This weekend marks the 505th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. That period of church history was marked by enormous cultural upheaval, a widespread consensus that the church needed cleaning up, and the invention of world-changing communication technology (the printing press!). Sound familiar?
Like 500 years ago, we live in a time of game-changing communication technology. Culture has never changed as rapidly as at the present, and certainly, we are living in an age where contentment with the institutional church is on the wane. Things are changing!
In her book, “The Great Emergence,” author Phyllis Tickle observes that every 500 years or so, the Holy Spirit leads the church into a period of change and renovation. She likens this process to a church-wide rummage sale in which we are compelled to “clean out the attic” in order to move forward. Her big thesis is that we are in the midst of one of these church-wide rummage sales right now.
Prior to the Great Reformation of 500 years ago, the “Great Schism,” in which the Eastern (Orthodox) churches and Western (Catholic) churches formally split, bore the same markers of cultural upheaval. 500 years prior to that, Pope Gregory “the Great” shepherded the body of Christ into the era of monasticism, which preserved the Christian faith through the bleakest parts of the Middle Ages. And 500 years prior to Gregory, the “Great Transformation” occurred when God himself walked among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. To sum up:
The life of Jesus, year 0
Gregory the Great, circa 500
The Great Schism, circa 1000
The Great Reformation, circa 1500
The Great Emergence, present
Is it really true that we’re living in such a time of upheaval, reordering, and change? Only time will tell. History will one day render a verdict, but my gut says, “Yes, we are!”
For those of us who relish change and transformation, this may feel like a great moment of opportunity. For those of us who prefer calm and stability, this present moment may lead to deep reservations and anxieties about where we find ourselves. My literary memory can’t help but to remember two scenes, the first of which is from “Lord of the Rings” in which humble hobbit Frodo Baggins talks to the wise wizard Gandalf about his own fraught circumstances:
“I wish all this need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
And I remember the even wiser man, Mordecai, the uncle of newly crowned Queen Esther, who spurred her on to boldness with these words, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Indeed, no matter what trials, challenges, and difficulties the church may face in this present moment, no matter what is called forth to next emerge, in such-a-time-as-this we can confidently face all things with the Spirit of the Good Shepherd who has led the church in every era and promises to be with us even to the closing of the age.
Peace to you as we keep reforming together,
- Pastor Gregg