This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In 1517, a Catholic priest named Martin Luther was concerned about problems within the church, so he nailed 95 ideas for discussion on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany to foster conversation about ways to improve the church he loved. It didn’t go so well. Instead of bringing about internal change, Luther was excommunicated; his actions and ideas, and those of other reformers, resulted in new branches of Christianity, now known as Protestants. The Protestant denomination to which my church belongs (Presbyterian) is part of the Reformed tradition.
The Reformation didn’t happen in a day. Although we remember Luther’s posting the 95 Theses as a focal point, it was in fact part of a far larger movement of change, not only in the church but also politically, societally, and intellectually. It was a time much like today. Are we due for another Reformation?
In her book The Great Emergence, author and religion professor Phyllis Tickle used the analogy of “The 500-Year Rummage Sale” to describe religious change over the years. Tickle said that historically, the church “cleans house” roughly every 500 years, holding what she calls a “giant rummage sale,” deciding what to dispose and what to keep, making room for new things.
Looking back over 2000 years, the time of Christ was the first rummage sale, an era Tickle calls “The Great Transformation,” when a man who was “Emmanuel, God With Us” created a new understanding of our relationship with God. Five hundred years later saw the collapse of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages. In this period, the church entered an era of preservation as the church went underground with monks and nuns practicing the monastic tradition in abbeys, convents, and priories. Next, at the beginning of the new millennium in 1054, came “The Great Schism,” when the Christian Church split into the Eastern and Western branches that we still see today in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Then in the 1500s, “The Reformation” resulted in new branches of Christian tradition, with different understandings of how people relate to God personally through direct prayer and individual interpretation of the bible. Every 500 years or so, Tickle says, there were tectonic shifts in the Christian tradition, resulting in huge changes of both understanding and of practice.
So, it’s been 500 years since the Reformation. Is the church ready for its next giant rummage sale? Are we already holding it?
I think we are. It’s easy to identify the changes of the last century. Our understanding of science has progressed exponentially, forcing us to reconcile scientific and religious thought. We are culturally more diverse. We are living longer. Family units take a variety of forms. We are a global community, no longer confined to the boundaries of our physical neighborhoods. We have access to facts, data, opinions, and information instantly through computers we keep in our pockets. Communication and access to news is immediate and unfiltered. Our minds are changing (for better or worse) with the way we process information. How could these things not alter how we understand who we are, why we exist, and where God is in our lives?
I see how the church has changed even in my lifetime. As a child, the church was the center of most families’ lives-- religious and social. Everyone went to church on Sunday mornings (and often evenings too). Compare with today when church attendance, or even affiliation, is not the norm. And yet, people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” are on the rise. God is still important, but identifying with a particular religion is not.
Tickle says we are entering a new era of “The Emergent Church,” a religious movement that crosses denominational boundaries, seeks common ground, engages diverse cultures, embraces social causes as ways to live out Christ’s call to serve others, and takes place largely outside of church buildings. Is this the church of the future?
As someone who loves my church—its people, its traditions, its liturgy, and yes, its building—I admit that change is hard. And yet I know that God’s call to us is bigger than Westminster, bigger than the Presbyterian denomination, bigger even than the church universal. The most basic message of Christianity is one of resurrection and renewal. Paul wrote, “The old life is gone; a new life has begun.” Let’s go, boldly and faithfully, where God leads us.