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Cutting Edges: Crisis, Change, and Renewal in Historical Perspective

By Dr. Anna Marie Johnson, Assistant Professor of Reformation History at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

Everything is changing for churches. They are losing their members, their vigor, and their respected place in the fabric of society. The laity’s formation in the faith is often superficial. Societal and economic conditions make effective ministry challenging. Old models do not seem sustainable, and the future seems unstable at best.

You might assume I am describing the situation of mainline Protestant churches in the United States, and the description certainly fits. But I wrote that description with a very different context in mind: sixteenth-century Germany. In that place and at that time, the church was facing its own challenges.

The church’s critics were vocal and numerous. Prominent academics questioned the power the church had traditionally held in society, and popular songs and stories portrayed priests as inept and self-interested. Individual Christians were certainly pious, but their piety was often unorthodox and sometimes openly heterodox. Public figures used religion for their political gain, and the church hierarchy was more interested in temporal power than shepherding souls. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire was threatening to overtake central Europe, and famines and inflation made a stable economy nearly impossible.

This was the situation that Christians faced in the sixteenth century, and despite the bleak parallels between then and now, knowing this part of the church’s past gives me hope for the church of the future. Remembering how much the church has been through and the many forms it has taken in its long history can help us be less anxious about our current situation. Anxiety has a way of making us think our circumstances are unique and insurmountable. It is a normal response to change, but it is not a particularly helpful response.

There is an older, romanticized type of history that viewed prominent historical figures as giants who walked among mortals, handing out exquisite pearls of wisdom as they went. Many of these figures were truly great and wise, but that is only part of the picture. It is important to remember that they had anxieties, doubts, and failures as well. In short, they were no more or less capable than we are to meet the church’s current challenges, and the circumstances they faced were at least as difficult as ours.

The Protestant reformers had a particularly difficult task since they had to re-build a church structure from scratch. In their exile from the pope, whether forced or self-imposed, they were separated from the institutions, communities, and resources that were familiar to them. Yet they rose to the challenge and tried to address the issues of their time through many different channels.                       

They committed themselves to studying, discussing, and living by the Bible. They carefully considered their theology and practices to discern what needed to change and what needed to stay. They reformed worship practices to reflect and to teach their theology. They organized poor relief in cities. They told the laity that their baptismal vows were every bit as important as the clergy’s vows. And they used the new medium of the printing press to foster biblical faith, saturating communities with instruction on prayer, the sacraments, ethics, childrearing, suffering, and Christian vocation. Many of those laypeople responded by engaging in theological discussions, teaching their children the Bible and the catechisms, urging their rulers to be just, and serving their neighbors and communities.

The results of the Reformation were not all positive, but the movement did create churches that were vibrant enough to nurture the faith of their members and to impact their societies. This is just one example of a challenge the church has met during its long history. In many different contexts, the Holy Spirit has formed churches that engage and respond to society in faithful service. Taking the long view of church history, the current situation is one challenge the church has faced among many. In that perspective, our crisis might seem less threatening. When we are less anxious about the future of “our” churches, we are more open to the Holy Spirit’s call to God’s churches in our time and our place.