A New Reformation?

Some reflections on Reformation Sunday by Stephen Smith-Cobbs

“And the one who was seated on the throne said,
‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” – Revelation 21:5

photo credit: Keren_ via photopin cc

photo credit: Keren_ via photopin cc

We are approaching the 500-year anniversary to the Reformation. Then too, the church faced unstoppable pressure to reform and to be transformed by the work of the Spirit. Many methods and practices of the church had lost their luster. A growing storm of discontent changed the Christian church, as it was then known. And it appears we are witnessing the start of another such upheaval.

Mainline historians such as Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass to evangelical historians like Donald Dayton and Scott Thuma, agree we are in the midst of a reformation that is happening all around us. In some ways we can’t see it very well, not unlike the way it can be possible that someone deep in the middle of a forest simply can’t see the forest for all the trees. It can also be difficult for those of us who are in the church to be aware of it because it is happening both quickly (think of the downturn in weekly church attendance numbers in the U.S. across the theological spectrum since the brief uptick after 9/11) and slowly, over a lot of time, (the changing multicultural face of the American Christian church even as what were once mission fields in South America, Africa, and Asia are now the largest Christian churches who are now sending missionaries to America).

On that first Reformation Day, Martin Luther targeted 95 issues about the church at that time that he believed were in need of reformation. What about the church today is ripe for reformation? Author Thom Shultz suggests four:

  • Format – the typical church is a membership organization designed to drive weekly attendance at a central location. Culture is increasingly rejecting that format, as service clubs and other similar organizations are also struggling. What if the church were to become known more as a relationship than a Sunday morning event?
  • Professionalization – Ministry today is the work of paid professionals. Have you noticed how churches have come to see staff as the driver for programs and see worship being led by paid professionals on the “stage” while people in the pews sit passively and watch? Yet we live in an increasingly interactive and participatory culture. What if followers of Jesus felt empowered to be part of “the priesthood of all believers?”
  • Focus – Churches today emphasis a wide variety of things. Morals. Service. Bible knowledge. Social ills. Worship. More people say the church is known more for what it is against that what it is for. What if the church could become known as a community of believers focused on growing a relationship with Jesus, and loving one another unconditionally (for example, loving God and neighbor)?
  • Denominationalism – In the last century, churches grew though a denominational franchise system. Centralized control, resources, and reputation worked – until they didn’t. Will centralized denominations (of whatever theological stripe) survive when everyone has easy access to a variety of sources?

These are a few of the places in the church today where reformation is already happening. One of the reasons I am part of the NEXT Church renewal movement in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is because I want to be intentional about participating in the reformation that the Spirit of God is already accomplishing in our midst I am eager to see what God is going to do – in the congregation I serve, in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and in the Christian church around the world.

smith cobbsStephen Smith-Cobbs is the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, VA and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.