This is a Reformation

I’m going to make a seemingly bold (and yet not really all that bold claim):
We are in a Reformation.

In actuality, we are always in “reformation.” This is why the reformers of the 16th century variety coined the phrase “semper reformanda” or “the church reformed, always reforming.”

It’s the reality that we are always being re-formed, if we are active in a relationship with God. On an individual level, being formed continuously into the likeness of Jesus. On a church level, being formed continuously into the body of Jesus for the sake of the world.

However, there are also times in history where there is noticeable change to how The Church organizes itself and is present in the world (or in actuality usually ends up divided in the goal of bringing change). It usually happens alongside noticeable societal change – which is many times indirectly related.

We have seen Reformations (big “R”) like this about every 500 years according to most church historians (it’s not a science, but it’s pretty close to being predictable).

And I would like to suggest that we are in the beginnings of another Reformation right now.

Years ago I heard people claim this was true about the different “nondenominational,” mega-church, or emergent church movements we were seeing. But that didn’t really pan out as an actual Reformation. All of that was really just progressions of what currently existed (whether organizationally or intellectually).

But what’s happening now.
Along all sorts of lines – the failures of celebrity leaders, the issues of racial disharmony, the seeming frailty of the current church models to withstand persecution, and the rise of The Church in the global South and East.
In pretty much every church, denomination, or network.
It looks like a Reformation to me.

The intense and widespread deconstruction that is happening (specifically among many American Christians) must be followed by a massive reconstruction that must look a lot different than what was in many ways falling apart anyways. And what is reconstructed must look more like the early church we read about in Acts.

That was then, this is now

The last Reformation in the 16th century was about The Church in the West returning to God’s intention, but the thing that needed to be addressed most immediately was a problem of right teaching.

This Reformation today is also about The Church in the West returning to God’s intention, but the thing that needs to be addressed most immediately is a problem of  right relationship(s).

It has the same end: to return us to the original Scriptural vision of God’s New Testament people (see the book of Acts).
But it does not have the same means.

Right teaching is important, of course. We should never diminish that. And teaching and relationships are ultimately tied together. And so in the 16th century Reformation there was much to say about doctrinal issues – or what The Church taught. However, the context we are working with today is different than the context of the previous Reformation. And thus, the focus of the Reformation needs to focus on relational issues – how The Church lives.

Part of this is likely because we are in the age of information. Anyone can gain access to all the orthodox teachings of Scripture from excellent communicators of the truth (like The Bible Project). So what people need from The Church right now is less around the forming of correct ideas (though incorrect ideas need to be confronted) and more around the forming of right relationships – to God, to one another, and also to the world.

One leads to the other. And both things must ultimately be held together. But (to use a medical analogy) The Church in the West is hemorrhaging (specifically in America) – and not just numerically, spiritually as well. And to “stop the bleeding,” we must start with right relationship in order to be able to address right teaching as well.

Too many seem to have more of a relationship with their preferred idealized version of church than with the very God who establishes The Church. Too many purport to “know” the Truth without the evidence of being “known” by the Teacher.

And when teaching is placed above relationship (and not alongside of it), and then the correct value of relationship is also lost – it can morph the Gospel into a transactional proposition and not a transforming presence.

It also then influences the way we form relationships with other believers (inside the organized church especially). Churches end up connected by their ideology or vision statement or pithy sayings or denominational perspective, as opposed to by the Spirit that inhabits and knits them together.

We end up forming “Bible studies,” “Sunday schools” and “small groups” in highly transactional ways (not relational ways) and call those transactions “community” or “discipleship.” Of which they are rarely either.

Dissonance and Discipleship

This is a difficult critique of one’s faith or faith community. And I recognize that, because I’ve been living in this difficulty and leading in the church amidst this dissonance now for well over a decade.

I’ve seen how transactional I was taught faith was. I’ve experienced how transactional I was modeled church to be. I’ve noticed how transactional I was trained evangelism should go.

A dissonance has been created. In many cases, as The Church in America, we aren’t who we say we are. Which causes all sorts of discomfort.

That’s the problem with a Reformation really: it disrupts our comfort.

The current Reformation, while targeting ideas as well, is not as much about reforming the teaching of the church – as the most recent one was.

Instead, it’s targeting the values and lifestyle of the church, and is primarily about reforming us to live beyond the shallow and even nonexistent relationships the church has allowed to be counted as “discipleship” for far too long.

Jesus may very well have been after The Church’s “mind” in the last Reformation.

But it seems like Jesus is after The Church’s “heart” in this one.

Jesus may very well have been after The Church’s “mind” in the last Reformation.
But it seems like Jesus is after The Church’s “heart” in this one.

What must change?

The mind will need to be renewed as well, no doubt. But the heart needs a complete reformation this time around.

Too many in The Church have allowed our hearts to be wooed by other lovers.

Politics. Business. Popularity. Comfort. Pride. Greed. Power.

And The Church has too often followed suit in idolizing the lovers of the hearts of its people and leaders.

Thus the need for a Reformation focused firstly upon right relationships.

And our brothers and sisters from The Church in the East and global South should be our guides. We must learn from them how to again live faithfully amidst the difficulties of this world. Leadership for this Reformation in The West will have to continue to emerge. But our best hope for recovering what we have lost is to mutually submit ourselves to our Church family that is thriving all over the world – and stop looking pridefully to ourselves for all the answers.

We must return again to the fullness of a love relationship with God – Father, Son, and Spirit; not merely a conversion transaction for the purpose of going to Heaven one day.

We must return again to the unity of a love relationship with one another – The Church actually being the church across a community, not merely allegiance to “my church.”

We must return again to the calling of a love relationship with our neighbors – for God so loved the entire world, not just the ones we perceive to be “like us.”

And the depth of spirituality that these right relationships will produce can be seen throughout the history of The Church, and is still seen all over the world in the places Scriptural Christianity is thriving. We see it evidenced in the church in Acts, in the early church mothers and fathers, in the monastic communities, in the awakenings and revivals in the West of the last several centuries, and continuing in the global South and the East:

  • Organic relationships that lead to spiritual family being valued over organizational leadership principles.
  • Rhythms of a shared life together being valued over religious services offered by religious professionals.
  • Spirit-led conversations that take place in the context of genuine friendships being valued over strategic “gospel presentations.”
  • Equipping believers to disciple those around them being valued over entertaining church attendees who simply “invite their friends” to a religious experience.
  • Grace-filled and generous servant leaders who model empathy and patience being valued over goal-oriented and gregarious influencers who rarely enter into the mess of the brokenness of their own life nor the lives of others.

Jesus is calling The Church in the West to once again walk thru the wilderness of a Reformation in order to return to the right relationship(s) He’s desired for us all along.

Will we follow Him there?

With that in mind, read the words of God to His people thru the prophet Hosea, as they are still no doubt His words to us today:

And now, here’s what I’m going to do:

    I’m going to start all over again.

I’m taking you back out into the wilderness

    where we had our first date, and I’ll court you.

I’ll give you bouquets of roses.

    I’ll turn Heartbreak Valley into Acres of Hope.

You’ll respond like you did as a young girl,

    those days when you were fresh out of Egypt.

HOSEA 2:14-15 [The Message; emphasis added]

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