“What EXACTLY does this mean?” – 500th Reformation Anniversary Thoughts

Since fall last year, my email inbox has been flooded with advertisements and invitations to events, lectures, and gatherings to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  This milestone holds a special place in the hearts of Lutherans because our founding namesake, Martin Luther, was the catalyst for this Reformation that included many different voices and theological perspectives.  In short, what happened 500 years ago was a pretty big deal.

So while I’m not a big fan of nostalgic gatherings that rehash and reenact history, nor am I fan of the topic of  how 500-year old confessional doctrine ought to be relevant, I don’t begrudge those for whom those things matter.  Yet I’ve found myself asking this question with respect to the 500th Reformation Anniversary lately,

“What EXACTLY does this mean?”

What does this mean for us NOW?  In her book “The Great Emergence” (Baker, 2008), the late Phyllis Tickle suggested that every 500 years, a significant reformation happens in the church universal, and that we are living in one of those times today.  If that’s true (and I believe that it is), then we’re in the middle of a great reformation ourselves, just as Martin Luther and other Reformers founds themselves in the early 1500s.

I don’t want to talk about The Reformation. I want to be part of the one happening now. 

I don’t think I’m alone in my belief.  Most of us are aware of the changes happening around and in our congregations and how those changes are affecting our communities of faith.  We’re aware of the issues – membership decline, diversity, justice, millennials, evangelism, hospitality, worship forms, shifting leadership….the list goes on.  We’re also blasted to the point of over saturation with blogs, books, and articles presenting solutions to all these “big” issues facing the church.  The understanding of reformation is “do this, or die.”  I don’t know about you, but that’s fear-based rhetoric meant to capitalize on our anxiety about an uncertain future most of us feel ill-equipped to handle.

I’ll spare you the suspense: this is not another blog presenting another “big idea” to “the big issue” that’s plaguing congregations these days.  I do want to say that while my current call has me disconnected to the day-to-day of congregational life, it’s always on my heart and on the forefront of my mind.  What does it mean to be a church and a person of faith living in the midst of perhaps another great reformation?  Where do I even begin to start imagining what God is calling us all to be and do as church within it?

I honestly wish I had a profound answer to these questions.  I did come across this great quote one of my favorite seminary professors posted on social media the other day:

“An evangelical church which looks upon the doctrine of justification by faith as a self-evident banality one no longer needs to dwell upon because other problems are more pressing has robbed itself of the possibility of arriving at solutions to such problems. It will only tear itself further apart. If the article on justification is removed from the center we will very soon no longer know why we are and must remain evangelical Christians. Then we will strive for the unity of the church and sacrifice the purity of the gospel; we will expect more from church order and government, from the reform of ecclesiastical office and church discipline, than these can deliver. One will flatter piety and despise doctrine; one will run the risk of becoming tolerant where one should be radical and radical where one should be tolerant.” ~ Hans Joachim Iwand (1959)

What exactly does this 500th Anniversary of the Reformation mean for us today?  For those like me, it means that more than remembering what happened 500 years ago. We want to honor it by being part of God’s reforming work today.  For me, like Luther, our conversation and discernment needs to start with God and not us.  Like Luther, it’ll take a lot of courage to break free from our tribal mindsets and come together to think on the idea from Iwand’s thought above.

I want to be part of reformation today, but one grounded in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, a movement we do together, grounded in humility, courage, and love.

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