Is There Such a Thing as a Reformation Spirituality?
We have witnessed an ironic juxtaposition of two shifts in our lifetime. On the one hand is the well-publicized and disappointing decline in mainline Christian church membership in the U.S. during the latter part of the 20th century. This decline has also included The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod since the early 1970s. Demographic observers have identified and labeled this fastest growing religious category as the “nones.”
The nones are those who, when asked to report in various surveys their religious affiliation, check “none.” The cousins of the nones are the “dones.” These are those who were once a part of a Christian church body but have since left, not to join another church, but who are “done” with church.
Ironically, on the other hand, paralleling this declining shift of religious “nones” and “dones” is the increase in SBNRs (spiritual but not religious). These SBNRs are members of the phenomenon in play at the same time, often called the spiritual movement. Demographers, Christian leaders, and sociologists label this modern movement as “the sixth wind,” “a spiritual wave,” “the fourth great awakening,” “a spiritual makeover,” and “the great emergence.”
The event of Jesus feeding over 5,000 people is helpful for us to gain some perspective on our current spiritual shifting. Jesus was teaching all day long, and the people were hungry. The disciples of Jesus were concerned and wanted to send them away to satisfy their hunger elsewhere. Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves and two fish” (Matthew 14:16–17).
In challenging times, how easy it is to forget our history. Did the disciples forget so quickly the miraculous healing on the Sabbath of the man with the diseased hand (Matthew 12), and even the young girl brought back from death (Matthew 9)? Or had they forgotten the signature event in their own heritage, when God freed Israel from Egyptian enslavement and guided them through the wilderness, feeding the hunger of a whole generation until the next generation was prepared to take over and settle in the land promised by God?
The Lord is still speaking to His people today in the 21st century, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” We ask, “What do we have to feed a spiritually hungry, highly experiential, affective, less linear and logical, postmodern generation?” The Millennials, those most steeped in the postmodern worldview and least “churched,” by most indications are spiritually hungry, but the logical, linear, systematic, highly cognitive fare of modernity no longer satisfies. They desire to experience God, to feel Him, as well as think rightly about Him.
As Christians largely influenced by the Reformation, we readers of Issues look to our own history and find nourishment for the spiritually hungry. What did the Lord do to sustain Martin Luther in the early, challenging years of his spiritual hunger when the usual buffet of relics, indulgences, masses, and saints did not satisfy? While we look to October 31, 1517, as the date it all started, Luther’s struggles went on for years both before and after. How was he able to not only endure, but spiritually mature during those years? He found strength, food for the arduous journey, in what became his spiritual common core; the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Many readers will recognize these as the core of what eventually became the six chief parts of the Small Catechism.
Luther’s spirituality is a 3-dimensional, holistic, Reformation spirituality that embraces the Holy Scriptures cognitively, affectively, and experientially. These dimensions apply the truths of the Bible as a spirituality broader, deeper and more satisfying than memorizing long definitions, taking sermon notes, and giving right answers to hypothetical religious questions. When Luther asked, “Was ist das?” it was more than “What does this mean?” with its modern emphasis on the intellectual dimension. Luther’s spiritual common core was received into the heart through meditation, contemplation, and confession. He experienced God’s Word through struggles (anfechtungen, tentatio) which drove him, through prayer, into the loving arms of a gracious God Who revealed Himself in Word and sacrament.
Yes, we do have nourishing food for the spiritually hungry in America today. It is holistic—not merely cognitive but also affective and experiential. We have Luther’s “garland of four strands” of Instruction, Thanksgiving, Confession, and Prayer (ITCP) that can be practiced alongside the Small Catechism. We have the very same tools of his spiritual development which he claimed made him a “fairly good theologian,” namely Scripture (oratio), meditation (meditatio), and spiritual struggle (tentatio).
We must use this holistic Reformation spirituality to teach our seminary and university students so that in turn they will be personally equipped and practiced to model and teach our families, children, confirmands, youth, and adults (2 Timothy 2:2). We must equip our district leaders to practice this holistic spirituality so they can offer webinars, seminars, workshops, and mentoring relationships to our laity, commissioned and ordained ministers. These servants will then have sustenance for their 21st century postmodern population.
The progression in the episode of Jesus feeding over 5,000 people is notable. “Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over” (Matthew 14:19-20). Matthew’s sequence is instructive for us: the Lord gives the life sustaining food to His disciples who in turn take that which they have received and give it to the hungry people—and they are satisfied.