by Rick Chromey
Martin Luther changed the church.
On October 31, 1517—500 years ago—this pious German monk challenged medieval Christianity and unleashed a Protestant Reformation. Luther specifically attacked a brand of “churchianity” prominent in his day that reduced forgiveness to monetized incentives (indulgences), propagated abiblical ideas (purgatory) and centralized authority (the Roman pope).
Luther outlined his grievances in 95 statements (“theses”), then printed and nailed his ideas to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The response was like an obscure Facebook post that goes viral, thanks to the printing press (a new technology that found a cultural tipping point in A.D. 1500).
The church and world has never been the same.
One historian suggested the Protestant Reformation gave humanity two great gifts: literacy and denominations. An emerging print culture demanded literacy and the Protestants use of Gutenberg technology encouraged reading among the masses. In fact, another reformer 250 years later named Robert Raikes, pioneered Sunday School for the purpose of teaching literacy skills to wayward London children. The Lutheran protest soon birthed reformations in other European countries. These reformers generated new monikers and whole new divisions (denominations) in Christianity: Presbyterians (Scotland), Baptists (Amsterdam), Episcopalians and Methodists (England). Today, the Protestant Church numbers tens of thousands of sects, denominations and fellowships.
This wasn’t Luther’s intent. He and early reformers like John Calvin and Huldrich Zwingli desired to reform the Church not splinter it into a thousand different factions.
The Lutheran Reformation created another significant change: the employment of the academic lecture or sermon. Essentially, Protestantism refocused the Church to the Word of God alone (sola scriptura) rather than human tradition or papal decree. Because Protestantism emerged from academics it was only natural the lecture became a central communication method.
And this changed how the church evangelized, worshipped and discipled.
Martin Luther originally pointed to several abuses of the Roman church he desired to reform. The modern Church—particularly those of the Protestant, fundamental and evangelical stripe—has fallen prey to new abuses consequential to the sermon becoming the focus of the worship service, including:
- A church “service” reduced to a music set and message. One of my grad students, who pastored in a megachurch, opined his church had devolved into “a concert and Ted Talk.” He confessed it’s nothing like the church gatherings described in Acts (2:42-47). Sadly, this model isn’t unique to larger congregations.
- The abandonment of the Eucharist as a part of regular Christian worship. For most of 2000 years, the observance of the Lord’s Supper was a weekly tradition for Christians. Many churches now practice it monthly, quarterly, yearly or not at all.
- Hasty execution of the Lord’s Supper by churches who do practice it weekly. In some churches, communion is merely a necessary prelude (or postscript) to the message. Because time is reserved mostly for songs and sermon, it’s rarely properly explained, richly encouraged or deeply experienced. Many people participate flippantly, ignorantly or carelessly, in violation of biblical instruction (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
- The loss of corporate prayer, congregational readings, personal testimonies and participatory recitations. I attended a Catholic mass recently and was surprised, even blessed, by how much the congregation speaks. It’s in Protestant churches where people are mostly silent and separated while their leaders control the stage and program.
- The lengthening of the sermon. Historically, homilies were in the 8-12 minute range, but Protestantism doubled and tripled it. The average Protestant sermon is around 30 minutes. The problem now is micro media (Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube) has shrunk postmodern attention spans.
Additional abuses could be mentioned, but these are the most grievous.
The bottom line is we must reimagine the sermon for postmodern audiences, refreshing its brevity in the historical tradition, tethering it to biblical purposes and framing it through experiential, collaborative and image-driven strategies.
It’s not hard to imagine. Just look at Jesus.