I’m reading about this movement of Christians who have a surprising and fresh encounter with God. Because of their awakening to God’s desires, they find themselves drawn to make deeper commitments to Jesus. Unfortunately they find their churches to be fossilized institutions, lacking energy or passion and with bureaucracies that hinder responsiveness to the Spirit’s leading. It seems the churches are full of Sunday Christians and pastors who prefer the safety of the job to the adventure of being a part of God’s mission. The passionate but dissatisfied disciples grow frustrated because they want to swim in the deep end of Scripture, not have intramural debates on doctrine. They have experienced God’s grace and want to express their gratitude with fresh poetry and songs, not sing the same old tunes that no one cares about. These Christians find like-minded brothers and sisters who also strongly desire to glorify God with their whole lives through prayer and Scripture-reading, telling the good news of Jesus Christ to their neighbors, and serving the poor in their cities and towns. They wish the churches of which they are members would do these things, but they see no real effort made by the leadership or by many of their fellow congregants to do anything different. They want to be around those with real faith, not around people who think they are Christians just because they have always gone to church. So they start studying the Bible together in their homes and evangelizing their neighbors. Their actions make the leadership of their churches nervous in part because they say how one lives is just as important as what one believes. Also, they begin to question whether a person really needs to be ordained in order to preach the good news or administer the Sacraments. The official church and denominational leaders take action to rein in or, in some cases, even stop these home groups from gathering. The Christians in the home groups grow even more frustrated and begin to ask why they need to be a part of the older, institutional church in the first place? If God is moving among them as they meet in their homes, why do they need to go to a sanctuary on Sunday mornings? They are doing the things that God wants them to do—spreading the good news, helping the sick and poor, studying the Bible—without any help from the institutional church, and in fact the institutional church is often a barrier to them doing these important ministries. Why should they remain a part of that church or denomination if it tries to stop them from following God’s leading?
Reading about these Christians reminded me of George Barna’s 2005 book, Revolution. In that book, Barna looks at the American Church and says, “Millions of devout followers of Jesus Christ are repudiating tepid systems and practices of the Christian faith and introducing a wholesale shift in how faith is understood, integrated, and influencing the world…. They are seeking a faith experience that is more robust and awe-inspiring, a spiritual journey that prioritizes transformation at every turn, something worthy of the Creator whom their faith reflects.” (11, 14) These Christians gather in living rooms, coffee shops, and even online for Bible study, prayer, and service to those in need. They may or may not be a part of traditional churches. In fact, Barna offers data showing more and more American Christians are leaving traditional church structures behind and are finding greater resonance in smaller settings with other like-minded believers who are less impressed with graduate degrees from seminaries than with leadership that is in tune with God’s leading. They want to passionately follow the Spirit’s movement today, not adhere to some tradition that no longer holds meaning for them. This change is happening now and is shaping the landscape of American Christianity.
Had he known of the renewal movement I am studying, Barna could have used their story to support his thesis about the changing American church in Revolution. He could, except for two issues. First, these Christians come from Sweden, not America. Second, and more importantly, I am reading about Christians who lived in the 19th century. In his book, By One Spirit, Karl Olsson details the beginnings of my church denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church. In my experience church history is often one of the topics Christians are least-excited about. Who cares about a bunch of old, dead people when we need to pay attention to what God is doing now? As I swim through the pages of my denomination’s history, I admit all the names and dates are hard to keep straight. I cannot shake, however, that sense I have had in every church history course I have taken. Namely, that the challenges and opportunities we face in following Christ usually are not all that unique, save for some specific details. In fact many of our challenges look just like the old challenges. Similarly, many of the solutions we create look just like the old solutions. Take those Swedish Christians I’m studying. Like the contemporary American Christians Barna describes as forming an altogether new movement of the Church, those Swedes wanted a deeper faith that brought them closer to God and reflected the life they read in the Bible. In order to facilitate this greater commitment they created small groups, worshiped in their homes instead of church buildings, and did not rely on clergy to do all their Bible-reading, praying, and ministry for them—just like the Christians in Revolution are doing. Reading church history is often a humbling experience for me because I see that the world and the Church did not begin with me, I learn that God has been active in powerful and personal ways throughout history, and I discover that those older and dead Christians who I think of as stagnant and foolish were trying to respond faithfully to God’s leading and often did so in very creative and wise ways. Church history reminds me that I’m a part of a story that is larger than my story or even my congregation’s story. It’s not so bad to be humbled sometimes.
Seeing the similarities between churches of previous generations and today could begin all sorts of conversations. Why is it that what once was a fresh and creative response to God’s movement becomes stale and lifeless for a future generation? Why is it that each generation seems to have similar critiques of older forms and then addresses the problems with just about the same answers? What is more, why are they very satisfied with those answers and discover them to be powerful and life-giving? The early Covenant Church I’m reading about responded to a Lutheran Church that emphasized structure, adherence to dogma, and required people learn from ordained pastors who were the only ones trained to read the Bible rightly. My denominational ancestors believed people could read the Bible for themselves and began meeting in smaller gatherings. The Lutheran Church was initially a movement of people who responded to a Roman Catholic Church that emphasized structure, adherence to dogma, and required people learn from ordained pastors who were the only ones trained to read the Bible rightly. Luther and his followers thought people should read the Bible for themselves and they initially met in smaller gatherings. This pattern is repeated time and again in the history of God’s people—many of the monastic orders of Early and Medieval Christianity began as renewal movements in which believers desired a deeper experience in prayer, Scripture, and community. One could argue the pattern goes back at least to the synagogue movement that began three centuries before Jesus’ birth. In that movement Jewish people who wanted a deeper commitment to God decided that they could read Scripture together and were not solely dependent upon the worship in the Jerusalem Temple and its priests. So they started synagogues—i.e., smaller, local gatherings—and had non-priests read, pray, and teach. One of the earliest groups of these non-priests was the Pharisees, which began as a renewal movement emphasizing living wholly devoted to God. Later, as we see in the Gospels, the Pharisaic movement came to be seen as stale and a hindrance to responding to God’s activity. So when a friend tells you they are tired of their current church and want something more authentic and that they are thinking of starting a meeting in their home in which people can gather and pray, you can joke with them and say, “We’ll be like the Pharisees.” Then duck before they punch you in the face.
Perhaps the reformers were right when they said, “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” or, “the Church reformed, always reforming.” There is something good and right and never out of date about reading Scripture, trusting the Spirit to work in people, and responding to God’s love with service and evangelism. Is the issue then merely that those church renewals lose their way and need a similar renewal yet again? It is difficult to keep a renewal mindset in churches for various internal and external pressures like fatigue, pride, and temptation. Also, it does not take too many strange and even dangerous interpretations of the Bible to cause communities to say, “Maybe we need to set up some guidelines for who gets to preach and teach,” which is the beginning of ordination and formal structures within churches. (Near the end of his life, Martin Luther even tried to slow what he saw as inappropriate uses of biblical texts.) But I digress. I wonder how churches can maintain a renewal mindset in which mission, study of Scripture and prayer, and deep community are their most valued practices? How do we honor and learn from the wisdom of the past while remaining responsive to what God is doing now by being creative?
I have great empathy for those who have broken off from older church forms when those forms no longer respond to God. Doing so is always a complex matter. I lament the division found in the Church, but I also know that at some point, if people are unwilling to change, it can be for the best that a group starts a new expression. If I did not believe that I would not be a Protestant or a part of the Covenant. At the same time, I see that many of the groups that break off would benefit from studying Church history to avoid the pride that often comes with a desire to be more devoted to Christ. That pride often manifests itself as an attitude that says, “We are the ones who really get it,” or, “We are the true Church.” Some understanding of Church history would show these groups that they are a part of a great community of faith that through the years has become stale several times and each time the Holy Spirit has brought renewal and refreshment. Our efforts do not bring renewal—it has always come from the call of God. Our challenge is to always remain responsive to God’s call.
This issue is just another example of how Ecclesiastes gets it right: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” (1.9) That’s timely wisdom from a pretty old book.