It almost seems like everyone with a book deal or a mega-church in Western Christendom is clamouring to be the next Martin Luther. Browse a few titles like George Barna’s Revolution and Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change and you start seeing 95 Theses every which way you turn around. Except instead of posting them on the Wittenburg church’s door, today we are posting them online by the thousands. It can't all be hype, though, can it? Is there something new, difficult, but potentially good emerging?
For some the "emergent" church is a by-word and for others the last hope for Christianity. Generally speaking, the former group mostly contains those being sought in seeker-sensitive services and the latter group contains those who are not. I’ve said before that the "emergent" church at its worst is really little more than a new brand of seeker church. At its best, however, I must admit that it just may be a Re-Reformation.
But instead of hyping it with references to Bono or Al Gore, allegories from the Lord of the Rings, or some kind of worship time with candles and incense—as much as I personally might enjoy those—allow me to point out three parallels between today’s emerging church movement and the reformation squalor of the sixteenth century.
1) A NEW MEDIUM. In the fifteenth century it was the printing press. Instead of being totally reliant on the clergy to read a book for them, the regular joe was learning to read. Even though the literacy rate might only have reached 30% by the time Luther made that fateful posting, their was a new power given to the people: The power to hear from someone else if they so chose. The internet represents the exponential increase of that power. The impact of this is more subtle, perhaps, but no less important.
My pastor may be the one whose sermons I sit through each week, but it is the rest of the week that I can go find what I really want to hear. My pastor can have no idea what other voices I am listening to and can not possibly keep up with his church people’s ka-zillion blogs. Whereas before the pastor may only have had to keep up to speed on a half-dozen authors and watch the news a couple times a week to keep up, now he is largely in the dark. The pastor is one drowned-out voice among many, and his may not carry much weight. I’m not saying this is all bad or all good. But it is a huge shift in the nature of the church.
2) ABUSE OF POWER. Not every pre-Reformation Catholic bishop or clergyman was the epitome of evil. Not every pastor today is a televangelist. Not every pre-Reformation Catholic was manipulating others with legalism, guilt, fear or condescension. Not every Christian is today. But by the fifteenth century the lot had been sullied, and by the twenty-first it has been again. Like the Catholics of 500 years ago Evangelical clergy and laity alike are not trusted anymore and the people have rebelled.
3) "SUPERSTITIONS". I am using superstition to refer to our tendency to attach more significance to the tools God uses to spread his grace than to the Giver of Grace Himself. By the fifteenth century the Catholics had taken the manifestations of God’s grace such as baptism, communion, confession, and the priest and turned them into veritable superstitions. It got to be that people could easily cease to trust Christ and trust the baptismal fount instead. It got to be that the vital Christian life was not sustained by the Spirit but literally through the Eucharistic wafer itself. I would venture to guess that many within evangelicalism have done this again.
Instead of baptism efficacious for salvation it is the altar call or the sinner’s prayer. Instead of the Eucharist or indulgences sustaining spiritual life it is personal devotions in and of themselves. If pushed on it evangelicals would resist this notion, but practically speaking it is what we seem to have done. At least Catholics were holding onto sacraments that the Bible actually points toward.
I have one more parallel to draw but I've never heard anyone say it in so many words and think it is a bit controversial, so I'm thinking about it a bit more and will add it next week.
Or maybe I should hold out for a book deal!