Some Ways That Church History is Relevant

The primary goal of the CHEF network is to be a blessing to “regular folks” by enriching their knowledge and appreciation of the history of Christianity.  One of the ways I hope to accomplish this goal is by providing some extended reflections on various aspects of church history that I find particularly relevant for contemporary Christianity.

Now, you will not be surprised to discover that my own social and denominational context shapes the things that I see as particularly relevant.  As a result, there are posts about universities and their origins in the medieval church, and about the Stone-Campbell movement of which I’m a part and which arose in the early 1800s on the American frontier.  But there are others as well that reflect different traditions, like posts about contemporary Catholicism and about John Wesley’s influence on small-group practices in many Christian groups.  No matter which ones you read, I hope you’ll find them helpful and thought-provoking.  Please feel free to make suggestions for essays you’d like me to write in the future!

I hope that these reflections will be a blessing to you — happy reading!

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The Head and the Heart

When one comes to read about the decades following the Protestant Reformation, one encounters a variety of events and movements in church history – some regarding the Catholic church (e.g., the explorations in the New World), and some regarding the various Protestant movements (e.g., Puritanism in England and the Americas).  One very important development in this time period was the early moves toward the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and how those moves affected Christianity.  As various Christians emphasized “head knowledge” in their relationship with God, others reacted against that emphasis and focused on “heart knowledge.”  It’s that tension that is relevant for us, because we see it in our world, still to this day.

headvsheartIn fact, there is no question that Christianity is founded on at least three kinds of activity: thinkingfeeling, and doing.  But for some reason, we have often tended to struggle primarily with the relationship between the “head” and the “heart,” as we see in statements like “you’re over-thinking it” and “don’t get carried away with your emotions.”  People sometimes criticize too much “head-ness” in the context of emotion-less Bible study or sermons, and others find fault with worship that is “too emotional.”  So, is it possible to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our mind?

I would say “yes.”  Obviously, both of these impulses are based on New Testament teaching.  For example, Paul’s “Pastoral Epistles” (the letters to Timothy and Titus) repeatedly warn against false teaching, which presumes that true teaching – orthodox theology – is what Paul wants (cf., e.g., 1 Tim. 4:1-10; Tit. 2:1).  Further, Paul’s “fruits of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23) are dispositions of the heart, even if they do manifest themselves in action.

Fortunately, in this time period after the Reformation, we find Christian figures whose religious commitments led them to great heights in these areas.  People like Desiderius Erasmus and John Locke have been intellectual giants for Christianity, and Blaise Pascal and Philipp Jakob Spener have taught us about the importance of the heart.  Of course, there have also been extremes, as you know; the phenomena of deism and “Protestant scholasticism” are expressions of extreme “head-ness,” and some worship gatherings like 18th-century revivals and contemporary “worship concerts” can sometimes be accused of appealing merely to the heart without considering the head.

Happily, there are many other folks who help us in these ways.  If you’d like to read more, let me recommend three groups:

CS Lewis1) Writers like the Middle Ages’ Thomas Aquinas, the Reformation’s John Calvin, and the modern world’s C.S. Lewis (especially in his Mere Christianity) do a good job of teaching theology – addressing the head – without losing sight of the heart.

2) Similarly, for folks who can speak to the heart without losing the head, you can read the Methodists John and Charles Wesley, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the recently-deceased pastor and writer Henri Nouwen.

3) Finally, writers like the ancient African St. Augustine, the colonial American Jonathan Edwards, and the modern author Rob Bell often do a good job of blending the two, in my opinion.

Finally, a plug for those who happen to be in my area of West Texas: if you’re interested in this topic, you might want to consider taking any opportunity you can find to interact with my colleague Jeff Childers.  He teaches at my university and in my church, and he has a deep knowledge of the spiritual traditions in Christianity.  If you get a chance to sit at his feet, do it!

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Where the Churches of Christ May Be Headed

church_of_christ_signI have written now and again on this site that I grew up in and still belong to the denomination known as the Churches of Christ.  Some of you are part of that group, but others are not.  This post is dedicated to the direction(s) that I see the Churches of Christ heading; some readers may find it directly applicable to their own contexts, but if you’re not from the CofCs, let me encourage you to “peek over our shoulders,” because you might find something relevant for your own tradition.

Now, because those of us within the movement typically know best our home and/or current congregations, you may not be aware that our denomination/movement is actually rather fragmented in some important ways.  And because those of you outside the movement haven’t been exposed to it as much, you don’t know it intimately enough to see the rifts.

But consider the following phenomena that are current among congregations in the Churches of Christ:

  • Although our founders encouraged us to call ourselves by the “Bible name” of “Christians” or “Disciples,” our movement eventually took on the name “Church of Christ” (also biblical: Romans 16:16).  But, it ended up becoming a “denominational name,” which is what our founders didn’t want.  For a variety of reasons, some churches are taking the name “Church of Christ” off their doors — and of course inciting the wrath of some who think that move inappropriate.  Most, of course, have kept the traditional name.
  • One of the hallmarks of the Churches of Christ down through the last 200 years has been acappella worship, not least because there is no mention of music with instruments in the New Testament.  However, for a variety of reasons, some churches are including instrumental worship alongside — or even in place of — traditional acappella worship.  Many, of course, have not done this, and many strongly reject this inclusion on the part of the churches in question.
  • Similarly, traditional Church of Christ worship has not included leadership roles for women, not least because it’s not clearly presented in the New Testament.  However, for a variety of reasons, some churches involve women heavily in worship leadership, sometimes in every single role a male may inhabit.  Some have not done this, and (you can guess this by now), many strongly reject this move.
  • Given what you’ve just read, you won’t be surprised to learn that some churches and individuals publish extensively in favor of preserving very traditional practices and theology.  Others, of course, practically repudiate such views.
  • And finally, some churches and individuals even take harshly polemical views against a whole variety of topics, including those within the movement with whom they do not agree.

reconciliationIs there a way to bring these groups together?  Is it even legitimate to call these disparate groups part of the same movement?  What will be the future of the movement in, say, 50 years?  Will the fringe elements fall off, leaving a more stable center?  Will the movement ultimately polarize (as has happened occasionally in broader church history), with “liberal” and “conservative” movements emerging? Will the whole thing just come apart at the seams?  Honestly, I don’t know, but I am inclined to think that the movement will survive, in some form or fashion.  There are so many traditions and institutions that can help tie things together — camps, schools, musical styles, etc. — that it’s hard to see the whole thing dissolving.  But… I don’t know.

You might expect the post to end here, but there is one outgrowth of this question that touches me even more directly: how my university fits.  Older alumni of our school are, not unexpectedly, typically much more traditional than our current students; this is true partly because of what happens as we age, but it’s also true because the churches are changing.  Add into this mix the number of students who come from non-Church-of-Christ backgrounds: while some come from fellow “congregational” churches (many non-denominational or “community” churches are like this), and while most share our relatively conservative theological heritage, most do not share our acappella heritage, and most come from churches with different attitudes toward worship.

So what kind of student should we recruit to our school?  Should we focus only on those from our heritage?  And if so, what branch?  If not, what kind of student should we try to attract?  These are open questions, and there aren’t obvious answers.  I am very grateful, though, even in the midst of this uncertainty, that we can still encourage students to invest ever more deeply in God’s kingdom and purposes.  We can try to mentor them and guide them, attempting to foster a love for God and neighbor.


To come back to our original question, I would say that that is true of our movement as a whole.  There is a lot that most of us cannot control (although some of you readers may be in positions of influence).  But what we can always do is to seek to be faithful in our local contexts.  We can work with our congregations, being patient with the leaders or congregants when we disagree, and encouraging ever-greater discipleship to Jesus.  We can embrace our tradition at some times and question it at others, always seeking to “put on love.”

May God bless us all in our kingdom work!

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Democracy and Church Life

voteWhen we study Christianity in the modern world, we sometimes study aspects of Christianity as a whole, while at other times we focus on this or that denomination.  We also deal with the ways in which the great diversity of modern culture shapes a Christianity that has truly “gone global.”

In thinking of modern American Christianity, we have number of denominations to deal with, but also the phenomenon of democracy.  We might tend to think that democracy is mainly a political or cultural aspect of our culture, but in fact, it has impacted church life in HUGE ways, not least in the Churches of Christ, the denomination of which I am a part — as well as its larger branch of Christianity, sometimes called the “Stone-Campbell movement.”  (Click here for a reference work on the movement.)

Democracy is something that is relevant for us is that nearly all of us have encountered it in church life, whether or not we’ve actually noticed it.  Consider this: have you ever (or always?) attended a church service in which someone who was not an “ordained minister” was free to, for example, give the spoken meditation or prayer over the Lord’s Supper, and/or to distribute the bread and wine/juice at that celebration?  What about preaching?  The reading of Scripture?  Are those activities restricted to the ordained/commissioned ministers of your church, or are they available to a wider range of congregants?

To get a sense of what’s going on here, let’s cast our minds back to the Reformation as it was expressed in England, to the conflicts between the Puritans and the English government, and to the Great Awakenings in North America.  As you will remember, for most of Christian history – including in English-speaking countries – most of the people who have had “jobs” in Christian worship have been ordained ministers.  “Regular people” participated in the pews, but they did not typically take leadership roles.  So why have things changed so much?

nathan-hatch1I was not aware of the magnitude of this change until about 10 years ago, when I read a book by a historian named Nathan Hatch.  That book, called The Democratization of American Christianity, was published in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Yale University Press.  There, Hatch looks at five Christian groups that came to prominence in the 1800s in America – i.e., post-American-Revolution.  These groups include the Methodists and Baptists in America, the African-American churches, the Mormons, and the Stone-Campbell movement (which, again, led to the Churches of Christ).  Hatch’s thesis is that the democratic impulses present before, during, and after the American Revolution, caused a widespread belief that “common people” have a rightful access to some of the “jobs” and opportunities previously held only by society’s elite.  These jobs included holding political office, gaining higher education, and (most importantly for us) leading in churches.

Now, I’m convinced that Hatch is right, and I also think that there was something more going on here – a sociological component.  Many of these church groups flourished (or found fertile soil) on the American frontier of the time – on and beyond the Appalachian mountains.  And it’s true that, in these remote places, with low population density, it was difficult for ordained ministers from established denominations to reach the local Christians on a regular basis, thus making it more necessary to have non-ordained folks available to do the “jobs.”  But Hatch is right in saying that there was also a certain ethos – freedom and democracy were in the air, and that air pierced the walls of the churches.

So, this is an obvious example of a current practice in churches that has a very clear set of roots in church history.  But there’s also another plank to this platform, and that lies in the Enlightenment.  Hatch points out five ways in which the Enlightenment influenced these churches, and I’d like to connect a couple of these with a couple of manifestations in our church life:

First, folks at this time in these movements believed and taught that all people (not just the elite) have been endowed with reason.  Further, they bought into the Enlightenment emphasis on individual autonomy, that each individual person had a responsibility to discover and follow God’s ways, using their reason.  In church life, we see those beliefs in things like Sunday school (people can be taught about spiritual things), the encouragement for everyone to read their Bibles independently, and the desire for individual Christians to use their God-given gifts to bless others, even in public worship, no matter their “ordained” status.

gravitylounge-711478Second, they believed that, just as nature had laws that could be discerned by reason (e.g., Newton’s “discovery” of the law of gravity), so God’s ways might also have laws, e.g., in how a church should be run.  Further, they saw the universe as an orderly and harmonious organization, and they saw the church in the same way.  If a church is focused on its leaders, then there is not as much harmony as a place with many, many people involved.  More involved individuals means more potential tension, but it also means a greater potential for exhibiting the church as a harmonious whole, as God desires it!

So, friends, the next time you see a variety of people leading worship in your church, or students leading worship in your school chapel services, you might remember where that impulse came from.  And, if you’re so inclined, you might give God thanks for the many gifts he gives his children, and for the ways in which the Holy Spirit brings God’s family into harmony.

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Contemporary Catholicism

As some of you know, I grew up (and still am) in a Protestant denomination, but I did my Ph.D. in church history at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.  One of the MANY great things that happened during my time in South Bend was that I got to know Catholicism much, much better — not just individual Catholic brothers and sisters, but also the broader movement as a whole and in its diversity.  Some of you currently belong to Catholic churches or have in the past, and so you are naturally aware of aspects of modern Catholicism — but some of you do not have that knowledge.  As a result, I want to reflect upon an important event that ended right at fifty years ago — the so-called “Second Vatican Council” — and what it means for contemporary Catholicism.

Now, because of our various backgrounds, I can’t assume that you know much about pre-Vatican-II Catholicism before this week.  Among Protestants, probably the most well-known feature of older Catholicism is the use of Latin in each church’s worship., as opposed to the “vernacular” (that is, local languages).  Also, if you’ve seen certain movies, you might know that the priest used to celebrate the Mass with his back to the congregation, facing the back wall.  And you might possibly be familiar with the relative lack of good preaching in Catholic churches at that time, and how many Catholics viewed worship as a confusing experience.


I’m willing to bet, though, that you did not know about how closed off the Catholic church was during recent centuries; in fact, one of the greatest enemies of 19th-century Catholicism was the so-called “modernism,” as this list of 80 (!) modern “errors” that Pope Pius IX rejected can testify.  In fact, some authors have argued that pre-Vatican-II Catholicism was largely about protecting a type of “medieval fortress,” with as few gates as possible open to the modern world.

Of course, there were exceptions, as you may also know.  For example, Jesuit missionaries traveled very far afield, even experimenting with new missionary methods.  Also, there were many Catholic thinkers who were in conversation with the modern world; the controversial priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin provides just one example.  But for the most part, especially in the West, “Catholicism” was often associated by Protestants with being “conservative,” and even sometimes “backward.”

But in the wake of Vatican II, many changes have happened, as you now know.  Catholics can now experience worship in the vernacular (German in Leipzig, English or Spanish in the part of Texas where I live, etc.).  They can now see their priest’s face, as he faces them around a table that is much closer to the congregation.  They can hear good preaching – even if it is rather short.  And those of us who are Protestants would probably be more welcomed than we would have been 50 years ago.

Those changes are rather well-known.  But what about some less famous modifications that still impact us?  One important one is the growth in Catholic participation in ecumenical movements.  The recent Pope John Paul II was well-known for this sort of thing, in his visiting of Eastern Orthodox churches, and even sharing Communion with its leaders!   Second, if you were to take my own road and attend graduate school at a Catholic university, you would enjoy much more academic freedom there than you would have before Vatican II.  There wouldn’t be as much need to line up your research with traditional Catholic teaching.  Finally, we’ve seen new emphases in Catholicism: on youth ministry, on using media in ministry (e.g., the TV network EWTN), and on composing new, indigenous worship music.

The term that most accurately describes one goal of the Second Vatican Council is the Italian word “aggiornamento,” which means “bringing up to date.”  Catholicism certainly hasn’t been well-known for being innovative in its recent history; if anything, it’s been known for being behind.  And so, just bringing the Church “up to date” is a real win for Catholicism.  Sometimes just catching up is really important.

pope_francisBut why is this important for those of us who are Christian but not Catholic?  Well, there are a few reasons.  First, Catholic churches are no longer places that ought to feel particularly intimidating to us.  A lot of the barriers have come down in that regard.  Second, we can learn about recent Popes – people like John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I – and we can truly admire them.  The reality is that we really have a lot in common with them, whereas before we might have thought of them as “stick-in-the-mud Catholics” who are really different.

The final reason this is important is that, as our world continues to change, I really think that we will become more and more dependent on our fellow Christians, of whatever stripe.  It will become more and more important than we can join together in common work, even though we have doctrinal differences.  Thus, it will be important that we can know and learn more about Catholicism, just as it will be important that Catholicism is more and more able to learn about and accept us.

Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that those who come after his disciples “will be one,” and that that oneness will be a testimony to the world concerning Jesus.  May it be so among us!

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Parachurch Organizations

When one learns about church history in the post-Reformation world, one often reads about two approaches to following Jesus that really flourished during this time: one that emphasized the head (e.g., deism, “Protestant scholasticism,” etc.), and one that emphasized the heart (e.g., Pietism).  A third approach developed in the 19th century, namely, the social option (most fully in what’s called the “Social Gospel,” but also in various aspects of mission work, anti-slavery efforts, etc.).


The 19th century also witnessed the rise of a new type of church organization, one that was involved in these kinds of efforts but also in many others, namely, the “voluntary societies.”  These were groups of Christians who banded together to work on a particular project, whether Bible translation, mission work, social relief, or whatever.  Two things are particularly interesting about this development, especially given the prior centuries of Christian history.

First, these groups did not line up along denominational lines; rather, these groups consisted of individuals dedicated to a common cause, no matter their denomination.  This was a truly new approach within Christian history.  We are certainly familiar with various groups in Christian history existing apart from others, but these were usually either intra-denominational groups (e.g., Catholic orders like the Franciscans or Jesuits) or splinters from denominations as the Protestant movement fragmented after the Reformation.  The new impulse in the 19th century was that individuals from various denominations could band together but not be under the thumb of any one denomination.  Not surprisingly, this approach was quite popular at the time (although some “Back to the Bible” movements could not find this kind of individual cooperation in the New Testament, and so they rejected the impulse)..

The second interesting part of this development was that it proved especially popular among women, who had not been typically in positions of power — or even participation, in some cases.  But these new voluntary societies provided women new opportunities to participate and even to lead — again, on all types of issues, even including overseas missions efforts.  This interest on the part of women also caused some controversy, but that opposition did not stem the tide of this new, innovative, and powerful development in Christian history.

The reason it is relevant for us is that this movement didn’t just stay in the 19th century; it has influenced our own world through what we call “parachurch organizations.”  “Para-” here refers to a Greek preposition that can mean “beside” or “alongside,” and so parachurch organizations hopefully don’t compete with or serve under churches, but rather work alongside churches and denominations.  Sound familiar?  It’s the same as the voluntary society in the 19th century.

What are some examples?  Have you ever: Young-Life

  • Read a Bible in a hotel room left by the Gideons?
  • Participated in Young Life in high school?
  • Sponsored a Compassion child?

If so, then you’ve been involved with a parachurch organization.

And there are many kinds.  Various organizations focus on things like college students (Campus Crusade for Christ), teaching people the basics of Christianity (the Alpha Course), prisons (Prison Fellowship), spiritual growth (Renovare), publishing (InterVarsity Press), politics (Focus on the Family), relief (Samaritan’s Purse), and homebuilding (Habitat for Humanity).  In other words, there is an almost limitless variety of such organizations.  And they have become very important for many modern Christians, both in how they spend their time, but also in how they steward their money.

On this last point, parachurch organizations can become controversial.  When people give money to Focus on the Family, they are (at least theoretically) not giving it to a local church.  Further, if a group is not under the oversight of a particular denomination, some people wonder if the group’s doctrinal stances can be trusted.

But the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, in my mind.  Parachurch organizations can be more organizationally nimble, they can effectively meet immediate needs on a wide scale, and (like the societies of the 19th century) they can provide new opportunities for participation and leadership to women, young people, and others for whom access to traditional channels of influence can be challenging (or totally unavailable).  And as you know, it can be challenging for young people who strive to follow Jesus to find ways to express that devotion in meaningful ways that make an impact in the world — and parachurch organizations can provide just that opportunity.

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John Wesley and Small Groups

john-wesleyOne of the most influential church leaders in the “modern” era (that is, the last few centuries) is John Wesley.  His influence has, of course, been especially strong in the Methodist and other Wesleyan churches.  But his work has also influenced other churches in a variety of ways (his preaching, the hymns his brother wrote, etc.)  Perhaps his greatest influence among churches of ALL kinds, though, has been his idea of Christians interacting together in small groups.

You may know that Wesley developed an organizational structure for his fledgling movement of folks who wanted to follow Jesus more intentionally.  You may also know that he did not call his gatherings of a handful of Christians by the now-familiar name of “small groups,” but rather as “classes.”  These meetings focused on testimonies, prayer, and spiritual encouragement — quite like the small groups with which we are familiar — and they became “a highly successful feature of the Methodist awakening” (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language)  As it happens, Wesley did not invent this idea, but it was part of the influence he received from the Pietist movement in Lutheran Christianity: the Pietists had developed this mode of meeting already, and part of Wesley’s “conversion experience” occurred in a Moravian (Pietist) small group meeting.

But as is often the case in history, one person invents something, but another popularizes it.  And without Wesley, this way of interacting may never have become the phenomenon that it has.  It has persisted, becoming very important in modern American Christianity.  Whether one speaks of parachurch movements like Bible Study Fellowship (which according to its website currently boasts over 1,000 groups in 39 nations, with over 200,000 members), denominational groups, or simply “life groups” within large congregations, one finds a vast group of Christians involved in some kind of small-group life.

In fact, I often hear from ACU students about their experiences in various small groups.  Many of these students belong to the Beltway park congregation, which makes life groups an important part of its college ministry.  Others are involved with smaller congregational college ministries, which function like small groups.  What these groups usually have in common is a desire to “do life together,” as people often say, and can include things like Bible study, prayer, worship, and/or other kinds of spiritual fellowship.


If you ask me why these groups are so important, I think that it’s the close relationships that people experience there.  It’s probably not an accident that Wesley birthed his idea in the urban settings of pre-Industrial-Revolution England.  As you may know, the rapid urbanization and depersonalization of the 19th century in Europe made life difficult for many Christians.  They were uprooted from small villages and close-knit family structures, and they had to find their spiritual way in what was functionally a new world.

Our world is not that different.  Many of us no longer live in the places our other family members do, and even at a school as community-focused as the one in which I teach, it’s impossible to be friends with 3000+ other undergraduates.  We find meaningful relationship in small groups, where we can know and be known.  You might even be thinking, “Maybe Jesus knew what he was doing when he called only 12 men to be his closest followers.”  Indeed.

If you choose (or have chosen) to be involved in a group like this, may God bless you in that endeavor.  And for all of us, when we hear people talk about their small groups — let’s remember that this is a way of living that is rooted in church history!

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Modern Worship and the Protestant Reformation

church history bookThe church history class I teach most often at our university is a so-called “survey” course — one in which we try to absorb elements of all 2,000 years of Christian history in ONE SEMESTER.  As you can guess, we’re always having to treat things at less depth than I would prefer, in the interest of getting the “big picture.”

When we get to modern American Christianity, it can sometimes be hard to see how church life in our day is connected with events from previous centuries.  However, it’s important to know — and a class focused on the history of Christianity in the U.S. would teach you — that many modern American denominations come directly out of the events of the Reformation.  There are, of course, Lutheran churches in America, as well as Episcopal and Methodist churches that are descendants of the Anglican Reformation in England.  But there are also churches descended from the Anabaptist movement (like the Amish and Mennonites) and several denominations that descend from the teaching of John Calvin (e.g., the Baptists and Presbyterians).

But something else that is true is that many denominations in America are based on a mixing of various Reformation traditions.  Think, for example, of the Churches of Christ, which (despite their claims to “non-denominationalism”) have their organizational roots in both Baptist and Presbyterian churches.  A more common example lies in the doctrine (that is, the theological teachings) in various churches.  When preachers focus on justification by grace, they are influenced by Luther.  When they focus on the sovereignty of God, they are influenced by Calvin.  When they strongly lean on the separation of church and state, they are influenced by the Anabaptists.  And you can hear all of these things in one and the same church, despite the variety of influences!

christomlinFor many of us, though, doctrine can be rather dry, and it often doesn’t affect us directly.  But the ways that we worship do affect us directly.  They are important to us, and they are important vehicles for our relationship with God.  And many of these ways of worship also go back to Reformation practices or principles.  Here are just a few examples:

  • We worship, pray, and hear Scripture read in the vernacular, a practice that arises from all the Reformation traditions.
  • We can sometimes emphasize the Eucharist (Communion) very strongly, and this emphasis sometimes goes back to Catholic or Anglican influences.
  • We very often lean heavily on a sermon in our worship, and this tradition arose in the Reformation world with people like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.  That’s especially true with preachers who are able to make the word relevant to contemporary life – as is so often the case in many of our “megachurches.”  Luther might not love some aspects of modern church life, but he would love the connection of “sound doctrine” with everyday life.
  • Finally, we use music a lot in our worship, and most of the ways are reflections of Reformation ideas.  When we have beautiful music performed by talented (maybe even professional) musicians, we participate in an impulse that was prominent the Catholic church after the Reformation.  When we emphasize congregational singing, we follow the same impulse for church participation that animated Luther.  That’s especially true when we put Christian words to familiar songs.  When we sing psalms set to music, we follow Calvin’s ideas.  When we sing simple, heartfelt songs, we follow Zwingli and the Anabaptists.  Note that a modern worship often has all of these: simple, meditative song, psalms and hymns set to music, rousing congregational pieces, and maybe even a “special” performed by a choir or ensemble.  We are truly a mix.


So what does this mean for us?  As was the case with universities, I find myself in a spirit of gratitude with regard to the Reformation influence on our modern worship.  I love music, and I love worship, and I am so grateful that Christians have found so many tools with which to worship God in the varied history of our faith.

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Liturgy / Worship as a Unifying Force

CharlemagneMany of you will have heard of Charlemagne, the great Frankish (Germanic) ruler of the late seventh and early eighth centuries.  Charlemagne influenced Western Europe in many ways, both in the church and in the state, but I’m thinking today about a quest he made for unity in his empire.  As you may know, Charlemagne’s efforts included conquering lands, repelling invaders, securing his borders, reviving culture, etc.  But the unity that he achieved in a political way wasn’t totally secure, because people could always rebel.

However, there was also a spiritual question, in that there was a spiritual power down in Rome that people had begun to call the “pope” — the spiritual “father” of all Christians, in the eyes of some.  One big question for Charlemagne concerned how political and spiritual powers would co-exist: who is in charge?  Is it the pope or the emperor?  Or some combination of the two?  Could this question even lead to a breakdown in the unity of the empire?

One tactic that Charlemagne used to unify his empire was to unify the worship that existed throughout the empire.  In other words, he attempted to standardize the Christian worship of his “Carolingian” empire.  You might think that would be easy, but you’d be wrong.  Besides all the difficulties of communication across hundreds of miles in those days, there were some very specific, distinct, and already ancient worship traditions associated with lands in his empire: in Spain, in northern Italy (centered in Milan), and in Gaul (now France).

So what was Charlemagne to do?  Should he take one of these local traditions and make it “empire-wide”?  Actually, what he did was to send messengers to Rome to find out how they “did worship” there.  He knew that Rome was a very ancient Christian city, and he viewed Roman traditions as the most authoritative.  It’s not unlike the reasoning employed by King Oswy at the Synod of Whitby in the late 600s — but that’s a story for another day.  (Feel free to research it, if you like!)

I don’t think this move on Charlemagne’s part is just an interesting historical footnote.  I think that many of us have experienced the same kind of cultural cohesiveness that comes from a common worship tradition.  Those of us in the Churches of Christ may know what this is like.  Until recently, all over the Bible Belt, people in Churches of Christ sang many of the same hymns, heard much of the same prayer language, and experienced similar preaching.  This was comforting: if one was traveling, one could visit an unfamiliar Church of Christ and yet feel right at home.

More broadly, and more recently, the most common way this unity happens nowadays concerns modern worship music.  As you know, there’s been an explosion of modern worship music in the last 20 years, and whether you are in a Bible church, a community church, a Baptist church, etc., there’s a good chance that you’ll hear songs you know.  Does this create unity outside the church walls?  Maybe.  But it certainly creates unity as we share worship experiences together.

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Closest to home, as members of the our university community, we all experience communal worship on campus (in our daily “Chapel” gatherings).  Some of us like the all-music “Praise Day,” some prefer the more contemplative “Come to the Quiet,” and still others like the aptly-named “Small Group” Chapels.  But we all know the experiences, and we all know the standard complaints that students levy against required worship.  Despite those complaints, though, one reason that the University administration preserves the Chapel requirement is that, while our students come from different worship backgrounds, worship as a bonding social experience is very powerful in community-building.  This bonding occurs on a sociological level – there are human-level phenomena working here – but we believe it also happens in a spiritual way.  We believe that the Holy Spirit binds us together as Christians, and one way the Spirit does this is through our worship.

So, the next time you’re bored in a worship service, I’d encourage you to think a bit about what’s actually happening during that service, and why lifelong Christians often find hymn-singing to be so powerful in their later years.  God is binding us together, as the old song goes, with cords that may not be able to be broken.

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medieval universityOne aspect of the so-called “High Middle Ages” that is a natural candidate for a “Why Church History is Relevant” post is the phenomenon of universities, both in the medieval period and in our world today.

You may not have ever thought about this much before, but if you did, you might have assumed that universities as we have known them have always existed in this form.  But in fact, modern universities derive from an educational development that took place in the High Middle Ages, and specifically a development in the church.  In fact, some scholars have said that universities and cathedrals are the two great legacies of the medieval period.

As you may know, there were universities in different places in Europe during this time (e.g., Oxford in England, Paris in France, Bologna in Italy, etc.), and the universities varied in their structure.  In some cases, the faculty were the power-brokers, dictating everything from the classes taught to the table manners of the students.  In other instances, the students had the real influence and could almost hold faculty hostage until they got what they wanted, whether concerning topics or hours.

In our world, the diversity comes mostly with attitude, rather than in structure.  On the surface, it would seem that faculty and administrators hold all the cards: we give lectures, we assign grades, administrators set prices, etc.  But increasingly, students have more and more power.  Just because we admit a prospective student at my university, that doesn’t mean that that student will come.  And if they decide not to come, we lose thousands in potential revenue.  So, we spend lots of resources on marketing and financial aid, partly to help students but also to convince them to come spend their own (or their financial aid donors’ ) dollars on tuition, room, board, etc.  This may sound very crass and market-driven, but it is the world in which we now live.

university of phoenix logoA second way that this conversation is relevant concerns the rise of so-called “for-profit” universities, like the University of Phoenix.  Traditional institutions are “non-profit” or “not-for-profit” – like other non-profits, the goal is not to make money, but rather (in our case) to provide higher education.  But some organizations, realizing the money that can be made in education, have established for-profit schools – some brick-and-mortar, some online.  These institutions have become controversial for a variety of reasons.  One reason is accountability – are they providing the same quality of education when there is a profit motive?  Another reason concerns student recruitment – some for-profit schools have been accused of targeting veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, usually young people who have access to government assistance funds for education but may not be able to make fully informed decisions.  The schools claim that they will “work with” the students, helping tailor their education to a very practical end; however, some folks have found those claims unfulfilled.

oleanna1Underlying all of this is the fact that, since the Middle Ages, there has been a power dynamic in play in higher education.  When we hear the word “university,” we may have idealized images in our minds – ivy-covered walls, grassy quadrangles, etc.  But these pictures are not realistic for either the medieval period or the modern world.  However, this is not the only way we can be unrealistic about college.  Faculty can think administrators should fully support them in their “noble pursuit” of knowledge, when they actually have other interests to serve.  Students can think faculty should largely exist to serve their own educational needs, when faculty actually have their own agendas and goals.  Unfortunately, administrators, faculty, and students can all abuse the power given to them.  If you want to see an artistic representation of this issue, check out the play Oleanna by David Mamet – it concerns the complicated relationship between a female student and a male professor.

So how do we respond as Christians, or as a Christian university?  First, I hope that we all are really looking to serve one another and not just fulfill our own desires.  Second, I am reminded of the power of hope, that great Christian virtue, as we face the challenges of money and power in higher education; we can always strive to make things better.  Third, we can cultivate gratitude in this area; we can be thankful, not just to God for giving us this opportunity, but also to those who have gone before us, opening up opportunities for us to better ourselves through education.

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