This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Reformation at 500.


The Reformation tried to be about restoring the New Testament church.  Instead it refitted Western Christianity to suit the Modern Age.  We ended up with a church supremely suited to express people’s faith in the 16th through the 20th centuries.  And that’s why we’re having so much trouble now: those days are over.  

The question becomes: what do to with a church designed to function in one era when that era ends.  One answer that is getting a lot of traction these days in many circles is: adapt!  Meaning, adapt to the new situation.  Adapt to what people are used to today.  Adapt to new technologies, new economic realities, new music, new social norms, new demographic realities.  In other words, pay attention to what is going on all around us and institute major changes in the church’s life to keep up with the changes.  In the place of a church designed for Modernity, let’s redesign the church for the new era that is now emerging, and which doesn’t even have an agreed-upon name.

I get that.  I really do.  I have written about how the new church will be decentralized, flat, distributed, networked, open-source, nimble, flexible, and so on.

The danger is that in moving into the future we will engage in a reflexive rejection of the past.  This was a problem for the Reformation, which tossed out some things simply because they were “too Catholic.”  Thus we lost many important elements of the faith, impoverishing our spiritual lives for centuries.  Mary, the sign of the cross, the saints, monasticism, and church unity all got dispensed with, not because they did not express the biblical faith in Christ, but they had been abused in the middle ages and did not fit into a Modern sensibility.  Instead of reforming and recovering them, we got rid of them.

The insightful observer of the religious scene, Phyllis Tickle, noted that the church goes through a “rummage sale” every 500 years.  We are in one of those periods now.  As with any rummage sale, the questions are: what have we found in the attic that we will decide to keep?  What is sitting in the middle of the living room that is no longer appropriate or useful?  What do we not have room for these days?  What makes no sense anymore?  Indeed, what is offensive?  And what do we need to add that we don’t now have?

Every church is having to answer these questions today, including ours.  In coming to these decisions about what will help us going forward, we do need to keep one thing in our minds and hearts: that is the mission of Jesus Christ.  What does Jesus Christ want for us today?  How do we best obey and follow him?  The church will always have before it one main task, which is discipleship.

On the one hand, we will have to be ruthless in our willingness to get rid of things that do not serve this purpose.  For there are things among us — from ideas and practices to objects — that actually detract from Jesus’ mission.  At best they distract, at worst they counteract and obstruct.  These things need to be identified and purged from our modest.

On the other hand, we will have to be radically open to the movement of the Spirit showing us new directions, new practices, new ideas, and new ways of discipleship.  Some will have a venerable history in the church and just be new to us.  Others will be things we never imagined, or even assumed were not fitting for us.

One characteristic of this new era is that “one size fits all” is over; there are and will continue to be many different expressions of Christianity among us.  Our task will be to discern our own, and to welcome, accept, and learn from — and yes, sometimes challenge and question — others’ ideas, practices, and perspectives.

Allergy to change and addiction to the past are simply not going to work.  At the same time, we do need to immerse ourselves in our history and tradition to find authentic things that will work.  This is the most exciting time to be a Christian in 500 years!  Let’s dive into this with all our hearts, depending on Jesus Christ to lead us by the power of the Spirit!
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