This morning I had the privilege of leading the devotional for a group of senior adults at my church.
I have to be honest. I was incredibly intimidated.
Not because it was a big group. It wasn’t. But because the collected wisdom of those gathered in front of me vastly outweighed my own.
I’m currently working on my third theology/religion degree, this one from an Ivy League school, but all that learning has taught me one thing – There is still have so much I have to learn and so much I will never know.
As we begin a new year, the temptation is, as it so often seems to be, to toss aside the old in favor of the new.
We’ve been doing this a lot in the beginning of the 21st century, particularly in the church where we are told ad nauseum that everything needs to be changed, reinvented, or reimagined if the church is to survive the 21st century, globalization, postmodernism, or a whole host of other boogiemen which, supposedly, will bring the church to her knees the moment she turns her back or pauses to take a breath.
I agree whole heartedly that change and innovation are important, especially in the life of the church. It’s easy to get stuck in the stagnant pool of doing things the way we’ve always done them simply because that’s how we’ve always done them.
However, I’m just as convinced that learning from our past, our elders, our traditions, and our stories of faith is just as important, if not more so.
This morning I shared a brief passage from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 6. The people of Israel were, after 40 years of wandering in the desert, on the brink of finally entering the Promise Land. It had been a long journey and few were left who could still remember the feel of the dirt between their toes when they crossed through the Red Sea on dry ground.
So, at the end of Deuteronomy 6 we witness Moses taking steps to ensure that the story of faith isn’t lost and with it Israel’s very identity as the people of God. He says,
When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lordbrought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lorddisplayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lordcommanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.”
Moses understood the importance of both the past and the accumulated wisdom of elders. He knew that in settling a land filled with different cultures, strange foods, unknown languages, and exotic traditions, the story of Israel’s faith and their particular identity as the people of God would be lost if they did not take intentional steps to preserve it.
Likewise, Moses understood, as did the writer of Ecclesiastes, that despite appearances there really is nothing new under the sun.
Sure, technology changes, problems get new contexts, and questions get reworded, but the core of human experience is the same yesterday, today, and until the end of time.
If someone tells you otherwise it’s because they haven’t lived long enough or they’re just ignorant of history.
Because of the steadfastness of human experience, the lessons of our past are critically important for our decisions in the present and our plans for the future.
In other words, despite the hype, the future of the church doesn’t rest on innovative media presentations, hip worship services, slick marketing campaigns, or reinventing Christianity to conform to modern tastes.
The future of the church lies in her past, in the future generations of the church having the humility to learn from the past generations of the church. If Christianity is to continue to thrive and maintain relevance in the new year and throughout a new millennium, it won’t be because we learned how to make better iPhone apps or because we found just the right font, video, and music combination for our worship services.
It will be because we were willing to listen to those who have come before us, who have been through the storms of life and come out the other side, who have learned how to deal with conflict and change in healthy and productive ways, and who, above all, understand what it really takes to live a lifetime as a disciple of Jesus.
So this year, I say out with the new and in with the old.
Not completely, of course, because there are some good new things out there. But if I could offer you any unsolicited advice this year it would be this – Seek out old people and listen to what they have to say. Find old books that have stood the test of time and mine the depths of their wisdom. Take part in old traditions and experience why the people of God have felt they were worth keeping around.
Do these things and (as I’ve said here before) you will come to discover that what has allowed the church to survive for 2,000 years is not her willingness to change with the cultural winds, but her ability to continually change us.
Grace and peace,