5 Ways Church History Can Revitalize Your Church

Coleman Ford

We live in a world of cutting edge and the “next big thing.” Like bugs to a porch light we hover around TV’s and computer screens watching as the latest “iWhatever” is released. “This one is 5% bigger and more powerful!” announces the middle-aged man in skinny jeans standing on the platform with his company’s new gadget. We rush out to pre-order that latest “it” product. Once we finally receive our prized possession, we proudly display it as a badge of honor, pulling it out at parties as people ogle our latest gadget around the punch bowl wishing they had one just like it. After all, it’s cutting edge and it’s the hottest new thing.

The problem?

Six months later, we’re holding an outdated phone that’s been dropped, beaten, stained with coffee and last week’s oatmeal and we begin to wonder, “When’s the next big thing coming out?” This is the reality of our modern-day consumerist culture; regrettably it’s also the reality in many of our churches. Novelty often equates buzz and buy-in, and many churches feel that if they aren’t being new and cutting edge, they’ll lose their market share and eventually go out of business, so to speak. This “newer and bigger is better” mentality often leads to burn-out both from the people and the pastors. Churches and leaders spin their wheels trying to keep up with demand, and they just can’t keep pace. So what’s the salve to soothe this burn-out from the “latest and greatest” consumerist church? Looking to the past may just be the ointment we need to cure what ails us.

The Christian faith is not about seeking the hottest new thing; it’s about guarding and re-presenting the faith once for all delivered to the saints (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14; Jude 3). How can we do that? Here are five ways in which you can begin to look towards the ancient and revered rather than the latest and recently-appeared.

1) Study More History in Church

Rather the hottest new book for your next Sunday morning small group, why not take a tour through the sacred halls of saints who came before us? The author of Hebrews paints a grandiose picture of biblical saints who looked towards the coming of the Lord and persevered (Heb. 11). That same testimony of faith continued on through the centuries following the earliest churches in Scripture. Individuals like Ignatius and Polycarp in the second century all the way to Lottie Moon and Jim Elliot in the twentieth provide hallmarks of Christian faith for us to emulate. Understanding the two thousand- year old testimony of Christian faith can help us understand that Christianity isn’t about the newest thing; it’s about proclaiming the most sacred thing—the grace of God in Christ. Looking for a place to begin? This DVD based study just might do the trick.

2) Read More Scripture in Church

This sounds simple and perhaps a little näive, but the plain fact is that not as much Scripture is read in churches as many might believe. If we are to curb the appeal of the hottest new thing, church worship should be filled with the sound of Scripture being read. And preferably not from a tablet or phone, but from the actual book itself. No electronic device to match the image of the authoritative word being opened and read in worship. Reading from the book itself sends a powerful message to the person in the pew about the nature of Christian faith. The ancient authority of Scripture continues to speak truth into our lives because it is “living and active” and “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (Heb 4:12; 2 Tim 3:16).

3) Sing More Hymns in Church

“But we threw out our hymnals ages ago!” The reality is most churches today simply don’t use a hymnal simply as a normal part of worship. And that’s ok. While one could argue for the necessity of hymnals, at the very least a church should be willing to engage the songs of the past. Many new songs have merit, but this doesn’t mean we should neglect the battle-worn hymns of our past. Many churches today are taking old hymns and adding modern arrangements to produce a blend of rich sounds with time-tested lyrics. This doesn’t mean every old hymn is worth reproducing, but those that the church has recognized as enduring should continue to be sung. Eighteenth century hymnists Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, Augustus Toplady and others produced numerous doctrinally saturated and heart-engaging hymns for the church. Numerous hymn writers throughout the ages (including female writers such as Fanny Crosby) have left a rich storehouse of hymns for use in the church.

4) Read More Christian Classics

Similarly to studying history, we should be encouraged to pick up those classic works of the Christian faith which continue to endure based on their rich reflection on the grace and beauty of Christ. Books like Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, Augustine’s Confessions, Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. These are but a few of the many possibilities for reading. Will you always agree with everything these authors say? Probably not. But that’s ok. These classics represent a strong testimony of faith from men and women who walked with the Lord and testify to his goodness and grace.

5) Cultivate a Posture of Humility

This last point is perhaps the most difficult, but the most important. Successful churches are often tempted to think they have “arrived” or that all should emulate their model of doing church. The most dangerous thought in our Christian life is to think we have “made it.” The Christian faith is built upon saints who considered “all things as loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil 3:7). Humility means listening to the voices of the past to combat the temptation to be “cutting edge.” Humility means looking to the Savior more than statistics and strategies.  Humility means modeling the life of Christ more than the whims of culture (cf. Phil 2:1-8).

When looking to the past, we have to avoid the “Golden-Age Syndrome.” It’s the disease that causes one to think, “Everything would be great if only we could get back when the church was like that!” The golden age of the church is not in the past, it’s in the consummated Kingdom of God in the new heavens and new earth! Looking to the past is not supposed to cause past-envy, it’s supposed to encourage us to hold fast to the gospel while also learning from the triumphs and failings of saints who came before us. By looking to the past we gain insight for how to be more faithful believers today as we look expectantly to the future.

So how do we avoid the “cutting edge” mentality that continues to cause ministry burn-out and church break-ups? By looking to the past. Practically we can do so by recovering some practices which remind us of the ones who fought the good fight before us. Cultivate a life of humility in order to avoid falling into the trap of the “next big thing.” By looking to the past, we acknowledge that we are part of a grand story of the faithful seeking to give glory to God and building up the Kingdom through showing the world the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Coleman M. Ford is married to Alex and they reside in Louisville, Kentucky. Along with PhD studies in Church History, Coleman loves to read and write on Christian spirituality. You can follow him on Twitter @colemanford.

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