The New Reformation

I’m generally always game for a visit to a sacred sanctuary, no matter the particular predilections of the faithful found within. But the effect such tours have on me tend to vary widely, depending on whether or not I happen to be inside America’s territorial boundaries. In Japan, for example, I found myself once in a small Buddhist temple just outside Kyoto, with an enclosing courtyard isolating me from the entire world; coins glistened in the sunlight on a rock nearby, folded prayers fluttered in the breeze, and I was struck with a sense of intense transcendence that flowed up from the Katsura River into the hills above, drawing me along with it. In Istanbul, I was transfixed by the main dome of the Blue Mosque, the intricate patterns weaving in and out of each other, intertwining with verses of the Qur’an laid out with calligraphic grace. In the adjacent park, tourists and locals mingled at dusk as the ezan rose up and floated out into the city, calling the faithful to prayer; it stirred something deep inside me as well, echoing subtly off the walls of the Hagia Sophia and stretching East, following the dimming sunlight across the Bosphorus. And in Geneva, I found myself wandering into Saint Pierre Cathedral, an historical microcosm of the Protestant Reformation. An ancient site of religious worship, its highest tower looms over the lakeside city, following the example of its former adopted pastor, Jean Calvin. All the typical vestments and embellishments of Catholic cathedrals have been long stripped away, leaving only a simple Bible on the altar, with Calvin’s chair still adjacent. In the solemn midday hush of the nave, made more pronounced in contrast to the chattering of schoolchildren circumnavigating outside, I touched the chair and examined the book, reflecting on the intense intellectual work that twisted the city, and indeed the entire continent, around itself. I could feel it still twisting me around myself, after all these years.

In these places, with my senses and mind aglow with wonder, I can feel a memory of God so intimate and precious that I often don’t want the moment to end, although it invariably does.

In America, I feel quite differently. There are, to be sure, a handful of ancient beautiful churches that draw me in, but “ancient” in America is always scare-quoted and asterisked when compared to the rest of the world. Usually, I find myself drawn more to newer people-filled buildings; not to Saint Patrick’s in Manhattan for example, but to Redeemer Presbyterian. Whereas the holiest of holies elsewhere are imbued for me with a sense of spiritual significance, a kind of cosmic intensity that resonates through the very foundation stones themselves, I don’t feel the same kind of gravity pulling me in when I visit American churches. That is not to say, of course, that I don’t feel anything – to the contrary, when I am around American believers I feel strongly attracted to their engaging personalities, their love for community, and their hope for a better world to come. In short, I find myself drawn to their Humanism, not their Christianity (such as it is).

But I am simultaneously repelled by the religious systems in place that Europe has buried and we Americans have inherited, and which we have been seemingly incapable of reforming. We need a New Reformation, a willingness to fix the things that are broken, to set aside the things that cannot be repaired, and a courage to make orthodoxy subservient to truth.

Five hundred years ago, Luther’s theses on the selling of indulgences (among other troubling matters) ignited a fire that had been smoldering at least since the time of Jan Hus. Though argued in theological language, the problem was also political and economical, as the Roman Catholic Church built its influence and power quite literally on the coins thus collected. The proverb was often repeated and wonderfully effective: “as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” But the problem was also clear to many, including to an Augustinian monk in Wittenberg with a confrontational streak. Half a century later, beginning at the Council of Trent the Roman Catholic Church did begin to rein in the practice, and Pius V effectively canceled the kinds of financial transactions that had so provoked Luther. Still, it remained a powerful and global institution, and as such it needed a steady supply of coin from Catholics who remained faithful to the Magisterium.

Half a millennium later, I happened to visit my local parish with my father-in-law, a lapsed Catholic who had recently begun rewarming towards his childhood faith in the wake of some family deaths. Near the end of his homily, the priest began reflecting on the financial needs of the parish, taking on a surprisingly stern tone. He lectured the gathered faithful on the importance of their pecuniary responsibility, and explicitly charged each family with providing an equal portion of the established annual parish budget: a sum totaling millions of dollars that would burden each and every family by nearly five figures. Smiling sweetly as he concluded, the priest noted that worksheets had been provided in each pew to help all gathered redesign their family budgets to meet their ecclesiastical obligations. My father-in-law sat in stony silence, then marched out as the mass concluded. His initial enthusiasm had been quenched, his religious hopefulness replaced with outrage that a specific dollar amount had been laid at the feet of these Catholic families as, if not an indulgence per se, at least a spiritual obligation. To this day, he stands by his decision as we left, to never attend Mass again. The Reformers might sympathize with his anger, but I’ll note that he hasn’t instead chosen to visit the Lutheran church across the street.

I have visited, of course, that church and others, to my continued disappointment.

There are glimmers of hope, islands of truth amidst the sea of confusion that is the American Christian landscape. But it is largely a slow slide into illusion and irrelevancy. Aside from the Catholics, the historical denominations, the so-called “mainline” Christians, are suffering stagnation and death. Among the spiritual descendants of Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, the number of adherents has dropped by at least five million over the last decade1)Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” May 12, 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/; their most substantial demographic are people born prior to 1945, their least substantial are younger Millennials born after 1990. I’ve met some wonderful people among these mainline congregations, particularly among the Methodists and some liberal Disciples of Christ. People who want their doctrine to be in the service of truth and love, and not the other way around.

In contrast, the so-called “evangelical” Christians, though they’ve also begun experiencing a slow retreat, have mitigated some of these effects, at least for the time being. Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Calvinists continue to be a steady minority of this group (as are the more excitable Pentecostals), but the loss in numbers seen in the Southern Baptist Convention is potentially balanced by the growth in the nondenominational Evangelical churches.

It is particularly in these Evangelical congregations, most commonly seen in the form of megachurches (more than 2000 attending weekly), aspiring megachurches (those who ape the practices and systems of megachurches), or pseudo-megachurches (more than 2000 combined attending across several campus locations), that I typically see the most confusion, the least value for truth, and the most pressing need for reformation. Nearly every new congregation formed within the past decade fits this model, and without a clear denominational structure or history, there is a conspicuous blank right in the heart of each church’s identity. I sometimes call these the “Blank Churches,” since they seem to be created with a fill-in-the-blank identity. The blanks always seem at first glance to be named at random, although there is usually some kind of post-hoc rationalization from Scripture applied. “Wellspring Church,” or “Capstone Church,” or “Life Church,” or Compass Church” are all on the table, and all tell you absolutely nothing about what the church is like or what they believe. It’s a solid marketing strategy, of course, followed religiously by all the dominant megachurches in town. In fact, if you’re a successful (read: popular) enough congregation, you can even drop the word church from your name! Thus, Fellowship Church becomes “Fellowship,” Gateway Church becomes “Gateway,” and “Prestonwood Baptist Church” becomes simply “Prestonwood.”

At these congregations, my disappointment begins nearly as soon as I walk in the door. The entire logistical plan of each building is such that visitors are directed toward a conveniently-positioned welcome booth or table. I typically ask two questions of the people who have volunteered to be the first face I see: 1) why are you a member at this church, as opposed to the church down the street? 2) what kind of theology is taught here? The answers are virtually always the same. In response to the first question, I’m told that the people are so nice here and the pastor really teaches from the Bible. In response to the second, I’m told most commonly to check the website or sometimes what is ‘theology’? Occasionally I’m referred to a member of the pastoral staff, and at that point it’s even odds that I’ll get a more substantial answer than what I’ve already received. Often my interactions with the pastor will deepen my disappointment, such as the time I visited a local pseudo-megachurch and the head pastor bragged during his sermon that he will happily delete any email from one of his congregation that is more than six sentences long. Or the time I visited a dominant megachurch and had a casual conversation with a subordinate pastor who freely admitted that Christianity might very well be untrue, but he still valued the happy and comfortable life it had provided for him and his family. To say nothing of the pastors who spend their spiritual sanctimony on political advocacy, endorsing candidates for office as well as political parties, and exhorting their congregations to render their souls unto Caesar.

It is a normal aspect of human psychology to look to a leader for guidance and advice, but far too often I find the office of pastor, particularly among American Evangelicals, to have become a kind of miniature Pope who operates with the equivalent of ex cathedra authority in the lives of his church members. Especially for those pastors outside the domain of denominational oversight, they are accountable ultimately to those self-selected elders that they attract to their orbits, and who have every vested interest in establishing and maintaining a Holy See of their own. Every 100-acre campus once began as a basement Bible study; every multimillion-dollar endowment started by passing a single plate. In the old cathedrals, the architecture positioned the parishioners to focus on the altar, overlooked by Christ crucified. But the Reformation stripped that out, and Evangelicalism replaced it with audio-visual equipment. Instead of a tabernacle, Evangelicals have a drum kit. Instead of Christ, they have a pastor.

This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t good men and women who respond to a calling in good faith – far from it. This is merely to point out that when these men and women go into the Evangelical landscape to learn how to respond, they are presented with a system that has not been critically vetted against the best interests of the people they want to reach. It is a system forged by the orthodoxy of an early Church that sought to consolidate power and leverage it against the pagans who had previously dominated religious practice. It is a system built up by a power- and money-hungry institution that sought and claimed the right of kings over an entire continent. It is a system that has been predominantly interested in the right hand of God, not in the rights of man. And it is a system where faith is taken as allegiance, whereas doubt is taken as treason.

It is also a system with significant blood on its hands. Long before the Reformers, the Roman Catholic Church sought to wield the power of the sword to reclaim the Holy Lands from Muslim rule, or to stamp out beliefs proclaimed heretical. Through this, the Church linked genocide with divine salvation, a blemish that only grew in Europe as the centuries marched on, and was championed by the Reformers in turn, as well as echoed by Luther’s condemnations of the Jews. Indeed, this stain spread throughout Protestant Christianity and was exported to the Americas and to Africa, where countless Christians happily slaughtered and enslaved so-called savages thinking it was the will of God. It is the same system that Calvin established as a civil authority in Geneva, where opponents to his rule were tortured and beheaded, and the Christian heretic Michael Servetus was slowly burned alive at the stake.

Good Christians and good pastors deserve a better system than this. They deserve a sanctuary unmolested by and unencouraging to the base desires of power and authority, or pomp and popularity. They deserve a home that doesn’t fetishize faith to the point of suffocating reason. They deserve a community that welcomes all, with the goal of moving collectively closer to Truth. And they deserve a God that provides those things for them. In the spirit of the Old Reformers, I propose a collection of newer principles to help guide the New Reformation on this task:

Per Veritatem: through Truth

Per Æquitatem: through Equality

Per Caritatem: through Love

Per Fraternitatem: through Brotherhood

Per Deum et Humanitatem: through God and Humanity

It is imperative that Truth be placed first. Without a primary commitment to Truth, the Old Reformation fractured and fought, splitting into opposing camps as quickly as Luther met Zwingli. The Old Reformation also played one camp against each other, setting up state churches in positions of dominance that ended only when Thomas Jefferson and John Madison built a wall of separation in America. The New Reformation must treat all people as equals, no matter the nature of their religious opinions. By extension, love for fellow human beings, and a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood should not cease at the church door, but should be promoted throughout all of human society. The Christian in the New Reformation should strive to love all people as one would love a member of one’s own family. And finally, the New Reformation must seek to bring the realm of God back into that of Humanity, so that both may work together to effect the salvation of us all. For too long the sacred has been lost from the world, glimpsed furtively only on Sunday mornings before being chased away by the glitter of a disco ball and driven into hiding from a thumping bass.

It is easier to tear down than to build up. But the modern Christian Church, and particularly the modern Evangelical Church, is built on an increasingly fragile foundation, and if we are being honest, the cracks have been showing for some time. If it is not demolished from without, it is unlikely that it will be kept upright by the superficial efforts being made from within. The new Church, and the New Reformation, may very well be the providential step forward.

References   [ + ]

1. Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” May 12, 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

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