It is no secret that the church in the US is in decline across all denominational lines. For over a decade many researchers have been publishing their findings that as many as eighty-five percent of American churches are stalled and declining. While some have suggested that we need to alter our theology to fit the times, I propose that we need to alter our sociology.
For much of our history, churches in the US have worked off of sociological assumptions that were true during the Reformation era. But here’s the thing: the factors that formed the Reformation-era church are now dissipating. As the sociology of our place shifts, so must our church practices. We don't need to alter our theology to fit the times, but our sociology. Click To Tweet
The Rise of the Reformation-Era Church
Let’s begin by examining three formative sociological factors that gave rise to the Reformation church.
1. An Enlightened Era
The sixteenth century burst upon the world scene in a radical way. The mysticism of the dark ages was rocked by the scientific discoveries that the world was not flat, there was no waterfall that poured off the edge of earth’s shelf in the middle of the ocean, and the sun was the center of the universe. With these kinds of discoveries, the value of “knowledge” over “mysterian” sprang forward to become the dominant world-view in this new era.
These shifts had a powerful impact upon the church too. Not only did their spiritual concept of “Heaven is up and Hell is down” become spatially challenged, necessitating a need to redraw the spiritual charts that had been used for centuries, but their sacred-space gatherings left little room for an information download of spiritual knowledge. The academic world with their stages and lecterns were able to parlay large amounts of knowledge in their learning sociological constructs, and the church was soon to feel a need for the same. The value-shift from “mysterian” to “knowledge” set the stage for the formation of a new approach to church gatherings.
2. A Christianized Europe
Another little-known fact about the sixteenth century was that Europe was almost completely Christianized.
It is an interesting thing to study the penitence lists of the Catholic Church during that time period. The harshest forms of penitence was reserved for church members who skipped the weekend church gatherings. They could cheat, steal, and even engage in extramarital sexual relationships with minimal penitence requirements. But if they missed church to go hunting, their penitence would be extraordinary and could last for as long as two years before their spiritual reparations might be considered fulfilled. All this is to say: the social patterns of church attendance were deeply engrained in the European way of life.
So when the Protestant movement arose, the cultural mindset of church attendance became an immediate assumption. Whether you were a Catholic, Anglican, or one of those pesky little protest groups that was springing up, everyone attended church.
As welcoming as it might sound to have everyone feel compunction to attend church every weekend, here is what we need to understand today: In the 1500’s, there was little need for churches to have a healthy missiology. If everyone was already attending church, then the weekend gatherings could focus on teaching, which resulted in a mindset that was equivalent to “preaching to the choir”.
As a whole, the reformation church proved itself to be far better at maturing the “already saved” than reaching the lost. While that may have been appropriate five hundred years ago in the Christianized portions of Europe, the absence of missiology is costly today.
3. The Peril of One’s Salvation: The Root of the Protest
Paul Alexander says that the Western Church has been in protest for so long that we no longer remember what we were protesting. While that line makes me chuckle, it signals a need to revisit the reasons why Luther nailed his 95 theses upon the Wittenberg door 500 years ago. While some have pointed to the indulgences of the Catholic Church as the cause for the protest, I believe the reason was far deeper.
By the sixteenth century, the Church had reduced the path of salvation down to the partaking of the Eucharist as the only means of receiving grace. It was quite necessary then for each Christian to take communion at the weekend Mass so as to walk in grace and maintain their salvation throughout the week. So serious were they about this that the priest would stab the bread with a small spear and go through the mechanics of recreating the Lord’s death to literally re-crucify Christ while standing behind the communion table, releasing enough salvific grace for the communicants in attendance that day. This practice created a nervous understanding of salvation. After all, if one missed taking communion on the weekend, their salvation might be in jeopardy.
Beyond that, it gave enormous power to church leaders. If a priest felt that a communicant had committed a heinous sin, they could refuse that person from coming to the communion table for a season, and force that person to live in the fearsome position of not being “under grace” until the priest decided to let them back to the communion table. In some cases a priest might disallow a congregant to the table for as long as two years. These individuals might be banished to the courtyard during Mass for a few months, then work their way back to being allowed to stand in the narthex during the serving of communion for a few more months, then they might be allowed entrance to the sanctuary where they could at least see the Lord’s body being served for a season, after which they might be waved forward by a priest to be restored to the grace of the Lord. And hopefully, their long journey of being trapped with their sin may have taught them better devotion.
Such was the spirituality that was common when Luther entered the monastery. He was so terrorized and insecure in his salvation that at times even the sound of a dry leaf blowing across the ground made him wince and fear that he was losing God’s grace. However, once he started to study the scriptures during his studies, and saw the verses that salvation came as the result of justification alone, he experienced both a personal freedom commingled with a frustration for the path of salvation the church was foisting upon people. This ultimately led to his protest, and set in motion a series of events that birthed the protesting Protestant church and helped the Christian community wake up from a dark ages of their own.
The Birth of the Proclamation-Centered Church
Examining these sociological factors, we can see that the protestant church was born in the wake of the knowledge value of the enlightenment, the distortion of the Catholic priests, the pervasive church-attendance culture of Europe, and the Gutenberg press. With these sociological conditions, the Protest leaders seized on a new and different purpose altogether for church gatherings.
The message of the protest was that each person could be their own priest—no longer beholden to earthly priests. As a result, protestant gatherings were designed to teach the Christian congregations how to rightly divide the Scriptures for themselves, now that each Christian was to be the priest of their own homes.
Accordingly, the protestant pastor’s primary role was to stand before the group and teach scripture. Such was the commitment to the centrality of the pastor’s teaching that it was not uncommon for an hourglass to be set up on the preaching podium so the group would not be shortchanged from getting a full one-hour lesson on righty dividing the scriptures from their leader.
With “proclamation of the bible” being the new goal, a new sociology was now needed for the church. On Sundays, believers would walk into a room with the chairs facing forward to better see and learn from their pastor how to study the word of God.
This was different. It was a serious departure from the Cathedrals and Sacred Space assumptions that had informed the church since the days of Constantine. With this adaptation, the performance culture of the church was born, in which the congregation all faced forward, their newly minted bibles open in their laps, and the pastors on a raised stage delivered their one-hour sermons—which was the cornerstone of the gatherings. And with that, a new sociological construct of church gatherings was born. Owning your own Bible & listening to a 1-hour sermon is a 16th century construct. Click To Tweet
Fresh Expressions of Church for Today
The above factors have blended together to become the fertile soil that nurtured the Reformation Era and its proclamation-event sociology of church. While the proclamation church has done much to pilot many people to Christ, it is interesting that five hundred years later, we are still using the same ecclesial form—even though our spiritual need is different from the “first-bible” crowd, and our missiological situation is no longer the same as their Christianized world. There is a reason the proclamation-event church that the reformers gave us is waning: it does not fit the sociology of people who’ve been raised with secular world views.
But hear this: the waning reformation church does not signal that the church is destined for the back pasture. There are some very momentous approaches to church arising in this day that are visible to leaders who are paying attention to the front-edge of Christianity.
The Fresh Expressions movement now has over 6,000 different kinds of churches for people that “do not do church”. Their approach directs leaders to incarnate themselves into an under-gospeled people circle that would never walk into a proclamation event, and then find a way to do church for them that fits their sociology while feeling no obligation to align with elements from the Reformation Era.
Similarly, the Dinner Church movement, itself a fresh expressions of church, is now opening up a new church every other day across the Western world. The dinner table theology is drawn from the way church was done during the Apostolic Era, and gathers 25–300 people a night around tables to eat dinner together and talk about Jesus. These and other incarnational ecclesiology approaches signal an encouraging new day for the next-generation church. Incarnational ecclesiologies are encouraging a new day for the church. Click To Tweet
It is not my prediction that all proclamation churches will wash away in a sudden tsunami of change. After all, we still have Christendom churches with us that survived the Reformation turn. However, we are entering into a new era of the church in which the primary form will be sociologically aligned gatherings that fit a particular under-gospeled social circle.
To that end, a growing number of leaders and teams are feeling “sent” by the Spirit to reach a particular people who would never walk into a Sunday morning church. Like Paul had his unique Macedonian call, so these leaders are hearing their unique calls with their unique gatherings. Though the Reformation Church template might be downshifting, the Church of Jesus has a potent future—because Macedonian calls are happening again.