What would it look like around the world as people catch what it means to serve God in all areas of our lives?
What would it mean for our churches to experience a Second Reformation?
We explore the history of the first Reformation to uncover the striking similarities to our present situation–similarities which explain why we’re ripe for a Second Reformation.
By seeing the implications for our society, churches and personal lives this talk presents a kind of roadmap for leaning into what God is doing in our disruptive times.
Listen on YouTube or read the manuscript below.
[Note: Catholics are welcome in this conversation–we are exploring history to understand the present situation we all face. Historians may also point to other occasions that could be called second theological reformations, but this talk focuses on the social, political and technological dimensions that make our time particularly disruptive.]
Listen to this talk on the Theotech podcast (subscribe on Apple or Google podcasts). Subscribe to the TheoTech mailing list for expanded ideas from this talk. Support our work on Patreon.
Today, we’re discussing the possibility of a Second Reformation. What it would look like, why now, what it’s impact could be and what that means for you and me.
The First Reformation
But before we begin, let’s consider what happened in the First Reformation.
If you’re not familiar with the origin story, it goes a bit like this:
In 1515, Pope Leo X needed money to build St. Peter’s Basilica. He had a revenue stream through the sale of indulgences, which were said to absolve people from sin in exchange for money, regardless of contrition.
Johannes Tetzel, a Dominican preacher was commissioned to sell these indulgences in the region of Bishop Albrecht. He was an effective growth hacker, inventing a catchy slogan, “When the coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs” that soon reached the ears of Martin Luther in the neighboring region of Frederick the Wise.
In 1517, disturbed by the sketchy theological basis for indulgences and by the manipulative religious extortion happening at the expense of his people, Luther posted his 95 Theses–written in Latin–to start a scholarly debate.
But this soon spun out of control into what we of the Internet age might call a “flame war”.
Why did it go viral?
Unbeknownst to Luther, someone translated the 95 Theses from Latin into German–the language of the people. Gutenberg’s printing press, invented about 77 years earlier was already widely in use, printing books for the wealthy. But Luther’s 95 Theses was a major breakout hit that demonstrated the scale of its disruptive potential. Within 2 weeks, pamphlets of Luther’s writing had spread throughout all of Germany.
Other Reformers from other regions joined the debate and started new threads surrounding the authority of the Pope, the Scriptures, the nature of salvation, and much more. The floodgates were opened, society was upended and there was no going back.
Five years after the 95 Theses were posted, Luther published a popular vernacular German translation of the New Testament and completed the whole Bible 12 years later. His translation was unique for its basis in the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and high quality German that commoners could understand. The result was an explosion in Biblical literacy among ordinary German speaking peoples and a unification of the language. It busted the privilege of the religious elite and gave the movement legs, which leaders would parlay into greater freedom.
Different Reform movements allied to secure religious freedom and in 1526, an initial imperial parliament gave each government within the Holy Roman Empire permission to decide which religion it wished to follow. But 3 years later, this freedom was rescinded and Lutheran teaching was condemned resulting in an April 20th “Letter of Protestation” by the German princes and delegates of the Imperial Free Cities. Incidentally, this letter received legal status as a formal complaint on April 25th–490 years ago, to the day.
This is where the word “Protestant” in “The Protestant Reformation” comes from.
And so we come to today.
History is messy, but I want to draw out a few observations from the First Reformation to get hints for what a second might look like.
My first observation is that the Reformation was initially about correcting an injustice in the church. The church was corrupted and having monopolized salvation and the Scriptures, it ended up selling the forgiveness of sins to enrich its hierarchy.
Second, the Reformation was effective because of translation and technology, which rapidly reached and connected diverse people into a greater movement. Without the translation of the 95 Theses into German and the printing press to affordably put these pamphlets in the hands of every person, no movement would have formed and the status quo along with its injustice would have prevailed.
Third, this movement was enabled by innovations in the arts and humanities and resulted in the prolific creation of new artifacts and institutions to carry it forward.
Beyond the numerous pamphlets, songs, cartoons, sermons and other creative works generated by the Reformation, Luther’s Bible stands out as the powerful artifact that reshaped all of Europe. It was made possible by the Christian humanist scholar Erasmus who published bible manuscripts in the original language. And it resulted in a unified German language as well as a pluralistic polity with new religious and political freedoms.
And perhaps an even bigger outcome? The emergence of vocational integration. Every person in every discipline had a contribution to make for the glory of God. The sacred/secular divide was broken.
So what might these observations mean for “A Second Reformation” in our day?
The Injustice in our Day
Let’s begin by talking about injustices we see in the church in America today.
Yes, there’s everything from abusive leadership to sex scandals to plagiarism to embezzlement. Jesus said there would be wolves in sheepskins who would not spare the flock.
But let’s talk systemically–institutional churches, the Christian market and the non-profit industrial complex. What injustices do you see?
[ Discuss examples from the audience ]
I want to highlight one systemic injustice I’ve noticed. Bear with me as I speak boldly, but generally–I’m not referring to any church in particular.
I think the injustice in our day maybe less in the use of money, but in the use of time. Churches waste people’s time. And by extension they devalue their labor.
The sacred secular divide enables church institutions to claim greater significance for the activities and needs of the church, which justifies extensive unpaid labor and time. Instead of activating and unleashing people to use their most valuable gifts to build up the Body and bless the world, churches pull people into church activities to serve the church community in cookie cutter roles.
Not only are people expected to volunteer, but much of their efforts are ineffective at producing change, which is at the heart of meaningful labor. When you work, you never want to work in vain. That’s what makes people quit their jobs.
When you volunteer at church, you go through the motions, but to very little effect and may try to resolve the cognitive dissonance by attributing it to a different spiritual economy or a different spiritual causality. In actuality, much of the action keeps people busy, distracts them, gives them something to do in order to involve them in church as an end in itself.
This is an injustice.
Instead of selling indulgences, churches try to be value-added resellers of meaning, purpose and relationship by claiming eternal significance when you participate in the activities and work of the church. But deep down, I think many people can tell it’s grasping at straws. They can seek their need for meaning and connection elsewhere.
Completing the Truncated Gospel
Strangely enough, this error flows from a misunderstanding of salvation–it flows from a truncated Gospel.
When you hear the word “salvation”, what do you think of? I think for the majority of Americans, it would mean a personal relationship with Jesus that ensures you go to heaven when you die because your sins are forgiven by believing he died for you and rose again from the dead. That’s not the Gospel–in the least it is incomplete.
When Jesus began his ministry, he preached, “The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Gospel.” When Peter preached at Pentecost, he said, “Believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the promised Holy Spirit.” When Paul spoke of what happens when we die, he said, “If anyone is in Christ, he/she is new creation. The old has passed, the new has come.”
The Gospel was that God’s cosmic purpose to unite heaven and earth in Jesus Christ through the Church is being fulfilled. Jesus through his death on the Cross not only bore our sins, but also became the seed for the New Creation, which would be given as an inheritance to everyone in Him.
The apostles bore witness to his Resurrection inviting all people to repent and believe in him so they would become a new redeemed humanity that would inherit and rule this New Creation with Christ. In the present time, every believer receives the Holy Spirit as a downpayment in advance of this promise.
So, the hope of the Gospel wasn’t to go to heaven when you die. It was always, a New Creation ruled by a New Humanity redeemed by Jesus Christ–aka the Kingdom of God.
Do you see the difference?
When salvation is understood merely as forgiveness now and eternal life when you die, all work unrelated to these two things are demoted in significance. But when salvation is understood as God making all things new in Jesus Christ and giving it to redeemed people from every tribe, tongue and nation to rule, all work done in Jesus’ Name is significant and all people in Jesus Christ are indispensable.
Making disciples is no longer about making converts to our way of life–it’s getting people ready for the New Creation through the good works God has prepared for them to do today.
It is in a sense vocational integration.
So if the First Reformation broke the institutional church’s unjust monopoly on salvation and Scripture by making God’s Word available to people in their own language, then perhaps a Second Reformation will break the monopoly on what it means to serve God by unleashing God’s people in every vocation to be productive for God’s Kingdom throughout the world.
Why is the time ripe for A Second Reformation?
Now, what I am saying is not new. Vocational integration has been a movement for some time.
What makes our present time ripe for A Second Reformation?
I want to suggest three things: Technology, Politics and Translation.
The First Reformation started about 77 years after the invention of the printing press, which enabled mass communication.
The political situation was a highly fragmented, restive Holy Roman Empire. Local rulers saw in the Reformation an opportunity to press for greater freedom and oppose the hegemony of the empire.
And translation lit the fuse of Luther’s 95 Theses by pushing it out of academia and into the international political scene. It brought together diverse people from many nations into a continental movement that disrupted all of Europe.
Today, we have the Internet, which recently turned 30 years old. It amplifies mass communication to the extreme where everyone has access to overwhelming amounts of information for free and anyone can distribute their own ideas–as long as they can get attention.
We also have a highly divided political situation in America, which cuts through our churches. It’s exacerbated by the ways we’ve come to use the Internet and other countries have taken advantage to undermine the United States. Trust in general, feels scarce.
And advances in AI and automatic translation mean we’re approaching human quality for many major languages, driving down the cost and speed of translation and enabling diverse people to connect and collaborate even internationally in unprecedented ways.
Something disruptive is coming.
What will be the impact on the church?
So what does this mean for reforming the church?
Here are three ideas.
First, gatherings must shift from being a product to be consumed to a platform for productive vocational integration. This requires a change in the pastoral role and turns denominations from being clergy-oriented to focus on equipping and unleashing the saints. It also makes church gatherings “lightweight”.
Second, technology must be used for large-scale ongoing interaction and collaboration rather than just mass content distribution and consumption. This may even go beyond off-the-shelf collaboration software like Slack or WhatsApp and require churches to become innovative creators and early adopters of technology, not just consumers.
Third, church communities must embrace the unity in diversity that bears witness to the Kingdom of God. This means including and empowering people with disabilities and people who speak many languages because they are indispensable to our witness that Jesus is Lord.
Let’s dive into each of these ideas in turn.
From Product to Platform
The first idea is a paradigm shift from church as a product to church as a platform. What’s the difference?
A platform empowers others to build on top of it. A product satisfies a felt need.
For example, Amazon Web Services is a platform that equips startups to build products that meet customer needs like ordering a pizza through an Echo. Platforms like AWS have a brand, but customers don’t choose to subscribe to Netflix because they built on AWS.
Similarly, the church is a platform that equips saints to produce good works which satisfy God’s desires for them and for the world. God is the customer. The church gathered is not a product that meets the felt needs of those who attend. It is a place of shared discernment and pursuit of God’s will.
The Apostle Paul frequently used the analogy of building in reference to the Church where each person gets to build on the foundation of Christ and each person’s work will be tested at the return of Christ.
His description of worship gatherings in 1 Corinthians 14:26 seems to be an example of one way church services can be a platform for all members of the Body to exercise their gifts in an orderly way to build up the Body:
When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (1 Corinthians 14:26)
There are other ways as well–steps to take that move from church as a product towards church as a platform.
Some churches have discussion groups on certain Sundays where people can think through Scripture together and benefit from the gifts and perspective of every member of the Body.
Some parachurch ministries form vocational integration and discernment groups for people in different industries and spheres of society to practice the implications of the gospel in their work.
And some events like hackathons, which can be extended to prayathons, preachathons and pitchathons, facilitate in an orderly way the sharing and exercise of every member’s gifts, ideas and contributions to build up the Body of Christ.
The common thread in these models is that every member of the Body of Christ is doing the work of the ministry together with their Spirit-given gifts.
This is how the Body is built up according to Paul in Ephesians 4:
[God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
In this picture, our church gatherings and institutions become like a spiritual infrastructure or spiritual skeleton, connecting people who are equipped and activated to build up the Body of Christ.
A New Role for Pastors?
Many pastors and laypeople are burnt out because they are not fulfilling their roles. Pastor teachers are not to do the work of the ministry, it is too much for them! They are to teach and equip the saints. And this goes far beyond preaching a sermon or visiting someone in the hospital.
Saints have work to do and that work happens outside where they gather on Sunday. Pastor teachers must help them make their strengths, their work, productive for the Kingdom of God. Pastor teachers must equip them to think theologically about their work, to discover how their work bears witness to the Gospel of the New Creation God will give us in Christ, and how to be motivated to carry out their work as unto God.
Pastor teachers must set an example for saints to not love money or worry about money, to find their identity in Christ instead of their work, to practice justice, righteousness and steadfast love, to be a courageous witness and a humble and generous leader, to find their place in God’s story, their role in the Body, how they build up the Body and to help them maximize their impact for God’s Kingdom.
Then the work of the ministry will be effectively accomplished by the Body of Christ. Then our churches will be a platform that unleashes the gifts of every member to bear fruit for the Gospel in every sphere of society.
This function is desperately lacking in the institutional church today, but a Second Reformation might change that. I have heard from so many people that their motive for entering the pastorate was exactly to equip the saints and unleash them for the work of ministry, but the existing church systems, expectations and structures made it virtually impossible to change the status quo.
Which leads us to the next big idea of using technology to bust the status quo.
Busting the Status Quo with Tech
Whether the church changes or not, society is being disrupted by technology. The pace of innovation has increased to the point where breakthroughs are happening in the span of years rather than centuries. That makes it very hard to hold on to your traditions and survive.
Churches in America may have a Facebook page or a website. More affluent ones may even have an app. They use it to share announcements, accept donations and post videos.
What’s wrong with this picture?
It’s stuck in the age of the printing press!
Print was a one-way medium for mass communication. The Internet is a two-way medium for mass, group and private communication. Not only that, it gives us the capacity for real time feedback.
We have the capacity for massive many-way communication. We can now connect people to one another on a regular basis across the world for free.
Think about that.
Not only do we have access to feedback loops that we can learn from and adjust to, we can also help people directly engage with one another in order to do the work of the ministry God has called them to do.
We already see evidence of how technology is helping the church transition from product to platform.
Around the world, small groups of believers are growing exponentially while remaining connected to one another via group chats in WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other apps. Removing the requirement of physical buildings for churches has resulted in a lightweight, networked infrastructure that enables people to gather on demand, collaborate and act on a fluid basis.
They share videos and pictures and texts of what God is doing throughout the day. They are passionate about hearing God’s will and obeying. They share requests for prayer and pray together in many languages via video conferencing.
What could happen if our category for church shifted from primarily a physical gathering place and 501c3 to instead emphasize the relational networks we’re connected to in-person and now through technology? Would it change when and where we gather? Would it change our liturgies? Would it change our business model? Would it change our expectations for pastors and staff?
I think so.
I think it could free up pastors to show up at many people’s places of work. It could result in flexible gathering times and locations to create space for people of various scheduling and geographical constraints. It could create a new expectation of personal relationship with church leaders and personal investment as co-laborers for the Kingdom. And from that could flow a new business model oriented around investing in God’s Kingdom throughout society and in the world rather than growing a church budget.
And now we get to one of the most important ways I think technology can disrupt the status quo.
Earlier I mentioned that the First Reformation resulted in the prolific creation of new artifacts and institutions to carry it forward. And that this was well-represented by the Luther Bible and the early stages of denominationalism.
I expect a Second Reformation to also result in the prolific creation of new artifacts and institutions, only this time we may have YouTube videos instead of pamphlets, apps instead of books and networks instead of polities.
And if the First Reformation resulted in the Word of God being available in every language–which we’re still working on!–I think an enduring “artifact” of the Second Reformation might be the People of God united across many languages.
Here is what I mean.
As the internet reaches the ends of the earth, the truncated Gospel message can theoretically reach the ends of the earth also. Just buy enough Facebook ads so that people get exposed to a gospel presentation in a 15 second spot right? Translating the spot into every language will be easier and faster than translating the Bible and once everyone has a chance to believe, Jesus is going to return. Done!
I think we all know that this isn’t how it works.
It turns out that bearing witness to the New Creation inaugurated by the Resurrection of Jesus requires a community of diverse disciples who love one another as Jesus loved them. In such communities, people experience the power of the Gospel, not just the message.
Unfortunately, most churches around the world remain segregated by language, race and culture. Before, there were practical barriers to language diversity, but as technology enables us to bridge that, we’re running out of excuses.
The Apostle Paul explicitly rebukes Peter for rebuilding the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles as out of step with the Gospel. He goes on to teach church integration across weighty cultural differences as the way we learn to imitate Christ’s attitude of self-denial and welcome in Romans 14 and 15.
Diversity is a Gospel issue.
Furthermore, against the backdrop of a rapidly diversifying and polarized society, our message will sound increasingly meaningless unless the language diversity of God’s Kingdom is reflected in our communities. As the Internet commoditizes our message, the reality of our integrated communities must be the witness that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus makes us one.
So in anticipation of a Second Reformation, I’d like to ask you to join something my company launched called Project Pentecost.
It’s a movement of people and churches who want to reflect the diversity of God’s Kingdom in their gatherings.
If you believe God’s Kingdom is incomplete without the Deaf, the blind and people of many languages, and if you want to do everything in your power to welcome them and unleash the gifts of every member of the Body of Christ, then Project Pentecost is for you.
In the short term, we’re campaigning together to make Pentecost a thing. We want Pentecost celebrations to be as big of a deal as Easter or Christmas. It’s the day Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit on the Church and opened the gospel to many languages.
What if this Pentecost tens, or hundreds or even thousands of churches create foretastes of God’s Kingdom by incorporating other languages in their celebrations?
Here are a few ways Project Pentecost can help with that:
We’re providing a video of people from many nations glorifying God in many languages that helps you feel connected to the global Body of Christ and catch God’s vision for unity in diversity.
We’re providing a series answering from Scripture the hard questions of:
And we’re providing an open-licensed worship song that has been translated into multiple languages that you can sing, perform and translate freely.
And after Pentecost, we plan to continue collecting and sharing the learnings and stories of how the Holy Spirit is uniting us across languages, cultures and abilities into the brilliant diversity of the mature, beautiful Bride of Christ.
If God wills, we may one day see a world where every church is accessible in any language and people from every tribe, tongue and nation glorify God together with one voice–a foretaste of the God’s Kingdom that people can experience today.
Join the movement at projectpentecost.com
So in conclusion, what would a Second Reformation mean for you and me?
The first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses went like this:
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent”, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Perhaps that’s where we can start–with repentance.
It’s true, the sacred secular divide has devalued your work and vocations outside of the institutional church. The teaching of a truncated Gospel may have hindered your fruitfulness for God’s Kingdom. And our churches all struggle to welcome people different than us.
But instead of feeling bad or angry or acting out of guilt, what if we repented–what if we changed our minds?
What if we realized that our work and vocational integration isn’t just about us finding purpose–it’s about others? And it isn’t just about people like us. It’s about people from every tribe, tongue and nation–including people with disabilities–who are gifted by the Holy Spirit and have an indispensable contribution to make to the Kingdom of God.
What if we realized that God is using our vocations to fulfill the Scriptures?
What if we understood what repentance meant in our field, just as John the Baptist specifically explained to soldiers, tax collectors and others in Luke 3?
What if our personal ambitions were eclipsed by Jesus’ heart’s desire?
Jesus Christ is returning for a beautiful holy bride, consisting of people from every tribe, tongue and nation who are made into one new humanity through union with him. She’s going to reign in the New Creation with him when she finally matures to reach his full stature. She’s clothed in bright, pure linen, which are the righteous deeds of the saints–those good works which God has prepared in advance for each saint to do in the cosmic project of building up the Body of Christ.
As that Body, we must work together, equipping, unleashing and activating each other to fulfill God’s call so we can be complete and ready for the New Creation at Christ’s return.
Let’s get to work. Soli Deo Gloria.
Listen to this talk on the Theotech podcast (subscribe on Apple or Google podcasts). Subscribe to the TheoTech mailing list for expanded ideas from this talk. Support our work on Patreon.
- How is God using your vocation(s) to fulfill the Scriptures?
- How can the church serve as a platform to support and unleash you to use your most valuable gifts to bear fruit for the Gospel in every sphere of society?
- How is God calling you to create and to be that platform to activate and unleash others?