If we wish to attract and grow genuine disciples, we must offer much more than inspiring civil religion, spiritual pep rallies, and pageantry. We must demonstrate a kind of faith known not for power and “success” but for weakness; scandalous not for hypocrisy but for hardship.
The church stands in need of reformation once again. Our pastors and our people need revival.
I say this as a Lutheran who has never been a fan of the slogan ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always being reformed). I do not think churches should always be reforming. Our profession and liturgy are often just right. I’m a rather traditional guy. I think the summaries of Scripture in our Protestant confessions remain relevant today—and, for the most part, true. They’re revisable, of course, based on the Word of God. They do not bear the authority that Holy Scripture does. But only modernists believe we should always be reforming them. Only the most trendy and rootless evangelicals want to reinvent the church incessantly.
I also say this as a historian of Christianity. I teach students all the time about seasons of despair and renewal in the church. I’m not the first to point out problems to God’s people. Church history is full of “prophets” pushing gloom and doom on others, making outsized claims about their generation’s sins.
Our Churches Are in Crisis
Still, our churches have taken a special kind of beating in recent years. And even traditionalists like me think revival is required when so many of us suffer from cheap grace, tribalism, spiritual laziness, and “gospels” that have displaced the cross with self-absorption. Since the time of the Reformation, we have debated when and in what conditions we need change—difficult change that requires hard work and a risky sort of witness. It’s been concluded that in times of acute persecution, when the gospel is at stake, when the church is on the ropes, we must stand up and fight for costly discipleship.
This debate dates back to the mid-16th century row when Lutherans, especially, wondered whether they had arrived at a status confessionis (“a situation of confession”). This is such a time. Many churches are in crisis—especially in the West, but in other places too. Attendance has dropped. An alarming number of young people doubt whether church membership even matters. Some of their elders seem to care more about wealth and power, their status and control of worldly narratives and systems, than about following Jesus. Of course, idolatry is not unique to seniors. Its tentacles are reaching into every generation.
Many Christians, young and old, have misplaced priorities. Many of us spend more time on sports than we do reading the Bible. We make more time for media than meeting others’ needs. We pray very little, and not very hard. Our plans for retirement are mostly R&R. We are hedging our bets regarding life in the world to come, investing more of our free time and excess income in mundane pastimes than in the kingdom of God. Many of us today would pay as much we can afford to extend our worldly lives for just a few more months. To use the language of the Puritans, we don’t seem to have weaned our affections from the world.
This is not lost on others. Many wonder how to account for the discrepancy they see between what Christians profess and what we do with our lives. They wonder just how deeply we believe what we say. And if we don’t believe it, why should anybody else? Maybe churches aren’t worth all the time they require. There are better ways to live our best life now than spending hours per week in institutions that too often apply a thin coat of God-talk and tepid spirituality to weak and rotting boards.