The Value and Danger of Christian History
Recently I was having breakfast with a friend in a local diner. An older man and his wife seated at the table next to us began engaging the two of us in conversation. When the gentleman discovered that I was a music director at a local church, his interest piqued.
He asked, “Do y’all sing hymns at your church?”
I responded, “Well, occasionally we do actually. I enjoy creating modern remakes of the old hymns and putting a contemporary spin on them.”
My response was a far cry from what the man was hoping to hear. Seeing an opportunity to pounce, he promptly jumped on a soapbox about the tragedy of losing the old hymns, the bastardization of “modernizing” them, and the need to recover them in their original form without any changes whatsoever to lyrical content, melody, or musical style.
I smiled and turned away, realizing any additional banter from my perspective would only lead to unwanted argumentation…besides I just wanted to eat my ham biscuit in peace. The well-meaning gentleman was holding fast to his conviction, for which I must say, I respected him.
However well-intentioned the man was in that moment, his comments stirred my thinking. Zooming out beyond hymnology, I began thinking about the broader subject of historical Christianity and its implications for and influence on disciples of Jesus in 2018. I began to think about both the value and the danger of holding on to the past.
- History teaches us to learn from the mistakes of our past. If we let history speak for itself, it reveals our current blindspots and how we can fix them before we repeat the same mistakes.
- History reminds us of the faithfulness of God. Time and again God’s people were told to remember: “remember all the commandments of the Lord” (Num. 15:39); “remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (Deut 5:15); “remember what the Lord your God did” (Deut 24:9).
- History roots our Faith in actual, literal events that happened, including the birth, life and resurrection of Jesus, and the mission statement of the Church, the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20).
Much more could be added here to history’s value, but I also believe there is a real danger we must be aware of:
Danger: We relive the “glory days” but have no present testimony of how God is working in our lives.
This is the “Uncle Rico Syndrome.” Remember Uncle Rico from the movie Napoleon Dynamite? He was a man well-beyond his prime constantly recollecting his time in high school when he was the star quarterback. Now, as an older man, he sold Tupperware to elderly women, but wishing he could get back to the good ole days when his life had meaning.
Ezra dealt with glory-dayers in his time. As Jerusalem’s temple was being rebuilt, Scripture says there were some old men standing by who remembered the glory of the former temple. As they saw the new glory symbolized through brick and mortar, they “wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid” (Ezra 3:12).
The modern Church has her own versions of the glory days.
Collectively, we remember events like the Jesus Movement of the 70s, the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, or the Welsh Revival of the early 1900s. However, for many of us, we are ignorantly unaware of the movements of God happening all around us (i.e. the underground Church movement in China, the Haitian revival in Hispaniola happening right now…and my brother Jacob has been on the frontlines).
Individually, we remember how God showed up in our lives 10, 20, or 30 years ago. But what about now? What stories of God’s faithfulness do we have now? How are we living lives of faith at this very moment?
My brother Jacob recently tweeted, “The world is too lost, and the gospel too glorious, for us to be satisfied with past achievements. The 3 billion unreached remain.” I think this is the heart of the issue. When we dwell only in the glory days, complacency and apathy creep in paralyzing us to the ongoing mission of God. Yesterday’s victories will not suffice for today. As D.L. Moody so wonderfully stated, “Let us have courage and go forward, looking to God to do great things.”
What makes the D.L. Moody’s of the world different is that they embrace history for what it should be: a teaching tool–a tool to learn from the techniques and strategies of the past and to advance them forward for the sake of the gospel. May we be people of God who harness the rich history of our Christian past but who choose not to stay there.