly compelling.”
“And what is that?” I asked again.
“She seems to agree with those historians (and I think she mentions one or two by name) who believe they see a pattern which has repeated itself about every five hundred years.”
“Go on,” I said.
“Well, since the birth of the Christian church in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost some two thousand years ago, there has been a significant event, every five hundred years or so, which has revolutionized the church’s self-perception and re-energized its ministry.
“Five hundred years ago, during the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation swept across the Medieval church with an impact that continues to this day. Five hundred years before that, in the eleventh century, the Western and Eastern arms of the church formally separated into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. That event, now known as the Great Schism, likewise produced effects that have proven to be profound and long-lasting.
“And in the sixth century, just as the sun was setting on the Roman Empire and the institutional church was in danger of succumbing to an onslaught of paganism, the Monastic movement arose, with the encouragment of Pope Gregory the Great, ensuring that the essence of the true faith would be preserved, relatively undefiled, until it could flourish again in a less hostile environment.
“Each of these events or movements came about during a time when the church had sunk into the doldrums, spiritually speaking, and needed something to stir it up and get it back on track. In fact, I think of each of these movements as something of a ‘course correction’ for a church that had drifted significantly away from the course which God intended when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and gave birth to the church some fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus.
“The twenty-first century marks five hundred years since the Reformation. I believe that, in that period of time, the church has once again lost its way. And that shouldn’t surprise anybody. The church is made up of people who are susceptible to all sorts of influences which distort their spiritual vision and corrupt their ability to follow a Kingdom agenda.
“We are in serious need of a ‘course correction’—whether you call it a reformation, a revival, or something else—and it needs to be deep enough and profound enough to offer a compelling alternative to the business-as-usual pattern into which we have allowed ourselves to fall.
“Phyllis Tickle believes that ’emergence Christianity’ is that necessary course correction. I’m not so sure. I think it is likely that the ’emergence’ phenomenon is assisting the church to ask the right kind of questions. I’m less confident that it is providing answers that are deep enough and profound enough and substantive enough to undergird a new reformation.
“Still, she is serving the church well by helping us to keep the conversation going. When I look at the contemporary Christian community, when I observe that the church has virtually lost an entire generation, my heart aches. I mean, don’t you agree? Young people, ages eighteen to thirty, gone from most churches. That’s a shame. That’s a tragedy. That’s… ”
Arthur paused, took another swallow of his coffee, and stared intently at the sugar bowl in the middle of the table. His lower lip quivered.
Arthur Lough might not be a regular churchgoer at the moment, but this guy is a churchman to his very core. It was clear that his burden for spiritual renewal in the church was not simply an academic interest. It was his passion. I could hardly wait to hear what he was going to say next.