Faithmatters: Was the Reformation worth it?

Each year about this time — which is to say Reformation Sunday — I spend time wondering whether the Reformation really was worth it.

After all, its current result is an utterly atomized Protestantism that stands as a terrible model for religious harmony, to say nothing of a Catholicism that at various times and in various ways has stood in the schoolhouse door and sought to keep modernity (never mind post-modernity) out.

Those are, of course, oversimplified and unfair characterizations of both traditions, but there’s enough truth in both to make us wonder whether we’d all be better off today had Martin Luther and Rome found enough common ground to prevent fissure in the 16th Century.

Well, the more I’ve thought about that this year, the less difference I think it makes. Yes, it would be lovely to show the world that a major religion that preaches love can demonstrate what it preaches within its own walls.

But the reality is that the grand movements of history inevitably sweep through the church just as much as through the rest of society. We are not immune from what we cannot control. The primordial stirrings of history will quake the ground under the church even if the church does all it can to deny that reality.

Thus we have moved from the challenges and opportunities of modernity to the challenges and opportunities of post-modernity, in which the meta-narratives that we thought held us together no longer attract anything like the same commitment they once did. Churches that don’t understand that are becoming as sadly out of touch as the printed word.

I began my professional newspaper career in 1967 typing on an old Underwood upright typewriter, using the skills of reporting, synthesizing information and writing that I still use today.

But between then and now the technological ground shifted. To continue my work, I had to move first to an IMB Selectric typewriter, then to a primitive word processor and finally to an Internet-connected computer.

In the church, too, the ground has shifted, though the core of the church remains the same. Our task still is to introduce people to Jesus Christ to transform their lives so they may live as Christ’s disciples. That’s who we’ve been for 2,000 years.

But the meta-narrative of Christendom is gone. We live instead in a religiously pluralistic nation in which lots of people search for deep meaning but cannot imagine finding it in a church.

And while that is going on outside the walls of our churches, too many of us are inside those walls wasting our time arguing about issues of sexuality, of governance, of worship styles.

If we cannot see that the way forward is first to move outside the doors of our spiritually gated communities, we’re done for.

The next Reformation is under way and those of us who claim to be the church reformed and always reforming should welcome it — except when it buys into those aspects of the culture around us that don’t give life but destroy. That’s when we need our prophetic voices.

BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at