Christian Reformation: The Passing of an Age

Foundations shake and crack, solid traditions knocked off kilter. Anxious whispers, glaring eyes of blame, sagging structures shored up with shaky clichés.   Everything that can be shaken will be shaken. The chaff blows away in the wind

In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia declared the official end to the Thirty Years War. Like any war, power and control were at the heart of the fight. Intermixed within the struggle for control for political power was the marriage of state and religion. After fighting for thirty years to determine whether the mass of Europe would be ruled by a Catholic or Protestant, a new concept emerged from the struggle. This was the concept that both Catholics and Protestants could live in the same territory; the religion of the ruler need not dictate the religion of all the citizens.

The Reformation Process

Today, the concept of different denominations and even different world religions living in the same community is something we take for granted. To think otherwise is considered intolerant bigotry. Who cares whether you share the religion of your neighbor or not? But that has not always been the case.

When the Anabaptists first began baptizing adults rather than infants in the 1500s, they were driven from their homes and villages. Their neighbors were enraged that they would exhibit such nonconformity. How dare they challenge the traditions of the Church and their community! To live out their faith in accordance with personal understanding and preference was seen as a declaration of judgment against the status quo. It disrupted the flow of society. It caused confusion and division.

The process of transforming the Christian church from the singular Papacy to multiple facets of Biblical interpretation and religious structures lasted over a century. The freedom to debate and splinter into even smaller groups of thought continues today.

At the same time, in long-established traditions, the resistance to change still exists. When traditions have been carried on for multiple generations, it is easy to treat them as foundational principles, rather than the ideas of man.

Modern Protestant Traditions

Most  Protestant Americans grew up with similar religious traditions. Church was the building where a group of like-minded people gathered on Sunday mornings. Each church had a pastor or minister, who was responsible for spiritual leadership of his group of people. This spiritual leadership was primarily demonstrated through the preaching of a sermon each Sunday morning, visitation with families who attended his church, officiating at weddings, baptisms and funerals.

Sunday school classes were held to provide religious instruction for the children. Missionaries were financially supported  in the great cause of evangelization of those who had not heard the good news of Christianity. Each denomination and congregation had their own detailed traditions related to church membership, liturgy and the appropriate lifestyle of a Christian.


The Times They Are a Changing

As our culture changes over time, it should not surprise us that the traditions of the Christian church would be disrupted and challenged once again. In my parents’ generation during the middle of the 20th century, church membership was about commitment to more than a congregation; it was commitment to the doctrines and policies and governmental structures of your denomination.

Today, churches avoid listing their denomination on their church signs. Individuals float from Baptist to Lutheran to Presbyterian with little concern for the doctrinal nuances that differentiate each from the other. Churches meet in schools, theaters and homes. Services are held on Saturday nights, Sunday afternoons or whatever times fit the lifestyle of the attendees. Instead of sermons, some congregations have open discussions or theatrical performances. The pastor no longer wears a suit and tie and neither do the men in the congregation.

Traditional Christian thought within our Western culture is being challenged on every side. Abortion and homosexual marriage have been deemed acceptable by the laws of the land and many within Christendom itself. Views to the contrary are met with disdain by those educated in Ivy League colleges which have discarded their traditional Christian roots.

Surviving the Chaos

As in the days of the Reformation, the definition of what it means to be a Christian or a Christian church is no longer clear. The waters have become murky, which is unsettling. When we cannot see where the next step leads, if the future looks nothing like the past, anxiety sets in. We cling to the past, because it offers familiarity. Yet, the future cannot be avoided; time refuses to stand still.

The church is changing. That is neither good nor bad; it is just a statement of fact. Some of our patterns and ways of doing things have become moored in religious thinking and habitual practice.

We forget that many of those practices and beliefs were once considered radical. Sending missionaries to convert those in other lands was not supported by the established church when William Carey headed to India in the 1700s. It was a foolish endeavor in the minds of church leaders. Wesley was thought a scoundrel for preaching to coal miners outside the parish walls.

We easily become attached to the familiar; it brings us comfort. Unfortunately, comfort can cause us to settle into routine. We get lazy in our pursuit of truth and purpose. But our God is faithful. When the church grows lethargic and comfortable, he starts shaking the structures we’ve built. He reminds us that our faith is not to be in the structures we call “church.” Our faith is to be in His being and eternal character. That foundation will remain secure.

Don’t worry about the house falling around us. It is a necessary part of the process. We are entering a new age for the church. Secure your faith in the foundation. It is time to replace going to church with “being” the church.