In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church. Luther had watched the Church devolve into an institutional power play, wrought with political corruption, as it’s power oppressed people like that of the State. His theses was a call for reform and an invitation for change. He sought a return to salvation by grace through faith, not through religious compliance and not through the corrupt practice of buying indulgences. Luther could see the Church had lost it’s bearings, and needed to be called back to it’s essential purpose, mission and message.
Today, we find ourselves, like Luther, in need of more reform. As centuries of protestantism have created denominations with tremendous power and bulk, once again the essential message and mission of the Gospel is lost amidst the political power plays and institutional land grabs over the lives and dollars of it’s people. This time however, there isn’t a central Castle Church upon which one could pin a new theses. Suggesting reform now barely raises an eyebrow, and it’s dismissed as easily as a horses tail swats a fly. The mindset of the modern church is so familiar with faction, dissenting opinion, variables of doctrine and practice, that seeking out a new church has become an exercise based almost entirely upon subjective emotions and personal preferences. Sadly, so many of today’s parishioners are consumers not students (disciples-mathétes) with the ability to biblically reason through the implications of belief.
So what should reform look like today?
I’ve been a part of a few churches which were seeking reform. In fact, I think in some way, each church that wants to grow is ultimately seeking reform. I can say from experience that reforming people’s minds and their convictions takes a lot of time and investment. In the end, only a few move as far as any pastor hopes they will, leaving the majority preferring routine, familiarity, continuity, tradition, and the status quo. When I talk to pastors, I’m not surprised that they are quite aware of the glacial speed of reform these days. As a result, pastors often bear the criticism of not leading churches toward change when in fact they really want to but are tied to the sacrificial work of trying to bring everyone along. There is also a clear economic reason for this which only confuses the work of reform.
So how does reform take place in a pluriform environment? Answering this question will take us down many paths which are no better than the existing problem. Luther’s reform inspired centuries of others to reform and now each town has a hundred churches under countless denominations. Who is to say which is closest to the ideal? In my experience, I always held that reform had to be specific to each community of believers and needed to take place from the inside out. Thus if I wanted to see change, I had to join and live with and among a community, begin serving until I gained influence and could offer my invitation for change. In each case, I was marginalized and eventually shown the door by powers that did not welcome new ideas, even if they were more in keeping with scripture.
After twenty-five years of beating my head against the wall, my answer became very clear. Anywhere the Church becomes institutionalized, it already needs reform. Yes, organizing people is important, but institutionalizing the people is ultimately a power play which changes the polarity from a community government that serves people, to a people who now serve the community government. What this means to me is that the path to reform is first deconstruction. Like following Christ, down is the way up. Sacrifice and death is the path to new life. Self emptying of one’s power is how we exchange authority for influence.
At the end of the apostle John’s life he was exiled to the island of Patmos. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit he wrote letters the seven churches which followed a clear mail route throughout the Roman Empire. Not only was it an encrypted way of communicating to the churches about events which would happen within their lifetime, but these letters recognized the hodgepodge reality of every church. Namely, that each has some good things going for it, while it is still in need of reform. The reform for John, required deconstruction, it required rethinking, reconsidering (repenting) and returning to the basics. Clearly, it didn’t take long for the need to reform to set it. Consider these words to the Church in Ephesus.
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:4-5)
Further down the mail route, he had this to say to the church in Sardis.
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” (Revelation 3:1-3)
And that’s when it hit me. Reform is not a major event or movement that changes everything. Seeking the “big thing” is ultimately an egotistical claim that one group in one time in one set of circumstances somehow knows what all people must do. That kind of reform is only the recreation of another institution, sired by the same prideful father of all principalities and powers. Reform which folds all diversity into unity is not seeking uniformity, it’s seeking individuals who know how hard it is for their own heart to change and heal and thus allow space for the hearts and minds of others to change and heal in their own way and in their own time.
Reform today, is the meeting of the mind. Be that a mind that lived and was captured in word millennia ago, or minds that live presently among us. Reform today is the inclusion of all the ways through which Christ has shined in the lives of all people. Reform is rejecting any form of power that would ultimately get in between a person and their Maker. Reform is serving God by serving our fellow man or woman, not limiting service to vocational ministry, but serving all comers from whatever station, role, job or service in which we find ourselves each day. The Church in this way is deconstructed, but centralized around it’s first love.
If you want to stay in your church, please do so. Jump in deeper and find ways to serve others with your gifts. Just never forget that what you see each time you gather is only the microcosm of the larger macrocosm. As such, you must guard agains seeing the ministry of your local body as somehow better, more spiritual, or more real than that of another. That only feeds arrogance and undermines all your work. Remember, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)
If you want to leave your church then feel free to do so. Don’t stay out of guilt or fear. Go where you can grow. Just don’t leave from a disposition of pride thinking you know so much more than everyone else does. It may be that you are burdened with vision that others lack, but if that is the case, then it must be held humbly and given back in service so that others too may come to see what you see. Never forget that while you are seeing things they may not see, they are seeing things you may not see. Reform for the church, always means reform for each of us.
Feel free to “church shop” if you are seeking a community who can offer you or your family the growth you need at this particular time. Get in, serve and grow. However, when you realize your spiritual life has stagnated, stalled out, or the community can no longer tolerate the next emerging question in your life, then it’s time to graduate. Local communities must not think they should retain parishioners for ever. Each would do better and gain a larger understanding of the macrocosm by migrating and learning from different traditions.
If communities reformed how they viewed themselves, and pastors didn’t feel responsible to be all things to all people, then perhaps the congregations could flow between bodies, blessing and serving with according gifts as the Spirit initiated. Church could be less about being right, or being the best, or being the coolest, and focus more on being connected. Competition should not exist in and among the Church.
Reform is not calling us to another denomination, another version of the old religion. Reform is calling us toward a deeper, integrated unity with Christ and all others. Reform is calling for us to deconstruct those aspects of the scaffolding that only prop up lifeless protocols, traditions, or pet ego projects.
We must never forget that reforming the Church is not man’s work from the outside in, it is God’s work from the inside-out. For me, that is the only church I’m concerned about. Do I go to church? Sure. I go to a number of them when inspired to do so. Do I belong to a church? Yes, I belong to all of them, ever since Peter started teaching about it. I’ve been a part of all of Paul’s churches too, and so have you. I’m a part of the good ones, the bad ones, and the one’s still trying to launch, and so are you. Reform expands our view so we can see the bigger picture.
You may be wondering if I’m going to provide a blueprint of what I think the modern church should look like or do. Sorry, I would never do that to you. I could offer a community ideas of how they could reform, but I would never suggest to pattern for all to follow. That only brought us into where we are today. Better to let each body follow the leading of the Spirit among those who they serve. I can offer this though, that the church probably needs to go much further than it thinks it should, it needs to dream bigger, believe bigger, and act like Christ is fully present with the power to transform the world. In my experience, to many communities are far under hoping.
Reform doesn’t require another Martin Luther. The only movement that reform requires in our day and age, is to move our mind, or as John put it, repent. If the Church is ready to change herself, we will once again regain profound hope for our world.