shirts at rummage sale

Five Hundred Year Rummage Sale!

 October 17, 2020

Who doesn’t love a bargain? I know I do. In my home state of Michigan, every year there is a 180 mile long garage sale along US 12, stretching from Detroit to New Buffalo. People along this route clean out their garages and attics for “hidden treasure” to sell. With shelter at home orders this year, many are cleaning out closets, basements and garages to declutter their living space.

I’ve never attended this extended garage sale. I like bargains but I’m no longer interested in filling my house with other people’s junk. I’m at a stage in my life where I’m more interested in getting rid of stuff than bringing in more clutter to my limited space. I’m happily downsizing.

The Church’s Five Hundred Year Rummage Sale

However, there is one rummage sale that I’m interested in – the five hundred year rummage sale where the church unloads trinkets, dogmas, rituals, that once served well but are now no longer relevant.

Phyllis Tickle, in her book, Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing (2012), examines this phenomenon. Since the time of Christ, every five hundred years there has been a major shift. Five hundred years after Christ we had the collapse of the Roman Empire and beginning of the Dark ages. Five hundred years after that, in 1054 we had “the great Chism” where the Christian church split into two branches, Eastern and Western.

The most recent one was the Reformation. Martin Luther’s act of posting his thesis on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517 is usually referred to as the starting point for this change, though the seeds had been growing for years before this. Luther just happened to be the witting or unwitting instrument for initiating this long needed change. Not only did his action initiate the split of Protestant churches from the Roman Catholic Church, it initiated much needed reform in the Catholic Church.

We are now past the five hundred year mark from that date. Whether we recognize it or not, the seeds for change are spreading throughout society. What will be the catalyst for this transformation, I don’t know. Perhaps the coronavirus?

The Changing Face of Religion

We are already seeing significant secularization of society, as examined in my previous post, the Changing Face of Religion in America.  What has already happened in Europe is now happening in the US with a significant drop in religious belief in the last ten years.

With the decline in infant mortality and the extension of life expectancy, human life is less precarious hence humans are less in need of the existential comfort provided by belief in God, according to Ronald Ingelhart in his article, Giving Up on God:  The Global Decline of Religion. It appears that many of the reasons that kept people in church have changed and are no longer as relevant as they were in a society where so many died before fifty. And so we need new reasons to believe.

What Will be Left Behind?

Perhaps COVID19 and the loss of life will impress on us as a society just how fragile and precious life truly is and thus push people to return to God. But I like to think there are other reasons to believe in a loving God beyond fear of death. I hope that fear, a fear based faith, is one of the trinkets to be discarded during this rummage sale.

For too long, religion has been a source of division and conflict in society. We have hundreds of years of fighting going back to before the Crusades. I hope that is discarded as well. Wouldn’t it be great if religion were to become unifying rather than dividing?

Ingelhart found that societies with greater faith weren’t less corrupt than other societies. On the contrary, they were often more corrupt. As economic resources expanded they lifted people out of poverty and corruption lowered. Faith did not make a difference. How sad.

The days of our faith not making a difference in how we live, or even worse, making the world worse, need to be over. Let’s leave that behind in the junk pile. People need to know we are followers of Jesus by how we treat each other, especially the least of our brothers and sisters. Christians need to be known for the integrity of their character.

We have an inclusive God who welcomes all who believe – male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free. We are the ones who create divisions and sow hatred by our words and actions.

Reason for Hope

Phyliss Tickle believes this emergent church will be deinstitutionalized. Denominations will still exist but they will need to change how they do business. They will need to be less hierarchical, more communal.

Myself, I don’t know what this post-rummage sale church will look like, but I pray that at least it will be a kinder church and a kinder world, something our society needs. The good news is that each five hundred year rummage sale was followed by periods of renewal and vibrancy.

May it be so!

As for me, I’m looking forward to this rummage sale! Happy “Sale”-ing!

This is the second post in a series on the Changing Face of Religion. The next post will look at our understanding of God and how it changes.

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