I recently concluded a tour of several Christian colleges where I had various conversations of a similar ilk. In discussing the church and the relevance of many contemporary expressions of it, I realized on reflection that for many people, words like “history” meant something the individual may have become aware of in just the last two or three weeks. Likewise, “tradition” was an obscure word used to describe things like Thanksgiving, but one that had nothing to do with reality or with everyday life as we had to live it now.
When, therefore, we discuss the church, her mission, her faithfulness, and more contemporarily, her relevance, against what standard or criteria do we judge? Is the only, or at least, the most important value whether or not we have success (defined largely in terms of modern management or consumer expectations)? In the world of emergent, seeker-sensitive, conservative, charismatic, and reformed models, what is the dominant value system that drives us? Is it numbers and size? Is it the accuracy of the Word preached and the presentation of the faith once and for all given? Is it how happy or ministered to everyone feels?
What disturbs me personally—and many people whom I have talked to across the country and internationally—is the growing trend to ignore Christian history, to devalue Scripture, to reframe worship, and to lessen the role of discipleship, holiness, theology, and content. What matters is whether God is “experienced” (something I also seek), whether worship is compelling (a commendable value), and whether people actually come (a valid desire). However, this tendency and practice of avoiding the past is distracting, and I believe, wrong.
Speaking of this trend, Christian scholar R. R. Reno says, “In all cases we are modern insofar as we will not suffer that which we have received. We must step back in order to unburden ourselves, to lighten our lives so that we can be raptured away from the hindering, limited, ruined forms that the past has imposed on the present. This is the spiritual pattern that makes modernity modern.”1
Within the mythology of modern and post-modern society is the deep belief and value that only what works or satisfies in the present is to be allowed. Thus a creeping evolutionary notion is married to an existentialist demand, and then served up with a muddle of therapeutic and marketing requirements, which begins to alter beyond recognition the thing (the Christian faith) that is the target of such enthusiastic revision.
Commenting on what he describes as the breathless pursuit of relevance, Os Guinness writes, “By our uncritical pursuit of relevance we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant.”2
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we ignore or avoid the serious and real questions and needs on the hearts of people. Nor am I suggesting a return to some older model, defined by the “50’s”, sixteenth-century Geneva, eighteenth-century England, or America in the Great Awakenings. However, my concern is with an uncritical embrace of ideas and methods that bring with them a hidden value orientation and an inherent tendency to redefine the church. Sometimes the changes made come with a price tag that does not reform the church, but which may instead deform it.
I was reminded of this by my wife who sat in on a discussion about learning Scripture. One individual concerned with the other adult’s lack of biblical knowledge suggested this be might remedied by watching the Veggie Tales! (Might it also have been possible to suggest reading the biblical book itself?) On another occasion I was taking an elderly guest to church. As we entered the main hall the band launched into a mind-blowingly loud rendition of their latest song. The whole service was styled as a performance with the rock concert serving as the guiding model. My guest was first stunned then shocked. After we were able to talk outside, she asked what did any of this have to do with Christ. Perhaps her objection could be ascribed to age, style, preference, and culture, but I cannot help but feel it is more than that.
Not all progress is progress, and everything new or novel is not necessarily good. C.S. Lewis coined the phrase “chronological snobbery” to define an attitude he himself held for many years. Lewis referred to ideas that were viewed as “past their sell-by date.” The ingrained belief was that some things were simply outmoded. Yet Lewis’ friend Owen Barfield responded to him in the following way: Before we judge whether an idea is outmoded or not, we must ask some pertinent questions.
Why did this idea go out of date? Was the idea ever refuted? If it was refuted, by whom, where and how conclusively?3
Today it is not just ideas, but practices that are viewed as outmoded, and hence irrelevant. We tend to consult the gurus of our time, those with real success portfolios, because we want to have the power of real change. Once again, I am not suggesting all things modern, or post-modern, are bad. I am asking us to take a look at the underlying values or transformational factors that we may be unaware of, and which may inadvertently be smuggled in. As Marshall McLuhan suggested in the 1960s, “The medium is the message.” The question we need to ask then is what medium might corrupt, distract, or deform the message?
C.S. Lewis scholar Art Lindsley quotes an old proverb, “What is true is not new and what is new is not (necessarily) true.” He writes further, “While we can and should unearth new insights into truth, we should be cautious if we start to depart from the ideas believed and taught by Christians throughout history. Perhaps some traditional ideas need to be revised, and we are the ones to do it. However, if we differ greatly from the faithful giants of history, we must stay open to the possibility that it is we, not they, who need correction.”4
Contrary to Henry Ford, history is not bunk. History and tradition are valuable sources of insight and wisdom on how to live. Soren Kierkegaard said that life is lived forward but understood backwards. The great renewal movements in history came with a respect for the past and a desire to see God work again in a new generation as He had done in an earlier one. The impulses of the Scriptures’ grand themes and truths have often served to ignite and kindle fresh fires and new outpourings of the Holy Spirit on the church.
I guess I would see this article as a word of caution, as an exhortation to exercise due care towards some of our love of all things new and trendy and to not allow an unbridled enthusiasm for the present to blind us to the givenness and value of the historical Christian faith. After all, Jesus Himself instituted a memorial that roots us in the past, that feeds us in the present, and orientates us to the future (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis also cautioned against using the wrong “metaphors” to guide our reflections: “You can’t turn the clock back…. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” 5
Or as contemporary scholar Robert Webber reminds us, “The road to the future runs through the past.”
Stuart McAllister is vice-president of training and special projects at RZIM and a member of the itinerant speaking team
1 R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church: Satisfying Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002), 18.
2 Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 15.
3 Art Lindsley, C. S. Lewis’s Case for Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 39.
4 Ibid. 47.
5 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Collier Books, 1960), 36.