Where are we now? I would suggest that the convulsions in the ABCUSA over the last few years are part of a larger pattern that is indicative of the fact that we are in the Fourth Reformation. Each Reformation was part of a rediscovery of Bibical truth, each overturned the established order and each was associated with a change in technology.
THE FIRST REFORMATION
The First Reformation was the one that we came to revere in seminary--the Reformation of Luther and Calvin, the overturning of the oppressive rule and unbiblical teaching of the Roman church. The technological innovation that helped carry this Reformation forward was the printing press. The First Reformation was Eurocentric.
THE SECOND REFORMATION
The Second Reformation was one of piety and missions. The Pietist movement and its parallels (such as Puritanism) reformed personal devotion while at the same time this era saw the dawn of the world missions movement. The great advance in technology that accompanied this Reformation was long-distance ship travel--especially as the New World (the Western Hemisphere) moved to the center of action. Both Europe and the new European settlements in North America participated in the Second Reformation.
THE THIRD REFORMATION
The Third Reformation occurred in the early and mid-20th century. It consisted of two key developments: the rise of Pentecostalism and the resurgance of essential reformational theological developments (the "solas": only faith, only the Bible, only Christ, etc.). That resurgance can be broadly called Evangelicalism. Both brought the supernatural elements of the faith to the fore. Both added fuel to the world missions movement. The technologies association with the Third Reformation were rapid travel (steamship, rail and auto) as well as the rise of radio and the dawn of television. The Third Reformation was centered in North America, but because of its close connections to world mission has had international impact. For example, in many developing nations varieties of Pentecostal churches dominate at least the Protestant side of church.
THE FOURTH REFORMATION
Now we entered the Fourth Reformation. Historians will probably pin its beginnings to the 1990s. The First Reformation was primarily doctrinal; the Second, devotional; the Third was combined the two with a strong emphasis on missions and evangelism. The Fourth Reformation is building on the first three with an emerging and transforming approach to structure and relationships.
The shape of a new era is always the hardest to see in its earlier stages. This much is clear: the technology of the Fourth Reformation is the Internet. The platform of the Fourth Reformation is both worldwide and in cyberspace. At this stage, it is easier to apply adjectives to the Fourth Reformation than nouns: missional, relational, international, post-modern, and post-denominational.
As at the other Reformations, we can expect some organizations (such as denominations) to be swept away and some new ones to rise, but the new ones will be small, focused and nimble. The era of the big bureaucratic church organization is lurching to an end. We can expect that this will dominate the landscape for the rest of most of our lifetimes.
Your comments on the Fourth Reformation concept are encouraged will form the basis for at least one future posting.