Is It Time for Another Reformation?
The Protestant Reformation occurred because of a revolution in communication technology. Now it's happening again.
Have you ever sat in a church service and wondered, Why do we worship God by sitting in a lecture hall listening to someone monologue for 30-40 minutes? Well, you can blame something that happened five-hundred years ago today. That’s when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany. We remember it as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Counter-Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church—both brought renewal to Christianity and transformation to western civilization. It also changed the way Christians worship.
Most historians agree that Luther’s ideas found traction in medieval Germany thanks to the printing press—a relatively new technology in the sixteenth-century. It is worth remembering that every leap in communication technology has triggered a corresponding change in church structure, worship, and function. This is critical to understanding the Reformation, and I suspect it is an overlooked element of what’s happening to the church today. First, a bit of history...
2,000 years ago communication was advanced by Rome’s efficient roads that allowed the message of Jesus and his Apostles to quickly spread throughout the world. Within decades, the Church went from a small sect of Jews in Galilee to a multicultural movement reaching from Spain to India.
1,500 years ago, the codex (a.k.a. the book) replaced the scroll as the preferred mode of written communication. Books allowed large amounts of information to be efficiently stored, studied, and transmitted. (There’s a reason most scrolls never exceeded 20 sheets in length. It was extremely difficult to find a specific point in a rolled document and costly as text could only be written on one side.) Books brought unity to the Church’s teachings with the canonization of Scripture, and the growth of monastic communities became possible because books were easier to carry into remote regions.
500 years ago, Guttenberg’s printing press allowed information to be copied and shared at unprecedented speeds. For the first time the Bible was accessible to the masses and in their own languages. Without the printing press the Protestant Reformation, like most attempts at reform before Luther, would have been a brief, local affair rather than a world-changing movement. The translation and transmission of the Bible also revolutionized the way many Christians worshipped.
Thanks to the printing press and the Reformation, demand for Bible teaching exploded. Simultaneously, the supply of Bible teaching was relatively scarce. Few people were literate and even fewer were trained to understand and communicate Scripture’s content. This high demand/low supply gave rise to the familiar form of Protestant worship many of us still experience today. Christians handed a Bible to the most educated guy in town (it was always a guy back then), and they gathered every week to hear him teach from it. Five-hundred years ago this shifted the focus of worship from the bread and the cup to the sermon and the preacher; from God’s presence at the Table to God’s presence in the Word.
There have been remarkable advances in communication technology since then—the telegraph, radio, and television come to mind, but none seriously changed this high demand and low supply of Bible teaching foundational to sermon-centric Protestant worship that has been in place since the Reformation. Until now...
With the advent of digital technology and smartphones, we are witnessing the most significant shift in communication since the printing press—just ask anyone in the music, publishing, or journalism industries. The full implications are still uncertain, but if the pattern of history holds a dramatic restructuring of the church is likely on the horizon. In fact, we are already seeing the evidence as the supply/demand dynamic around Bible teaching has reversed.
With pluralism and secularization in many western societies, demand for Bible teaching has declined significantly. At the same time, there exists a massive supply of Bible teaching via apps, podcasts, videos, and websites. This inversion of supply and demand means the economics that have sustained church attendance for 500 years no longer exist.
Consider that in the past access to Bible teaching required gathering with others in a sacred space at a set time and place to passively listen to a trained orator explain the Scriptures. This was a very expensive model. Significant cost was required for physical spaces (church buildings), the training of clergy (seminaries), and the writing of sermons (professional pastors). To cover these costs, Christians were expected to sacrifice their time and treasure by committing their households and tithes to a single local church. This expectation was tolerated because, like any other commodity in high demand and in low supply, the market demanded it.
Today, however, those seeking Bible instruction have an almost infinite supply of immediately accessible options. Anyone with a smartphone may access thousands of sermons from anywhere, anytime. The problem is no longer access to Bible teaching, it's curating and navigating the right Bible teaching. This low demand and high supply means the market for Bible instruction has reduced the cost to virtually zero. That’s a good thing, right?
Yes, unless you are a church that still expects people to pay the high cost demanded by the old model. Most institutional churches continue to make the preaching act the centerpiece of Sunday worship, and Sunday worship is the centerpiece of most church structures. An audit of virtually any Protestant church will reveal a massive percentage of the institution’s resources (space, funds, leadership) is devoted to the Sunday preaching event and its related activities and facilities. In other words, most churches have inherited a sixteenth century model that is increasingly out of step with twenty-first century realities.
I talk with Christians regularly—particularly Millennials for whom digital content is native—who ask me why Sunday morning church attendance is important. They don’t recognize the value of a large group gathering built around a 35 minute Bible lecture when they have access to (often superior) sermons 24/7 via their smartphones. I also speak with church leaders regularly—particularly those trained in and dedicated to the centrality of preaching—who express frustration over declining attendance and commitment-averse Millennials. I trust you see the problem already. Pastors carry a Reformation mindset that sees Bible teaching as a scarcity which makes their sermons valuable, while Millennials with a digital mindset recognize the abundance of Bible teaching making most pastor's sermons, and therefore Sunday attendance, unnecessary.
Church leaders face two options. Either battle the marketplace currents and strive to convince enough people to pay the high price for a teaching-based Sunday gathering, or rethink that model to better fit the needs of making disciples in the twenty-first century.
Reflecting on the heritage of the Protestant Reformation, here are some things that I believe are unchanging...
- Teaching the Bible is critically important for helping people follow Jesus and obey all that he commanded. (Where or how this teaching occurs is another matter.)
- Incarnate gatherings of Christians for worship and encouragement is commanded in Scripture (Hebrews 10:25) and has always sustained the Church. (I don't believe church can ever be a disincarnate digital-only encounter.)
- Leaders are given to the church to equip God’s people and help them grow to maturity in Christ. (We can't replace pastors with A.I. or algorithms.)
Inspired by the Protestant Reformation, and looking at the realities of our present age, here are some new questions worth discussing...
- Given all of the resources available to us (spatial, material, digital), what is the best way to make disciples today? Likewise, what is a redundant misuse of resources?
- What if we redeployed some of the church’s resources currently occupied by the Sunday preaching event toward helping Christians curate and navigate the endless Bible teaching they encounter online? What new things could the church do if two-thirds of its resources were not focused on Sunday mornings & preaching?
- What does the local church have of value for a spiritually-hungry generation that can only be engaged through an incarnate gathering? How can the physical church become an oasis for a digitally disincarnate generation?
- If Christians found strong Bible teaching elsewhere, would we value character more than charisma in our pastors and church leaders? How might that make leaders and laity both healthier?
I'm not prescribing a new model of church. Heaven knows every model has its benefits and weaknesses. But I do think we need to be asking new questions with the humility to be led by God's Spirit toward new solutions. Questioning the past and reexamining inherited traditions isn't just important to advance the mission of the Church, it's also how we remain true to the spirit of the Reformation.