Monday, June 26, 2017

What is a church if not the family of God? The common story of our heritage, our roots, our failures and successes – all of these elements have an identify-forging effect on God’s people. Our frequent celebrations of the Lord’s Supper reinforce our identity as followers of Jesus. A common story enables us to thrive in the midst of cultural challenges.

So how do we fight against the “tyranny of the now” that leads us to focus on the present that we forget our past and why it is important?

I see three strands in your church’s history, and each can help the church be a community of memory.

The first strand is the most important.

1. We are part of the people of God, who bear witness to the great story of our world.

As believers, we are children of Abraham; we have been grafted into Israel. So when we read biblical accounts, we are not merely reading about people as examples for us today; we are reading about Grandma and Grandpa. These are our fathers and mothers in the faith. When we read about the people of “the Way” in the New Testament, we are encountering the origin of the movement to which we belong.

Bearing witness to the great story of our world means we believe in God the good Creator, our rebellious descent into sin, God’s commitment to bring salvation, His choice of a holy people to be the vehicle for His good purposes in the world, His sending of the Messiah to die for our sin and launch new creation, and His commissioning of the Church to carry His gospel of love to the ends of the earth. Unless we are telling that story over and over again, our Church experience will shrivel up until it merely incorporates a religious aspect into an essentially secular life.

The second strand follows from the first.

2. We stand in a long line of saints who have sought to be faithful to Jesus.

American Christianity leans toward innovation and originality, which is why some of us try to leap over 2000 years of church history in an attempt to reach the pristine faithfulness of the New Testament church. But the New Testament churches were not exactly pristine, and neither is all of church history worthy of being discarded. Rooting our churches in 2000 years of church history (through biographical studies, quotes from important theologians, readings from the church fathers) reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

It’s true that the Church has gotten things wrong, and the Church’s heroes are, like the main characters in the Bible, flawed. For these reasons, we must not glorify the past or seek to conjure up a “golden age;” we should instead give people hope that just as God has used broken vessels and sinful people in the past, He can continue to do so with us in the present.

We are bound to repeat the mistakes of our spiritual ancestors if we are unfamiliar with the temptations they succumbed to. Likewise, we are likely to fall into cultural captivity without the witness of ancient Christianity alerting us to our own cultural blinders.

The first two strands are important for all Christians. The third is important for a local church.

3. We belong to this particular people for this particular time.

Here are the questions that arise from this strand of church history:
How did your church begin?
What movement was it a part of?
What is your church’s purpose?
What are your denomination’s distinctive beliefs?

I know of a church that recently went through a revitalization process. The church’s style today is contemporary, and yet the congregation lauds the founder of the church and the leaders demonstrate how the present state of the church maintains the original mission in its DNA. The shared story that emphasizes the original purpose is what pushes the church forward, as part of a movement that has continuity with the past.

The authors of Habits of the Heart warn against the dissolution of communities of memory. “Where history and hope are forgotten and the community means only the gathering of the similar, community degenerates into lifestyle enclave,” they write.

Too many of our churches tend to be “gatherings of the similar” rather than, as in Scot McKnight’s terminology, “a fellowship of differents.” The Church should be refreshed in remembering our identity is rooted in the Scriptural story of our world, in line with the faithful saints of God through the ages, and embodied in particular congregations that serve as outposts of God’s kingdom.

Trevin Wax photo


Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via emailClick here for Trevin’s full bio.

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