Reformation, Year 501

The late Phyllis Tickle noted that about every 500 years or so, the Church holds a sort of a spiritual rummage sale, clearing itself of bad practices and lousy theology. This cycle of revolution began with Jesus, who both perfectly fulfilled the Law and radically upended the old order of just about everything. Five centuries later, in AD 476, the Roman Empire collapsed, and the Church focused on preserving a pure form of the faith through the growth of the monastic movement during a time of chaos and tribal warfare in Europe. In AD 1054, the Eastern (Orthodox) Church split from the Western (Roman) Church. And in 1517, Catholic monk Martin Luther crawled up the steps of his local church in Wittenberg, Germany to nail his list of grievances about the Church to the door. Of course, none of these events happened in isolation, but were a part of the movement of the Holy Spirit and the sweep of history. But those key events serve as a handy shorthand to mark those historic 500-year pivot points.

As Protestants observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this month, many people suspect we’re about due for another rummage sale. It will take the perspective of history to figure out what that watershed event is for us in this era. Who knows? It may have already happened. After all, I doubt that anyone said the day after Luther nailed his theses to the door, “Now we’re in a new era! Thanks for the kick in the pants, Martin!” Only as one event led to the next, and the one after that, did it become clear to hind-sighted observers that something big had shifted.

“Ecclesia Semper Reformada” (“The church is always reforming” or “…must always be reforming”) was the battle cry of those who came after Luther – and countless others who came before him. I join my voice to that chorus. There upheaval taking place in every corner of the Church, whether is the negative of the way the prosperity gospel has gripped the Church in the West and in Africa and South America, the unholy alliance between theological conservatives and nationalists in the U.S. and parts of Europe, or the ongoing battle around gender and leadership taking place in many congregations and denominations around the world. At the same time, I’m heartened by the fact that evil, abusive leaders are being brought to light in ways that would have been unthinkable even thirty years ago, that the Church is growing by leaps and bounds in global South, and it tends to be more Charismatic in practice, and that a beautiful variety of voices from every tongue, tribe, and nation are increasingly represented in the Body of Christ. .

I will not be alive to see what the Church will look like after this 5th rummage sale fades into a new normal for the Church. Here’s my hope for what might emerge in the new Reformation.

  1. A deep connection with the Jewish foundations of the Church. There is a growing interest among some academics and in some quarters of the Church to understand the Jewishness of Christianity. It’s a hopeful stream. Sadly, there’s been an ocean of terrible, anti-Semitic cessationist theology for generations and generations. This terrible theology has been very costly to the Jewish people. In addition, this lack of connection with the Jewishness of the faith has starved the Church of her identity. In the new Reformation, my prayer is that the Church will dig deep into her roots, and the Jewishness of Christianity will no longer be an arcane side dish relegated to a few academics, some fringe church groups, the Messianic Jewish community, and individuals who read the offerings of various Jewish “roots” ministries. In the new Reformation, this will be how the Church understands herself and will reshape the way she worships.
  2. A flat, transparent Church hierarchy. The days of climbing the spiritual corporate ladder need to come to an end in the Kingdom of God. Just like some of the most interesting restaurants these days have open kitchens, congregations and denominations in the new Reformation will be less about building power structures and rewarding ambition within the Church, and more about empowering people for ministry in a world that needs Jesus desperately.
  3. Diversity. It hasn’t come easy in many quarters of the Church up to this point, but in the new Reformation, it will be a non-negotiable mark of the Bride of Jesus.
  4. Orthodoxy. The historical creeds of the Church have weathered the test of time and the wrenching change of earlier Reformations. The Church that will emerge in the new Reformation will not deviate from these core affirmations. But clinging to that Orthodoxy will be costly in a Western culture where the highest value is an in individual’s ability to do what they deem right in their own eyes. Persecution is coming. (Not the fake “persecution” of cultural conservatives whining about not hearing “Merry Christmas” when they shop at the mall, but real persecution familiar to those in other parts of the world.)
  5. A redefinition of “megachurch”. Big hangar-like megachurches run by C.E.O.’s with big personalities, or the current multi-site franchise trend, will come to an end. The building-lite megachurch will simply be the church in a region. The gathered congregations will be smaller in size, and more relationally connected to the other congregations in their neighborhood/city. 

What would you add to this list? 


Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

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