Martin Luther was a young theologian when he posted his 95 theses in 1517. As a much older theologian in 2017, I am posting 7 “theses”or areas where the need for church reform is contemporary and urgent. (There are of course many more areas but — unlike Martin — I need to pay attention to my word count.)
(1) Youth Exodus
A bishop acquaintance emailed me this summer that young people have gone astray and lost their faith. “Too much sex and hedonism,” he said. “They are not interested in God anymore.” I emailed back that I still work with young people and my perspective is different.
Maybe the real problem is that too many institutional church leaders have gone astray and aren’t all that interested in young people anymore. Who is listening to their questions about faith and life? Who is paying attention to their search for God in our haphazard world? Right now, about 39% of our young adults (ages 18-29) are religiously unaffiliated.
A couple weeks ago I was in a taxicab, on my way from O’Hare airport to a conference center in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. It was a 40 minute drive, and 5 minutes into it the young cab driver asked me what I do. I told him I was an historical theologian. At that point, he turned off the radio and began to tell me his life story: married, two small children, Catholic Latino background, doesn’t go to church anymore, and feels estranged from traditional religion. He talked to his pastor, who told him he was a secularized sinner, should go to confession, and had lost his faith. He feels cut-off from his wife and is thinking about divorce. He loves her but is not sure she loves him. They went to a marriage counselor; but the counselor told him he was a “typical loose-living immigrant” and he had to grow up and become a man.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked. I told him I do. “Me too,” he said. “I often experience God, here in my cab, all alone, returning to the airport late at night.“ I gave him the contact info for a couple fine young Chicago-area ordained ministers whom I know. “You need a spiritual guide and a trustworthy spiritual friend,” I told him. “Someone who understands your search, who will listen to you, and who can help you….”
(2) Hierarchical Power Out of Focus
We need some ecclesiastical restructuring, and the hierarchy is a good place to begin dismantling and rebuilding. Ordination and the episcopacy are not about sacramental power nor about having power over people. Ordained ministry is about service and leadership. Jesus did not ordain anyone. He did not confer the episcopacy on anyone. He called his followers — men and women — to bear witness, to serve others, to live in his spirit, and to spread the Goodnews. Ordained ministry was created by the community of faith many years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The community of faith was creative back then. It needs the be creative today.
In our institutional restructuring, we should establish guidelines to ensure quality ministry and service. Why not five-year terms of office for pastors and bishops, which can be renewed for a second or third five-year term? In-service training, ongoing theological education, and annual performance appraisals would be requirements for maintaining one’s certification as a bonafide pastor or bishop.
(3) The Hegemony of the Old Boys Club Must Stop Now
Membership, ministry, and leadership in the community of faith must be egalitarian. Men AND women must be recognized as ministers and leaders, with no distinctions in roles and functions based solely on gender. We need to push now to make it happen. We need, as well, to be supportive of those contemporary women who are already ministering as ordained ministers.
In breaking the dominant male hegemony, we need to use inclusive language. This is not a nicety. It is a necessity. Ecclesiastical publications, hymns, prayers, and websites should be monitored and corrected. Lectors and teachers should be informed and trained about inclusive language and Sacred Scripture.
(4) Right-To-Life Must be Truly Pro-Life
It is not only amazing but terribly alarming how so many right-to-life religious advocates and politicians change their rhetoric, once the protected fetuses emerge as babies and become needy children. Protecting right-to-life and being pro-life demand concerted personal, political, and institutional efforts on behalf of disabled children, the impoverished, health care, universal education, aid to minorities and immigrants, dismantling capital punishment, establishing and maintaining programs to help people move beyond drug abuse, sex education programs and birth-control as ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortion. Yes the list can go on and on.
Complacency among church members, in civil society, and in both major political parties is today’s capital sin. It is far too easy today to watch the news, complain a bit, and then sit back and do nothing and watch things happen. Human problems do not solve themselves. Human problems require concerted human action to repair broken lives, transform evil situations, and correct defects in our social networks.
(6) Ignorance is Not Bliss
When people are fed a daily print and electronic diet of down is up, paralysis is progress, enmity is harmony, stupidity is brilliance, the villain is the victim, and disgrace is honor, we need to become strong advocates for good education, critical thinking, and filtering information in a genuine search for truth.
(7) The Heart of the Matter
My final thesis this week is without doubt the most important one. In all of our discussions, in our moral and religious argumentation, in our political rhetoric, in tweets and on Facebook, and in our noisy demonstrations, the most important element is honoring, safeguarding, and promoting the beating of the human heart. After all……God is love.
I always appreciate hearing from my readers. What are your theses for a contemporary reformation? I am happy to post them next week. – Jack