This past October 27th was “Reformation Sunday,” the day that the church celebrates the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of ninety-five theses and the beginning of the Great Reformation. The day recalls and celebrates the bravery of a concerned priest for the future of Christianity. The actual date of Luther’s famous act was October 31, 1517, five hundred and two years ago. I attended a worship service that morning not aware in the slightest of the anniversary, but, I must confess, it has yet to let go of me.
The morning sermon recalled the culture surrounding the 16th century church, a time when the Bible was not available in the language of every day people and priests sold forgiveness of sins. What would it have been like to live in that day and feel like you had limited access to God? That morning’s message proposed a new future where we, the church five hundred years after Luther, might continue to find brave ways of releasing people from their bonds. Are there still barriers between people and God imbedded in our institutional forms of modern day Christianity? What reforms are needed now?
I sat there taking in the significance of the moment. I imagined what it must have been like in Luther's day, and I wondered about what Christianity will be like five hundred years from now. After the service I approached the pastor to share my appreciation and emotional connection to her words. Next thing I knew, I was leaving the building heading home with a borrowed book in my hand.
The book she gave me was, The Great Emergence, by Phyllis Tickle. It is an insightful read that builds on the wisdom of an Anglican bishop, Mark Dyer, who observed that every five hundred years the church cleans out its closet and has a rummage sale deciding what will be saved for the future and what will be hauled off. Think about it. Five hundred years ago was the Great Reformation. Five hundred years before that was the Great Schism, or the divide between the Eastern and Western forms of Christianity. Go back another five hundred years and you discover an entire century of upheaval; most importantly, it brought the beginning of monasticism that would serve to protect and preserve Christianity through many dark ages. Tickle proposes, and I believe, the pattern continues today.
We are living in one of those transition times.
The last century has been full of major changes. (That might be the definition of “understatement.”) Over the last hundred years Christianity has gotten beat up from every side—including inside—losing its place and relevance in many ways. Some might attribute this to the rise of humanism, scientific discoveries, or simply the result of “the breakdown of morality.” The fact is that the world is not the same as it used to be and, as much as we may not want to hear it, there is no going back.
Given the historical, big-picture of Christianity, though, maybe this is part of the plan to shake things up and provide another breakthrough. I, like Phyllis Tickle, wonder what these changes might mean. Is there something happening to issue in another “Great” phase for Christianity? Will the result provide a relevant way the Gospel can be heard and lived out now and into the future?
There is an opportunity to reject these changes and call for a return to older ways. Many Christians have been beating that drum rather loudly for sometime. However, I am afraid such a move continues to alienate us further and limit any connection to a world that no longer speaks the same language. Instead, I long for a path that welcomes fresh approaches and understandings that keep the message of God relevant and impacting generations to come.