For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Yesterday was Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, sending them to the Archbishop of Mainz, Germany, and reportedly posting them on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. As I listened to a sermon commemorating the day, I was reminded of a book that was published in 2012 that caused quite a stir. That book, The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle, suggested that “every five hundred years, the Church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale.”
This and countless other books have attempted to explain and anticipate the changes needed in the Christian church. I heard this when in seminary 25 years ago, and during much of my first ten years in ordained ministry, I was training churches a process of church transformation. One thing we discussed was the great upheaval that occurred in the 1960s, when all aspects of culture in the United States was questioned or transformed, including religion. The church was no longer seen as central to “good” society and was criticized as hypocritical or irrelevant; the fundamental challenges to life as most Americans understood it were epitomized in the 1966 Time magazine cover article, “Is God Dead?”
(I do have to suggest that these trends are prevalent in the Western world, but I do not know that they are occurring in the same way in other parts of the world.)
In any case, throughout my ministry, there has been the suggestion of—even the demand for—radical change in the church. And a good amount of my ministry has been trying to figure out how to overcome the amazingly persistent resistance to change.
And then COVID happened.
So now, 504 years after Luther’s 95 Theses were posted, we may be finding ourselves in another Great Reformation. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi dei. This is a favorite phrase that we Presbyterians like to shorthand to “Reformed, and always reforming.” But actually, the translation is closer to “The church reformed, always being reformed according to the Word of God.”
It is helpful to consider that the church does not change itself; the church is reformed by God as the initiator. And these changes are not made according to market research or generational trends or fear of membership/income loss, but according to God’s Word.
The radical changes that have been introduced these last two years are definitely not of our choosing! So if we believe that God has power to create all circumstances, then perhaps COVID was God’s tool to get us moving, and quick. And we are still at a loss to predict what changes will continue, or evolve into yet other changes. For instance, we don’t know how “community” will look if a significant portion of our congregation never comes back into worship in the sanctuary—and if online worship and meetings enable members to participate in the mission of a church even if they live thousands of miles away. In an age where 1 in 6 marriages result from computer dating (and are considered to be happier than marriages growing out of more traditional methods), how can church relationships be formed virtually?
One phenomenon we are experiencing is greater movement among church members and pastors. Some are moving to lower-cost areas as they rethink their careers. Many are retiring—which leads to younger pastors moving into new calls. I expect at least eight of our churches will be conducting some kind of pastor search in 2022. I ask your prayers for their discernment.
So as I look back on all our past attempts to reform our churches, I am humbled. We should not attempt to make the changes we think are needed, but to seek the will of God—and the guidance of the Word of God—to see how the church is changed. As one of our pastors said when told that the church needed to craft a new strategy to attract just the right demographic who might fit in with the church’s chosen worship style, “Maybe we should just preach the Gospel.”
We are definitely living in historic, liminal times. The question is, how do we live into it, according to God’s will? We are humbled but also comforted to remember Scripture telling us to trust in God’s grace, which is not earned by our smart decisions and not revoked by our mistakes. We can learn and be encouraged by the stories of our ancestors in the faith, especially today, All Saints Day. We can go deep into our Bible, as God’s Word is opened to us with the power of the Holy Spirit. And we need not ignore the changes in technology—many will say a key factor in the Reformation of 500 years ago was the development of the printing press. But just as the printing press and the adoption of native language Bible translations enabled more people to read Scripture, today’s technologies enable more people to read and study Scripture across multiple perspectives and locations.
As we continue to witness God’s work in reforming us as Christ’s church, may we ever be comforted by God’s grace, encouraged and challenged by the saints who have gone before us, fed and guided by God’s Word, and bold to use the tools offered to us to be a faithful body of Christ for the communities we serve. Let us give thanks to God for making us, and bringing us together, to do God’s work and share God’s love.