Jesus Has Left the Building: Celebrating the Next Reformation

St. Paul's Chapel, New York City. Image via Occupy Faith NYC
St. Paul's Chapel, New York City. Image via Occupy Faith NYC

When an anniversary like this rolls around, it’s not too soon to start celebrating. The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is just a year away, and will mark the introduction of Protestantism into a Christendom that used to be only Catholic, whether Roman or Greek. Roads parted.

The Reformation democratized church experience; the movement demoted the priest and promoted the people—you were urged to read the scriptures instead of having someone read them for you. The Reformation also reimagined a rowdy and robust sense of grace. You didn’t buy your salvation—you received it by grace, through faith. You had a slogan: sola gratia.

From God, you don’t get what you might deserve—you get what you don’t deserve and can’t possibly purchase.

The Church, argued the reformers, had turned Christianity into a bunch of rules and regulations, rights and wrongs. And it had institutionalized the Holier Spirits. Like the Jesus of sacramental bread and wine, the reformers turned the tables on institutional religion. You can just hear them saying, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Or, “I don’t like the institutional church or organized religion.” “I am a cultural Christian.” “I am a post-denominational Christian.” Their reformation was revolutionary. They wanted their own ways in their own days—and they got them.

In this next Reformation, grace undermines both the idea of the punitive divine and the anarchy of the individual. Individuals are propelled to great community and great works that come out of grace, not fear.

Today we have the same fossilization of institutional religion, only this time it is us Protestants.

Everywhere you look a church is closing its doors, or becoming a restaurant or a condo or a theater. The denominations that developed to support the new democracies are all but moribund, singing a narrative of decline complete with “reorganizations” and hand-wringing about the good old days when everyone knew what a Lutheran or Presbyterian was. Now most people who still believe with a gracing Spirit don’t really care what they are in the first place.

That applies unless you are the type of conservative Christian who has a theology of blame and shame or what I call “punishmentalism.” Then you still want to “get it right.” The mainlines are the old lines, and the evangelicals’ dogmatism will soon be there as well. Gratia always escapes religious tendrils and chains. It goes underground like “the holy grail,” blooding and chugging along.

The next Reformation in this 499th year of the last one is already in full swing. It is “big God” optional and spirit-friendly. It has a narrative of a great rising from democratic roots. It uses technology to further democratize so-called religion. It is global in its reach—imagining that nobody has the right name for God yet. Not Islam. Not Christianity. Not Judaism. Not Buddhism. Not Lutheranism or the Episcopal Church.

Its best quarrels are whether to use the word “interfaith” or “multifaith” or “multipath.” The next reformation reaches for the God of the cosmos, not just the globe. It is blessedly anti-punishmentalist and only punishes those who punish. It has a wild streak and an even more individualistic or renegade streak. It doesn’t want God in a box. It is fiercely anti-institutional.

In this next Reformation, grace undermines both the idea of the punitive divine and the anarchy of the individual. Individuals are propelled to great community and great works that come out of grace, not fear.

We Protestants have oddly become most well known in a world that no longer understands us by the “Protestant work ethic.” We got so far in bed with capitalism that we had to sneak out. Jesus left the building long ago.

Religion is once again resisting fossilization into warfare or dusty denominations or fundamentalisms or all of the above, causing many people to say they are none of the above.

As we drive into the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, most churches will celebrate it in October of 2017. Here at Judson, the church I pastor in New York City, we are celebrating the end of the Reformation in its 499th year. (If you want to quarrel about the actual date, read Brand Luther by Andrew Pettigrew. He argues that Luther actually did post the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.)

We think the old Protestant impulse is a threat and see a new Reformation already underway. Thus we are celebrating the first year of the next Reformation and letting the old go by.

Christians are no longer what we started out as: a band of questioning Jews and Greeks who met a man named Jesus. Nor are we the holy Roman Catholic Church with global offices in many countries. We are people who protested those ways on behalf of new ones. We read our own Bible, think our own thoughts, and enjoy the priesthood of all believers.

Religion is once again resisting fossilization into warfare or dusty denominations or fundamentalisms or all of the above—causing many people to say they are none of the above.

What is consistent is religious reformation. From our beginnings, we questioned religious fossilization.  Then we questioned it again. And now many of us deeply sense that we are not really in the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation, we are in the first years of a new global reformation of religion. Call it spiritual but not religious. Call it fed up with the old ways and the old days. Or call it the multifaith movement, where we know there is more than one name for God and are desperate for the peace that passes tribal understanding.