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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

The Reformations we need, 502 years after Luther

This past week marked Reformation Sunday, the Lutheran church's annual liturgical commemoration of Martin Luther and his legacy. As we wear red, sing "A Mighty Fortress," and drink strong coffee, we in the Lutheran tradition are not actually celebrating the contributions of a historical figure. Rather, we are reminded of God's dynamic and ceaseless work in the world. It's a Sunday in which we remember that God always calls us to love and to serve - but the specifics of that call are ever-changing.

502 years ago, Martin Luther began a movement to reform the way we thought about church. The Protestant Reformation is not significant because it started a splinter group of denominations. Rather, it is significant because it catalyzed a reconsideration of what it means to be the church in a time of rapid change.

Descended from Luther's tradition, the church of today needs another Reformation. It's been said we need to reform our understanding of social issues, our use of digital technology, and our political stances. All of these may be true, but the Reformation we need today is more expansive. As was the case with Luther's Reformation, the changes the church requires 502 years after Luther won't just change the church's actions, they will change the church's understanding of what it means to live a life of faith in an age of tremendous change and uncertainty.

502 years after Luther, we need a reformation of belonging. Many organizations are intentionally committing to inclusivity while realizing the value that comes from diversity. Meanwhile, the Christian church continues to draw firm boundaries between insiders and outsiders with its antiquated concept of membership. In much of the mainline Protestant tradition, long beholden to a colonialist mindset, membership and attendance metrics remain the focal point of church leaders.

With a reformation of belonging, a church defines itself not by the concept of membership, but by the needs of the community in which the ministry is situated. With this reformed mindset, the ministry is defined not membership nor attendance nor the number of people who look and think like one another. Rather, ministry is defined by the extent to which the church connects and collaborates with its community for the sake of service to the neighbor.

502 years after Luther, we need a reformation of place. Organizations are beginning to understand the depth of relationships that form from hybrid connections, the encounters that happen in both physical and virtual space. Meanwhile, the Christian church continues to insist that the core expression of the tradition takes place in person during a one-hour timeslot on a weekend morning.

With a reformation of place, ministry is defined not by a building or a timeslot, but by a commitment to live in relationship with digital culture, a culture where the online and face to face experiences have equal standing. Digital connection is no longer seen as shallow or disingenuous. When we reform our understanding of place, we in the church can start to use digital technologies not for marketing and advertising, but for ministry and relationship-building.

Finally, 502 years after Luther, we need a reformation of leadership. It's time to stop depending exclusively on the clergy to steward the Christian tradition. It's time to hear more perspectives on Sunday mornings. Ordained leaders have an important role in today's church, but that role is closer to a coach than a chief executive. The leaders of today's most successful organizations are typically not charismatic, authoritative decision-makers. They are visionary, collaborative facilitators who trust their people and know how to delegate. Still, Sunday mornings seem increasingly like pastoral performances where the community is seen primarily as an audience.

With a reformation in leadership, all who gather for word, sacrament, and service are seen as co-equal contributors. The community collaborates to determine a vision for ministry. Liturgy truly becomes participatory. Attendance and "excellence" are jettisoned, replaced by wide collaboration and deep engagement. The leadership priority is no longer institutional survival. The leadership priority is responding to God's call to be a fountain of grace in a time of division and skepticism. The leadership priority is to return the work of the people, back to the people.

The mighty fortress that is our God is indeed calling the church to change. In Fall 2020, I'll be releasing a book with Fortress Press on these Reformations, and more. Follow this website for more on this important topic!

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