Christianity is not (only) one of the great things of history;
history is one of the great things of Christianity.
Henri Du Lubac
I enjoy reading the “Who We Are” pages of random, non-denominational church websites (such as the one I am a part of). What strikes me is the homogeneity of descriptives such as contemporary, rock, relevant, etc. While, I suppose, there is nothing overtly unbiblical with those identity descriptions, it is a bit strange. We all know these words aim to inform “seekers” that Christians are (ostensibly) not so different than they. Yet, what elicits unbelievers to finally give church a try is usually a tragedy — loss, diagnosis, divorce, wound, and so on. And what I know is this: a top 40 hit sung by your best soloist during the offertory doesn’t contain within it the hope they’re looking for. I think we’ve hit a cultural moment in the Western Church where it’s time to drink from a deeper well. Can I get an Amen?!
Last spring I was enthused to accept my first invitation to speak at a Pentecostal conference. Having little to no experience in that tradition, I was confused as to what I might possibly offer that would remotely contribute toward their aim. So, to my surprise, they revealed the theme. Are you ready for it… (drum roll, please)… HISTORIC CHRISTIANITY.
Yeah. It stunned me too.
They cleverly (and accurately) called it “resourcing tradition.” Unpacking that term was the suspicion of a bankruptcy the (mostly evangelical) church has entered into with regard to her future. Succinctly put, unless the present day contemporary church determines new points of emphases, her future may be in peril. I arrived to a packed house of mostly young pastors. These men and women honored their Pentecostal background, but were searching for deeper wells of the past to anchor their present-future toward. It was refreshing to say the least.
A few months after, in the heat of the summer in New York City — when most people travel, become ever more non-committal, and aspire to use their brains as little as possible — I launched my first history course at Trinity Grace Church. Anticipating a handful of history nuts with some extra time on their hands, I was stunned to find the class full to capacity with Gen Xers and Millenials, determined to learn about martyrs, early Christian practices, and Desert Fathers to deepen their formation into the image of Jesus.
What is happening?
I believe we are beginning to witness a generation of Christians repenting from being so easily seduced into novelty, autonomy, and self-preoccupation — the zeitgeist of our time. Observing Americans in the 19th century, Alexis De Tocqueville said, “Each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely himself.” And that was before the day of selfies! We subconsciously act as if the world has been awaiting the birth of our generation as the apex of human history. Ours is a cultural moment where we must not only resist the trend toward biblical illiteracy, but historical illiteracy as well. Underneath the pursuit of our spiritual ancestry lies a well deep enough to slake the thirst of anyone seeking a long obedience in the same direction.
The Why – Downward, Not Backward
Knowing our spiritual ancestry puts our sorrows, anxieties and wounds into perspective. Ours is a historical foundation built on the blood of martyrs — Christians willing to live so radically for Jesus they considered it joy to die for Him. Yet I frequently experience Christians leaving contemporary churches in droves because they don’t have a category for pain. They believe they are alone, and that sorrow is unique to them. This is the fruit of a individualistic, self-preoccupied society which has pervaded the Western Church as well as the culture. When people walk away from faith, it’s sometimes because they are ill-equipped to understand the paradoxical tension between the goodness of God and the reality of pain. And this is why Church history matters.
Peter equips the early Church to “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you.. as though something strange were happening (1 Peter 4:12).” The resource of Church history situates us in a long a lineage of persecution, poverty and pain. It reminds us of the cloud of witnesses who cheer us on from past ages, inspiring us to finish the race because every cross we bear eventually find its end in resurrection.
Tragically, many today view studying the saints as a waste of time because we strive to be loyal forward-thinking, progressive, futurists! But the journey toward the future is always tethered to the past. Our history doesn’t take us backward as much as it takes us downward. I’m convinced that one’s pursuit of the past isn’t an endeavor “back into time” as much as “down into depths.” It roots us in the faith. And that’s why my class was packed.
The What – The Whole, Not The Part
Through I protest little these days, I am thoroughly Protestant. I am forever indebted to the riches of this tradition. However, growing up I learned very little about the Church between the second and fifteenth centuries. It was only in Seminary that I began to discover the wide beauty of God’s history with broken people.
I first read the Patristics, and then studied the creeds; followed the Desert Fathers, and the development of Sacraments. It felt like an invitation to a larger banquet table. The saints of times past sought the same God, but experienced the uniqueness of the Holy Spirit contextually birthing new practices in the church. Don’t get me wrong, it has always been one Lord, one faith, one baptism, but the awareness of how God has moved throughout the course of human history has been indelible to the stability of my faith, and the advancing of a more robust spiritual formation. I wonder if that may be true for the congregation you are a part of as well.
The How – Movements, Not Minutiae
One of the reasons we veer from pursuing history is because it can feel overwhelmingly expansive. “Where does one begin?” we wonder. All too often, studying any branch of history feels like acquiring tidbits of minutiae that are difficult to fit within a cohesive whole. It’s like someone throwing a fist full of sand toward you and asking you catch. Therefore, I have found that teaching the historical movements of Christianity is far easier and more compelling. Consider Gerald Sittser’s book, Water From a Deep Well. He narrows (without cheapening) our history into twelve movements living faithfully in their time. This resource makes the craft of teaching history simpler for the pastor, and comprehensible for the congregation. It also serves as an incredible primer of Church history for any denomination.
To be sure, many Christians throughout time have flourished without having access to the wide swath of history available in ours. However, within a culture embedded with messages of novelty, autonomy, and self-preoccupation, it may be that the depths we are searching for are not discovered in the pursuit of self-actualization and contemporary relevance as much as a deeper awareness of our past, lending us a greater vision toward an eschatological future.
Some questions to consider about your church:
- Can you name 2 Early Church Fathers (Patristics)
- Would your small group be able to identify 3 creeds formed before the year 1000?
- Would members of your church know the name of 1 Desert Father/Mother?
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