Today is special for Esther and her family. We celebrate with you. For you have all been a blessing to us here. Thank you for your presence. And it is with joy that we welcome you, Esther, into deeper visions of the faith and the church. As we think about that, we may wonder about the church and its future, especially on this 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. What will the church be like for the next generation or two? We wonder about the future of the tradition we have known for so long.
Actually, I believe that every fifty years our particular congregation has gone through a major transformation. We were founded as an immigrant German fellowship in 1856. Fifty years later, during the Great War, WW I, the congregation made a radical shift. It built this built this building and room. It changed it language for worship and learning from German to English, and it hired two pastors, the Wilke father and son, creating a strange new thing called a staff ministry. Those were massive changes.
Fifty years after that, in another time of radical transformation in Madison, in the late fifties through early seventies, Ace Schumacher, Tom Loftus, and Joel Diemer led the reshaping of the congregation once more. Most of the other buildings on this site were assembled and remodeled. The front of the church was restructured. St. John’s became a city-wide congregation focused on caring for those in need, strong lay leadership, and ecumenical witness. These were the halcyon days of St. John’s as an institution.
Fifty years later, after the turn of a new millennium, St. John’s refocused itself intensely on caring for those in need and began greatly expanding its shelter and relief work, developing partnership ministries, changing our building once again, until we now sometimes resemble an urban mission center rather than a traditional congregation. In the last decade the amount of service accomplished here in this place has almost tripled, even as the institutional church of the previous decades faded. And this is where we are, at that fifty year crease in time, as we look at what is going on around us and wonder about our future and what in the world is happening to this neighborhood. We welcome Esther this morning into this congregation, fully aware that we are going through our fifty year change and that we are not yet fully aware of how it will all turn out.
But on Reformation Sunday we also sense a deeper cycle. In her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Phyllis Tickle outlines a cycle of transformation in the church that involves not fifty years, but five hundred years. Her thought is that every 500 years the larger church goes through a major and radical transformation in which it redefines itself for current conditions and coming centuries.
She says that every five hundred years the church cleans out its attic and has a giant theological rummage sale. The result is always a new church, adapted to the radically changing circumstances of the time, usually with a great deal of decline and death, struggle and pain. The last great transformation was 500 years ago. It was the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation could be seen as a theological debate between German Lutherans and Italian Papists over the nature of a graceful God. And it was that. But the Reformation also embodied the development of the printing press, access of the people to the Bible for the first time, radical shifts in economics, authority, and politics, the emergence of larger national identities, a renaissance of fresh approaches to the classical texts all bubbling to the surface at roughly the same time.
And we are 500 years from that transformation, and we sense in our bones that the larger church is in for some transforming years in the decade ahead. At first we naturally focus on a decline as the old fades away. And although we sense something of what lies in front of us, the ways and means of the church in the coming decades and centuries is not completely clear. The church will no longer be the institution it was. It will be more fluid. It will involve not the printing press but the computer. It will involve not belonging in the sense we know it, but alignment with causes and affiliations which are more ad hoc, task oriented, and temporary. It will move beyond borders and have a global feel. It will at first seem amorphous and very worldly but will also become spiritual in new ways. It will approach death in ways we do not now. It will be able to align with others to stress values such as compassion that have been with us through every transformation.
At this point in the current religious renovation, things can be difficult. And as our fifty and five-hundred year cycles of transformation and reformation converge, we all frankly wonder if we will just survive. But in, with, and under our fears, it is important to remember in this fifty and five hundred year convergence, that we here at St. John’s, yes, we (whether we want it or not)are precisely at ground zero of this transformative re-form. For it is our lot, our calling to be the Lutherans of the Cap East Neighborhood, the trendiest neighborhood in Madison. In this neighborhood there are 19,000 people between the ages of 18 and 35, one of the highest concentrations of young adults anywhere. Almost three out of four people living here are young adults.
It’s often said that young adults do not really care about organized religion or the structures of the church, or church history or fifty or five hundred year cycles. Their faith is different, and as Tickle and so many others have noted, the church of the Protestant Reformation is being radically transformed in this new generation, right before our very eyes, taking on new shapes, purposes, and missions. Another 500 year rummage sale has begun. And we are standing right in the middle of that.
We do not know what our future holds, as not only our congregation but also our church is transformed or reformed or reshaped again. We will be the compassionate community recalling the graceful life of Jesus. And we will care for those in need. And we will be people of song and thought, word and deed, prayer and fellowship, common meals and shared hope, as we move away from our institutional identity into a new spiritual reality. And Esther and all of us will be part of this.
For the church of Christ in every age, beset by change, but Spirit led, will find itself reformed anew, and with fresh hope be blessed.