Thursday, 11 April 2013

A "Post-Protestant" future for the Church

Do historical movements have a "use-by" or "best before" date.
  • Did Communism, for example, have a note on their barcode sticker that read "Use by 1989"? 
  • Did Market Capitalism have a "Best before 2008" (or was that "Best before 1929"?) stamp on its pricetag?
I believe the Protestant Reformation has a "use-by" date on its label.  And I believe the label reads something like "Best before 1970" or something like that.

In less than five years' time (31 October 2017), we will observe the 500th anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the traditional date for the beginning of the Reformation.  I think that those of use in the classical "Protestant" churches need to recognise that "Protestantism" as a movement has reached its use-by date, and that the classically "Protestant" churches need to move rapidly into a "post-Protestant" mentality. 

By "classically 'Protestant'", I refer to those churches whose heritage dates back to the ministries of
  • the 16th century Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, etc.),
  • the 17th century British Puritans, or
  • the Wesley brothers and their renewal movement in 18th century Britain.
These churches have a serious need to re-examine the Reformation’s impact (both positive and negative) on our church life today.

The Reformation’s enduring positive legacy (both for churches which affirm the Reformation as part of their tradition and those which do not) includes:
  • the recognition of the bedrock importance of God’s radical grace as the foundation of our relationship with God,
  • the awareness that all Christian reflection needs to be informed by scripture,
  • a respect for solid, critical scholarship in the search for an informed faith, and
  • an understanding that lay Christians are not merely passive recipients of ministry, but rather have legitimate ministries in the church and (particularly) in the wider world.
In our day, these concerns are as strong in the minds of Christians of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Anglican traditions as they are among "Protestants", at times stronger.

However, there is also a “downside” to the Reformation and its heritage, frequently expressed in:
  • a “minimalist” approach to worship, in which the “teaching” aspect of worship (whether in a traditional sermon or in other modes of teaching) frequently dwarfs anything else we do in worship, so that the place of worship becomes more of a classroom (or, worse, a theatre) than a place where the relationship with the Sacred is cultivated.
  • a corresponding de-emphasis upon the importance of sacramental worship, and
  • an understanding of "faith" that regards “getting your beliefs right” as a precondition of a positive relationship with God.
I believe that we need to recognise that the almost 500-year-old Protestant movement is rapidly reaching its “use-by date”, at least in its current form.  As a result, churches within this tradition urgently need to begin exploring our post-Protestant future.

(Note:  I wish to express my appreciation for Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy and Phyllis Tickle's The Great Emergence as I developed some of the ideas for this post, but my thoughts have gone in different directions than those of McLaren and Tickle.)

(Another note:  This article is closely related to two articles on my blog, Why I normally put the word "Protestant" in quotes, and A Catholic heart and a "Protestant" mind .  The three articles, taken together, reflect what I see as the necessity for churches that find much of our heritage in the Reformation to re-evaluate much of this heritage.)

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, and a point that I am in agreement. I am writing an essay (op-ed) in which I examine the future of Protestantism. I am a geographer and a lay theologian. I have therefore noted that those parts of Europe where the Protestant Movement began --the nortwest--are now among the least religious.
    My blog is at


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