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Why the Reformation is Important to Small Churches

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If Reformation Sunday is about anything, it’s about big theology.
Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and John Knox loom large as veritable giants in the history of the church.

These Reformers crafted big, new theologies to differentiate their beliefs from the dogma of the dominant Roman Catholic Church.

We remain in their debt because they redrew the boundaries of theological discourse.

However, there was only one Luther pounding 95 theses on the door of the Wittenburg cathedral, and there was only one Calvin turning Geneva into his vision of the kingdom of God on earth.

Then and now, most of us deal in the smaller currency of everyday life and ministry. That’s exactly as it should be, and that is also why Reformation Sunday is important to small churches especially. Let me explain.

While we need big theologies that set broad parameters and answer big questions, most small churches wrestle with the little problems of regular people’s lives. For those real-life experiences small churches need little theologies.

In his book, “Doing Local Theology,” Clemens Sedmark, an Austrian theology professor, defines “little theologies” as “theologies made for a particular situation, taking particular circumstances into account, using local questions and concerns, local stories and examples as their starting point.”

In other words, little theologies reflect the influence of big theologies, but in an everyday, hands-on manner.

Sedmark defends “little theologies” with the disclaimer that they are not intellectually inferior or “theology-lite.” Rather, little theologies are those that grow out of the life of a real church in a real community living through real experiences.

An example of the difference between big theologies and little theologies is the contrast between the pontification of a well-known pastor-theologian versus a local pastor.

When tornadoes destroyed a nearby community, the high profile theologian stated that the deadly tornadoes were God raking his fingernails across the earth.

While the high profile pastor framed a community’s tragedy with a big theology, the small church pastor who lived there practiced his little theology by comforting the grief-stricken who had lost family, friends, neighbors and homes.

Little theologies are not systematic schemes, all neat and tidy. Rather, little theologies are often inconsistent, spur-of-the-moment, as-if-people-matter approaches to life experiences.

Little theologies avoid glib explanations of why things happen, choosing instead to incarnate the love of Christ amid tragedy.

Little theologies are the lifeblood of small churches. Almost unaware of their effect, small churches exist because of inherent little theologies at work in their midst.

Dealing with real people in the messiness of real life calls for little theologies that extend grace, mercy, love and care.

Little theologies are not compromised theologies, however. They are compassionate theologies. Jesus practiced and taught little theologies in contrast to the big theologies of the religious leaders of his day.

When Jesus’ disciples were accused of breaking the Sabbath by picking grain to eat, Jesus invoked a little theology by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).”

Jesus seemed to favor the little. He used a little child as the example of the kind of faith it took to enter the Kingdom of God.

He also commented that if one had just a little faith, comparable in size to a mustard seed, mountains could be moved.

Whether they know it or not, members of small churches are very good at practicing little theologies. Hanging in one of the main corridors of our church is a beautiful watercolor painting of the church sanctuary. The artist’s name, written with energy, marks the style as uniquely his.

When I asked about the artist, I was told that he died years ago from alcoholism. In his short life, Mr. Hibble painted almost every building in our town, churches included.

When he finished a painting, he showed up uninvited to offer the painting to the building’s owner.

The local bank bought several; doctors, lawyers and others in our small town bought dozens of his paintings.

Our church paid $5 for the large, exquisite watercolor hanging in our hallway. Everyone in town knew that Mr. Hibble sold his paintings cheaply in order to buy his next drink.

A big theology would contend that they should not contribute to his moral decline. However, their little theology stood with him in the only way our community knew how – lovingly and without judgment.

On this Reformation Sunday, Protestant Christians around the globe will commemorate the big theology that set the Christian church in a new direction.

Then, when the worship services have ended, the members of these same congregations will go back into their communities to practice the little theologies of real life.

Ecclesia semper reformanda est (The church is always to be reformed).

Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. He blogs here, and you can follow him on Twitter @Chuck_Warnock.