So how did we get here?
History can, in some ways, define where we came from, but defining where we are is a very hard thing to do.
History is easy to define. We have a perspective that can be, for the most part, objective.
Here and now, as we lack that perspective of gathered histories, can be a confusing place to find a clear definition of an identity.
Being ‘tagless’ certainly has it’s appeal, for me anyway. But it also has it’s drawbacks, as people will tag you anyway. Most times unhelpfully, other times ignorantly, at all times, subjectively based on their own preconceived ideas of who you are based on associations, etc.
We examined the possibility of “new” / “neo” thinking which is always old thinking for a new age. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun. It’s not so much ‘all is vanity’ and ‘chasing after the wind’, but there is an awful lot of hot air and narcissism all the same in trying to define yourself without seeking to see how God defines you ( especially if you are in Christ ).
Being the ‘new’ wave of old thinking for the current time in theology, philosophy or anything can get old pretty quickly. In a modern era where yesterday’s trending news is today’s newsfeed memory, it seems compelling to be ‘original’, while never saying anything new. That balanced with a media that likes shock over substance and statements over facts, you can have a ‘new’ way of looking at an issue that can quickly be outdated, out-trended, and re-defined before you can update your status or finalise a witty tweet. The goal posts are constantly being shifted, and we want to keep updated and relevant while keep our feet grounded, and this proves next to impossible.
Correctly defining yourself is a hard thing to do in the here and now business of social media and consumerism of our western culture, but it’s demanded at the same time.
It’s all about whatever you want, except for where that clashes with what I want, then it’s a matter of who can humiliate and degrade the other into submission or silence in the name of tolerance and equality.
In this crisis of identity of race, sexuality, marriage, family, and what tolerance and truth really are or if they ‘are’ at all, we try and identify ourselves as believers in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
There was a time in generations past that we could rely on some public acknowledgement or understanding of the Christian faith. People knew what “Christian” meant. They had something of an understanding of the faith and the practice of the faith in various expressions ( denominations).
Today, here and now, we no longer have this luxury of public awareness of faith and it’s varying expressions.
In the last generation or two, there has been a culture shift ( in western culture at least) away from Christian traditions and heritage, to a ‘post-Christian’ society where it is not at all socially acceptable to be one, let alone share your Christian views on anything in broader society.
There are many causes for this shift that others can better speak to, but there are few things I’d like to make note of from a church perspective.
I’m not old enough or studied enough for a proper thought out study on this matter, and this is in no way an attempt at such a study into generational successes or failures. This is a letter, in part, to the previous generations, and just asking them to help us still, as we seek to correctly define ourselves in a world that has been rapidly changing for some time. It’s also a letter to others of us who have been so long in ‘the way’, we might well be getting in The Lord’s way as He tries to do His work in our world and community. It’s a letter to the traditionalists among us. Old and young. Both here and there, for the here and now.
It’s mostly a letter to the comparisonists among us, of whom I am chief.
Firstly, let us take a little look at “generational comparisonism”.
It time we acknowledged it’s not all a negative thing, living here and now. It’s not all we were meant for by any means – glory awaits, but beauty and grace do surround us if we stop to take note rather rush to compare. Especially in broad, sweeping, general statements that condemn one generation over another purely out of a personal experience frame of mind that only the select few can identify with.
We might say we are ‘less’ Christian now then we used to be. Studies would show that’s not so much the case. The ‘faith’ of the broader community in previous times is proven, with hindsight and biblical knowledge of the human condition, to be nominal for the most part. Marking ‘Christian’ on the census doesn’t make one a believer in Jesus anymore than one knowing where the moon is makes them an astronaut.
People today, whether we like it or not, for all the identity crisis that goes on, are being more honest when they mark their census.
Also, another contributing factor, there is no such thing as an inherited faith. There is a heritage of faith, but that is vastly different. It is a wonderful thing to have, but it should not be confused with having the real thing.
Many in some church circles today bemoan the ‘fact’ that this is the worst generation since Adam…or Noah…or some other such biblical hero of the faith. I’ve read books, blogs and articles and listened to sermons by some who are old enough maybe to know some of these bible heroes personally, so maybe I should abandon my critique and bow to their multi-millennial life experience…I mean no harm when I jest like this, but a young person ( we will go with 35 and under for argument’s sake) who hears their generation is the most evil ever is left scratching their head as to what this means exactly.
We know enough of modern history to know our parent’s generation wasn’t exactly the exemplary definition of perfection in world history for peace, purity and prosperity.
We know our grandparents and great-grandparents witnessed and were involved in terrible World Wars.
We know history well enough to see the depravity of mankind seems to have played out to it’s most evil end in every single generation since Adam.
We also know our parents ( and grandparents) now, and as saintly as some of them are and were, they are far from perfect. They are and were sinners. We didn’t learn all our sins off them, but we did inherit our sinful nature from them.
Don’t tell us we’re the worst sinners, that would be to deny that all of the hearts of all the human beings that have ever existed weren’t as evil or ‘desperately wicked’ as Scripture so clearly tells us that all mankind’s are.
We know our society is flagrant in it’s sin. We know sin is somewhat more easily accessible through technology.
We do need reminding that we are all sinners and fall short of God’s glory if we are outside of Jesus, but don’t say we are ‘worse’. It grates a little on ears that are already confused in a cacophony of noise, minds that are already full of misinformation, and hearts that lean towards feelings of darkness and hopelessness in a world that already defines us inaccurately.
We need the help from those in the previous generations. We need the wisdom, the love, the experience, the testimony of those who have lived in this world and can testify to the goodness of God in the land of the living ( Psalm 27:13) . We need to hear your stories of being lights in dark places and finding hope in broken situations. We need the ‘splendour of grey hair’ ( Proverbs 20:29) that is gained by a righteous life ( Proverbs 16:31). But please, spare us comparison.
Comparison only ever crushes. We cannot meet the expectation of being a generation that fails so miserably in this world that we will be the reason Jesus has to return to sort out the world. Don’t put that on us.
Maybe you don’t intend to mean this when you say such things, but you need to know that’s how it comes across, and the older we all get, on both sides of the generational divide, the older it gets…
I don’t want my generation to be like previous ones. I want this generation of believers and followers of Jesus to be like Jesus.
I love my Dad, and I aspire to mirror him in many ways, but the parts of my Dad I like the best are the parts where he is like Jesus. My parents would be the first to admit they have made mistakes, they’re aren’t perfect, and the sooner we acknowledge ‘the good old days’ were full of people that were just as sinful as these ‘here and now’ days, the more effective all generations can be in reaching a lost world.
We need the earnest prayers of our elders. We need their wisdom. We need their insight. We need to learn from their mistakes. We need to learn from their humility. We need them.
This generation ( and the one soon to come) will face some challenges that are unprecedented. It doesn’t mean we’re lost and without hope. It does mean we need to be called back to the right foundational truths of the Christian faith to stand, and having done all, to stand. Just as so many before have. Including the Ephesians ( Ephesians 6:10-20).
Secondly, the tradtionalist comparisonism.
We need to also acknowledge the ‘way we used to do things’ doesn’t have to be the way we always do things.
We’ve already stated how we used to be able to assume on some public awareness of Christian faith and practice, as well as some biblical knowledge. Not only is that not true anymore, it is increasingly alienating to those outside the church when we keep assuming they still have this knowledge, or that they even care about the things of God’s Word at all.
We can no longer define ourselves as a church by comparison to other churches. We simply don’t have that option. The world couldn’t care less about matters of practice differing between churches.
Here’s a social experiment for you, which is purely rhetorical and somewhat hypothetical.
Ask a few people on the street these questions:
How important is the doctrine of Divine Sovereignty and human free will to you as you pick a church to visit?
When was the last time you wondered about full immersion as being important to your next church home?
How important are spiritual gifts to you?
Which bible translation do you prefer?
If you were to come and visit our church, would you be bothered if we only sang hymns?
You get the idea.
These questions may have meant something some time ago, but now only mean something to those already firmly established with their denominational affiliation.
We can no longer define ourselves based on how we are different from other churches. The only ‘thing’ we should be different from is the world.
When we find an identity in a specific expression of faith, we are in danger of becoming sectarian and exclusive.
The point must be made that specific expression is necessary and make up the body of Christ. This isn’t about compromising convictions on certain doctrines to accommodate others. Unique expressions of the Christian faith are necessary to the furtherance of the Kingdom, but no one denomination has a right to claim originality.
Pure orthodoxy in perfect practice isn’t possible this side of eternity.That doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it, but it does mean we shouldn’t claim exclusive access to God through a special doctrinal position or ministry expression.
We enjoy hearing testimonies of how the Spirit moved in certain ways in times past and the local and sister churches experienced great numerical and spiritual growth and fruit that can still be seen if you pick through the root system carefully enough. A lot of different denominations would have similar stores of revival and renewal.
The danger is that we assume it will happen the same way again, that we can replicate the exact context for God to work.
The Holy Spirit hardly ever does the same thing the same way twice. The Spirit of God is not bound up in traditions of men or practices of certain churches. If He is like the wind ( John 3:8) then we are only left to prayer, dedication to God and seeking after His will, which is to be conforming to the image of His Son, and the rest will be in His very capable hands.
Again, a side note must be made that we don’t go throwing the baby out with bathwater, or the hymn books out with the pews. It’s not a free-for-all on everything matter of faith and practice.
There are specific ministry expressions that can be timeless. Others are just plain old.
The way we’ve always done it will apply in continuation to many things.
Praise of God.
Public worship and praise.
Public and private study.
There are some things that we can safely discard without fear of losing our unique identity as a Christian church or even a specific denominational church.
Set worship times ( no one ever arrives on time anyway).
Certain songs we do or do not sing – ( why does a songwriter have to be dead for 100 years before you can sing their songs?)
Preaching that is purely for believers – ( it should be for equipping of the believer and evangelism of the unbeliever at the same time. if we start to think the church isn’t for sinners, we’re in trouble…)
Public and private study that ignores accountability, openness and community. ( if you need is God and His Word to tell you how to live, you may have the truth, but you won’t have love)
These are a few, there are many, many more.
Defining what is timeless will go a long way towards correctly defining our identities as individual local churches and as individuals within those churches.
Timelessness doesn’t have to mean old. It does, by definition mean that certain ways of doing things will be endlessly relevant to world that is constantly changing while always being made up of sinners.
Timelessness would never be compromise. It would mean acquiescing to my brethren on certain issues so the greater glory of God can be shown.
It would never be alignment with trends. Timelessness is endlessly trendy. It’s what was trending before relevance was trendy.
Defining our identity doesn’t come from striving for relevance, it comes from a correct understanding and faith in the person and work of Christ and who we are in Him. Bought with a price, we are not our own ( 1 Corinthians 6:19,20).
That means that in the here and now, although we may have arrived here by various uncertain and unrepeatable ways, comparing ourselves to one another never works as incentive to give God glory and certainly will never further His kingdom, it will only stagnant it as we all become increasingly introspective.
We need a reliance on the Spirit to guide us to His next revival work, that will ultimately always start in our hearts before any other.
Prayer will be the only act that we can be sure will have results, again in our hearts before anyone else’s.
There isn’t a trending hashtag in your timeline or newsfeed today that won’t be forgotten in eternity.
There isn’t a new relevant way of thinking that won’t be old and tired by the time another generation comes around.
Comparing is easy. Conforming to Christ is hard. Go after what’s the hard, because when we’re at our weakest, God will do His best, and that is a source of great comfort to me, because when it comes to comparing oneself to others, I am the chief of sinners.
I do not measure up to the standard others have set that I think I need to reach.
I have made the error of adjusting the way I prepare sermons or deliver God’s Word in order to not offend one or two people.
I have sinned in thinking I need to be like someone else in order to be fruitful in ministry.
In many areas I have been more fearful of men than I am of God, and that doesn’t ever lead to fruitfulness. It leads to anxiety, stress, burn out and discouragement.
Being a comparisonist is exhausting, it’s another cause for weariness. A burden that none of us should bear.
Putting off generational, traditional and personal comparisonism would go a long way to a correct understanding of not only how we got here, but who we now are expected to be, and who we are expected to be is inclusive of all we gain when we compare wisely and biblically. History gives much richness, treasures are found in the way we do ( some) things, and those of a purely ‘revisionist’ mindset will soon find themselves with little left to stand on if we are to dismiss collective Christian history for pragmatism. ’Revisionism’ is not something to be lauded in all contexts, but that topic can be taken up in our letters at a future time.
We are here because God has been long-suffering. A simple look at certain generational and traditional biases will conclude that quite easily. He is so incredibly long-suffering with us.
While we dither about who we are and how much previous generations have either failed or succeeded in leaving us a faithful legacy and timeless traditions, or stressing over where we are and how we got here, God’s instructions to those who would follow His Son have never changed.
Christianity isn’t found in how our parents or grandparents did things and whether or not that has left a bad taste in our mouths that we need to recover from before we can get on with the business of His Kingdom. It’s found in following after Him, because any who follow Him must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him.
We are where we are meant to be. God makes no mistakes, and His will had lead us here.
We are being made who we are meant to be, more and more like Jesus.
He is the goal. That’s what we aim for. No turning to back or to the side. It’s steadfastness towards Christ that will see God’s glory accomplished in us and through us.
It will take a long obedience in the same direction, and definitions of identity aside, one of the most challenging calls for believers is not to follow traditions or examples of men, but to simply ‘be holy because our God is holy’.
Holiness might just be summary of how we know who we should compare ourselves to as we seek our true identity and direction in this life because only God is Holy, and He should be the only One we hope to please.
Defining our true identity by comparison to others never works. At it’s base is pride and self-righteousness. You will always be better or worse than another based on your own works.
With Jesus, it’s not about being better or worse.
It’s about weakness and redemption.
That God buys a broken people for Himself and uses them for His glory reminds us it’s not about our works, but His.
We have nothing to boast in but Jesus. The peace and certainty that truth brings is beyond comparison to anything we’ve ever aimed for in our own effort.