Nearly 500 years ago, priest and professor of theology Martin Luther nailed a list of issues for debate to the door of the church. There was nothing too unusual about it – the door of the church was a community bulletin board and in a university community, debate was a form of public entertainment. But of course, that is not how the story ends. Luther’s 95 Theses touched off perhaps the most significant event of the second millennium. Until that time, there had been only one split in Christendom – the division of the Eastern and Western confessions in 1054. In the 500 years since, over 20,000 Protestant denominations have been formed and many, mine included, are enduring internal strife.
Of all the changes ushered in by the Reformation, the most significant – and possibly most overlooked – is change in communication. The invention of moveable type facilitated the rapid reproduction and distribution of the 95 Theses and other writings of the reformers. What might have been a little ripple at the university became an earthquake that shook the Christian world to its roots. But the most dangerous change in communication came from the belief that ordinary Christians should be able to read the Bible in their own vernacular and do their own interpretive work. It was dangerous because it eroded the church’s authority to tell the faithful what to believe. Democratization tends to do that to central authority.
Last week I attended a conference for clergy featuring Diana Butler Bass, the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us. She began her lecture with a graph showing a steady increase from 1960 until around 1975, then a steady and finally sharp decline to the present. We all, of course, took this to be a graph of membership in “mainline” Protestant denominations. It was not. It was a graph showing the number of pay telephone booths. The point was that context matters. People haven’t stopped communicating; they just don’t need phone booths to do it.
Another element of the Reformation was the phrase, ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda, “the reformed church always needs reforming.” We can wring our hands about being phone booths in a cell phone world, or like the reformers of old we can utilize the communication tools at our disposal to discover new ways to be the church, recognizing that democratization precludes a centrally authorized keeper of orthodoxy that tells us how to read and interpret scripture, what to believe and practice and how to be neighbors to each other in our unique communities.
Is the church doomed to becoming a cultural anachronism? I don’t think so. Research indicates that we are still by nature transcendent beings; longing to know what lies beyond us; pondering the mysteries imponderable; all the while seeking community. It could get a little messy. We may have to be neighbor to people who see things very differently than we do. We may find ourselves asking just how well orthodoxy has served us in the 1700 years since Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Empire. We may need to learn to value the conversation itself above doctrine and tradition. We might even begin to ask how our production/consumption society prevents us from forming real community.
Can we do all of that instead of going the way of the phone booth? If a Luddite like me can learn to use a cell phone and have a Facebook page, who knows what might be possible?
Steve Hammer is the associate pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.