Reformation is an inside job.
The Church is at a crossroads. Maybe its time, every 500 years there is usually a major shift. There is a seismic change in understanding; an overturning of power and a restructuring of the world. Mainline denominations, whose foundations were laid during the fifteenth and sixteenth century, are starting to crack and crumble. They are all losing members to other churches, schisms and to the vast depths of unbelief. Maybe this will be the generation that sees another Reformation.
Reformation is an inside job. It begins from within. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Wesley knew the Church. It was part of their lives. They all had theological training. All but Calvin were ordained. They all sought to call the church back into vitality. Luther’s theses were a call to change. Wesley remained an Anglican priest until the day he died. They all sought to stimulate the church to action, to realize what was going on inside the church and around them in the culture and to do something about it.
There are several key points about those Reformations and the ones that are starting to form on the horizon of today’s church that need to be considered. First, they all broke with the past and innovated. Secondly, they were all solidly anchored in the text. Next, they sought to communicate to the culture using the vernacular. Additionally they believed that practical application of belief was essential. Also, they did not seek to abandon tradition and they had a thorough understanding of historical theology. Lastly, they embraced the sacrament as transformative mystery.
The past is comforting. We understand the patterns and expectations. Breaking with the past requires loosing the ties that bind us and drifting into the unknown. That is not nearly so comfortable. We must break with what is comfortable and expected and begin stretching and innovating. This is already happening with churches, some of them quite large, that refuse to tie themselves down with real estate and indebtedness. They devote their resources to mission, not maintenance. This kind of innovation makes the establishment uncomfortable. It seems unstable and irresponsible. To those who practice this radical faith, it is a call to fiscal freedom and mission availability.
The reformers went to the scripture for insight, courage and inspiration. They looked again at the ancient stories and read them with new passion. The emergent church is seeing scripture with fresh eyes as well. They are digging deep into the text and uncovering meanings usually hidden by commentaries and interpretation. The stories are coming alive all over again with fresh meaning that calls them to a deeper level of discipleship.
Translating the Bible into the vernacular was a radical idea for the reformers. Reading it in the vernacular during public worship was even more radical. They could not envision a day when most people have a couple of dust covered Bibles laying around unopened because the text was such a precious gift. What will it look like to communicate to a culture that virtually ignores the Church? I have often stood within sight of a downtown church and asked passersby where it was and they had no idea we were standing in its shadow. Emerging churches are struggling with how to communicate to the culture in ways they understand. They are re-discovering art and icons as means to communicate. The lines between sacred and secular are blurring with the realization that the segmented lives of modernity are hollow and empty. Communication is moving beyond words to become embodied into the entire life of the believer.
This brings to mind practical, life application. The reformers had clear expectations of how the believer should live. Calvin had fines for missing church. Wesley had class meetings to monitor lives of the faithful. Today’s churches on the edge also call their fellow travelers into lives of accountability and sacrifice. Some move into low-income neighborhoods to provide a Christian haven amidst the struggles and trials faced by underprivileged children. Others live lives of radical generosity, living on half of their income so that they can give the other half away, they dedicate their lives to AIDS orphans in Africa or volunteering at underperforming schools. Living out their faith becomes their life, it moves beyond a segmented hour on Sunday to being a lifestyle of obedience.
The touchstone for the last reformation that must not be forgotten was their grounding in tradition and historical theology. They did not forget the shoulders they stood upon. They had read Augustine, Benedict and Tertullian. They were familiar with the desert fathers and the mothers of the faith who had faced persecution and martyrdom. In pursuit of innovation and change, it is vital that the reformation occurring today does not neglect to learn from those who have gone before us, those who gave their lives for their beliefs. Today, beliefs are cheap. You can embrace any idea without worry of trial or tribulation. The coming reformation, like the ones before it, must dig its roots deep into the soil of tradition and historical theology so that it is not blown over by the wind of challenge.
For decades one of the major controversies of the Church was what happens during Eucharist. The controversies of the holy meal segmented and divided the Church, but no matter which side of the argument they stood, they did agree that something powerful happens through the Lord’s Supper. I have been amazed at the passion and faithfulness and the serious study and attention that is being give to the Eucharist by emerging churches. Many of them practice the sacrament weekly and include it as part of the functional lives of their congregations. Sacramental renewal is bedrock of the coming Reformations.
Will we benefit and thrive from these reformers calls to the church or will we enter into another era of divisiveness and division? Can we as the Church united around a common table, hear the Word proclaimed in the vernacular, change our lives to live out our faithful sacrifice while keeping our faith firmly rooted in the text and historical orthodoxy? I pray that God will use me to be part of these reformations so that the Church can, once again, reach a culture that it has abandoned.
Gracious God, who calls us to be all things to all people whereby some might be saved, use me to be your voice and vessel through the one who came that we might have life, Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen