In The Great Emergence, church historian Phyllis Tickle described how every five centuries, the church goes through a huge rummage sale, where everything we value — and many things we have taken for granted — get put on the table for sorting. Some of these things we, as a church and as a society, will decide to keep, and others we will discard. Our names for these rummage sales often involve the word “Great,” as in Great Schism and Great Reformation.
We held the last rummage sale around 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg. His action kicked off The Great Reformation, separating Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Many of the ideas we’ve inherited, the things we value and the things we take for granted, were hashed out in a few centuries.
You may have noticed that we’re experiencing another rummage sale right now. Many ideas are on the table: ideas about gender, our preference for democracy over authoritarianism, male supremacy, capitalism, and the role of the media are just a few. And the stakes are very high. We are living in the early stages of what may very likely be a mass extinction.
A few years ago I felt I needed to get some distance to consider all that we are facing. As a pastor and a public theologian, I wanted to see up close our Reformation history, and to consider where we might be going in the next 500 years — not just as a church, but as a species. I applied for and was awarded a grant to take a sabbatical and to consider these things, and now I want to share with you what I’ve learned. I offer these reflective devotionals not as an expert prognosticator, but as a fellow traveler who is making some educated guesses.
Prayer: Creator, help us in this season of uncertainty.
—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.