Dr. Trace Haythorn: A Second Great Church Reformation?

The more I reflect on the state of the the church in our world today, the more I believe we are in a period that historians of the future will define as the second great reformation. There are several themes of this period: digital technology, space exploration, ecological awareness., There are three fundamental understandings that I believe will be the hallmarks of this period: personhood, leadership, and hermeneutics.


When you consider the massive changes in our understanding of what constitutes "full personhood," it is stunning to consider the implications for churches and, more broadly, for Christian faith. Beginning with the active role the church played in the end of slavery, shades of skin color mean something very different in terms of one's value to society. Forty years ago amidst what is often dubbed the Civil Rights era, a group of students from Atlanta's historically black colleges and universities crafted A Declaration of Human Rights, a nod to the move from considering civil society to the fullness of human life. Dr. King's move to challenge the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and his advocacy for the poor both reveal the same commitment. Since then, our awareness has grown beyond simply "black and white" racial issues to the full palate of racial and ethnic differences that enrich our churches and society. In the next 20 years, there will no longer be a "majority" race in the U.S. At the same time, the number of those who understand themselves as multi-ethnic will increase substantially, further blurring the racial and ethnic constructs that inform many of our policies and practices today.

But personhood has not evolved simply in terms of our understanding of race and ethnicity. The very notion of when life begins - when a fetus becomes a human, and thus when cells and tissue becomes a person - continues to be hotly contested, especially as viability for premature birth moves earlier and earlier. Such debates have always been fueled by the conflicted attitudes of the church to sexuality; however, technology has complicated to only those questions related to the beginning of life but also those at the end of life. The decisions we make about autonomy, rights, and moral responsibilities will likely be central to the debates of the next generation.

In many ways, society is just beginning to embrace the full personhood of people with disabilities, a move that is also both challenged and improved by technology. While there are many assistive devices available to offer people greater mobility and communicative opportunities, there are also new tools for prenatal screening that might (and often do) lead parents to terminate a pregnancy based on the likelihood of their child being born with a disability. While the gospels are filled with examples of Jesus spending time with people who are disabled, churches are still some of the least accessible places - both in terms of physical as well as other forms of access. And as our society ages, more and more of us might be better served by thinking of ourselves as "temporarily abled," knowing that we will one day be disabled as a part of the aging process.

Perhaps the most intense issue for many denominations in recent years has been the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people in their communities. Debates about environmental formation versus biological predisposition often yield very little in terms of our call to meet one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. In many churches, LGBTQ people are not welcome; in others, they are welcomed with a kind of second-class status; while still in others, they are full participants and leaders in the life of the community. The tension between personhood and leadership leads me to the second point.


When we welcome more people into our definition of personhood, we must also consider who we will invite into leadership. If one is understood to possess "full personhood," then what are the opportunities and limits available to that person in service to the church? Beginning with debates about women and African Americans, question of who can lead what, where and when have been at the heart of many denominational debates for almost 200 years (because reformations never happen in a few months!). Today, the issue continues to be centered around lesbians and gay men as leaders, though questions regarding bisexual, transgender and queer leaders seem less developed.

At the same time, models of leadership are also in flux. The crisis in the Catholic church at the moment may lead to a very different form of church administration in the future (whether many people like it or not). Models of co-pastors that critique hierarchy, married couples in pastoral ministry together, and bi-vocational models of ministry are emerging both because of the unique ecclesiological opportunities of the moment as well as its economic demands. What kind of leadership does the church of today need, and what kind of leadership will be needed for a church dying to be born?

This is the central issue for FTE. We are passionately committed to the churches that we call home while we are also wondering about the kind of leadership we should be noticing, naming and nurturing for the future.


For the last 500 years, the dominant interpretive lens for the church, its theology and its practices has been White, Western, largely European, heterosexual and male. As my two previous points make clear, our communities look, talk, move and act very differently than those hermeneutical positions might deem normative. So what is the new normal? We may not know that until this reformation moves into a more complete or routine sense. What we do know is that the global South is where the vitality in the church seems most palpable. We know that the institutional church is in crisis, whether because of leadership challenges, infrastructure burdens, or other intra-Nicene issues. We also know that people feel much less committed to a tradition because it is what they have always known, instead searching (and sometimes shopping) for a community that fits their preference. In the best cases, people leave homes that no longer feed them to craft new homes. In a more trite sense, people simply find places that capture their attention until they are distracted into a new place.

In response, we seem to be in an age of remarkable experimentation within the larger church, especially in our worship practices. This is not simply a battle between contemporary music and traditional hymnody (aka powerpoint vs paper; guitars and drums vs organs and pianos). International, interdenominational, and even interfaith "borrowing" speaks to the freedom of form that may define this era. From tightly structured to completely free, the ways we worship are in flux, especially as we become more aware of traditions different from ourselves. Where those different traditions were once forbidden territory (due to their fallible and perhaps even dangerous theology), today traditions are mining one another for practices to bring new meaning and life to faith communities. While there are some who voice loud concerns about "orthodoxy" (i.e. right worship), the general sense seems to be that if it enhances our experience of God it is okay.

So what do you think? Other themes or major thrusts of this era that lead you to believe we might be in some kind of reformation? Clearly this is meant to scratch the surface. What more do you see?

[Taken with permission from the On Call Blog of The Fund for Theological Education, April 16, 2010]