Always reforming, always planting

by Mark Safstrom

With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation fresh in mind, two slogans from Lutheran history, both Latin, seem particularly relevant as a framework for this issue.

Ecclesia semper reformanda est

“The church must always be reforming.” This motto has served as a reminder that the Reformation was not a process that was ever concluded. Pietists are well familiar with this idea, that the Lutheran state churches perpetuated some of the very tendencies that the reformers had criticized about Catholicism. However, though the Pietists sought to reform them from within, even their own initiatives often crystallized into institutions in need of reform themselves.

The difficulty in seeing what needs reform in any age comes when we settle into comfortable pictures of past reformers. Luther became an icon to such a degree that he could symbolize conventional practice. This view fails to see why he was ever controversial. Nineteenth century author, Søren Kierkegaard, hyperbolically claimed that if there were to be a new reformer in his day – a new Luther – this person would need to be the complete opposite of the original Luther. A new generation faces a different context, and must continually adjust their perspective on historical reform movements in order to appreciate how that heritage of reform applies today.

Ecclesia plantanda

“The church must be planted.” Back in 2010, as people gathered in Rock Island to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Augustana Lutheran Church, the theme for the gathering was drawn from the founders. This slogan captures the imperative those immigrant farmers felt in the 1850s and 60s to set down roots, not just in establishing farms, but also in transplanting their faith. Lutherans of all shades, confessional or pietistic, German and Scandinavian, took to this task with differing views on what kinds of churches should be planted in America and how. Added to this mixture was also a “Free” group that was highly critical of denominations, and had in fact been abused by overzealous enforcement of confessional Christianity. Figures like J.G. Princell were among the most outspoken that centralizing institutions should be resisted – yet even he was committed to the task of planting. Many in the leadership of what would become the Covenant Church attempted to strike a middle path, preferring to be a highly coordinated “mission society” rather than a confessional denomination in a proper sense.

Legendary North Park history professor, Zenos Hawkinson, reflected on the process of planting new churches in the midst of this chaos. In a collection of essays, The Anatomy of the Pilgrim Experience, he categorized the process as moving between “uprooting,” “planting,” “fencing,” and “managing.” This agricultural analogy also mapped well onto the immigrant experience, and symbolized the alternating need to break with the past, to prioritize what to keep, to account for loss and change, and to protect fledgling institutions vulnerable to assault.

Quoting the evangelist, E.A. Skogsbergh, Hawkinson noted that successful churchmanship in those days required a commitment to planting in the face of disillusionment and critique: “It is not always so important to know everything. It is always tremendously important to preach the gospel. So whether I am free or whether I am bound, I may be either and yet preach the gospel. So let us try and stop being omniscient, and get on with the work of planting” (46).

Successful planting and reforming both require a long-term, active commitment. So-called “slack-tivism” is really useless here. It is easy to have opinions and criticize, easy to be exasperated, and easy to uproot and dismantle. There is a personality type that can be found in Christian circles as well as secular ones, which is highly critical of “organized religion,” its abuses and slowness to be reformed. However, disorganized religion is not often better, which is what those early pioneers on the Midwestern prairies discovered.

What it takes to plant, sustain, and reform a church is a different personality, the committed churchman and churchwoman, who keeps showing up to keep the lights on and make the coffee, let alone advocate for the marginalized and make needed changes. Though “churchmanship” might lead you to think of Saturday Night Live’s spoof of the “church lady,” allow me to suggest that we have perhaps underestimated many of the stalwarts who perpetually haunt the church building. Think of the original church lady, Anna, daughter of Phanuel, who “never left the temple” (Lk 2:37). She was among the first to recognize who the infant Jesus was, and what he was going to do.

If this personality type seems to be a bygone, allow me also to suggest that this is what we see in the pages of Pietisten. These writers are here for the long haul. A friend shared recently that the attitude of his parents was always, “If the lights are on at church, we are there.” Here’s to keeping the lights on.

Guds frid – God’s peace.