January 24, 2008

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
Isaac Newton

There is a cartoon I saw while starting my last church plant. The cartoon pictured three or four people sitting around a table. The caption read, "Even in new churches old habits die hard!" One of the characters had a speech bubble that read, "But Pastor we didn't do it that way last week." Little did I know how true this cartoon really is.

There is something in us that simultaneously hates and longs for the "way it has always been done." We hate the word traditional, but run out and buy white wedding gowns, rent tuxedos, and hold large traditional weddings. We like the words new and innovative, but usually stick with the "tried and true" waiting till it is tested and out of beta. People go to churches that offer contemporary music and rock-style bands, but sing the loudest when the old hymns are sung. We like both old and new.

For some reason, the distance of time creates a form of era-amnesia. We seem to remember the past in a much better light than when we actually experienced it. We look to past jobs, past relationships, and past experiences and forget the pain, the stress, and the troubles. It is as though our minds want to only remember the good times. Maybe it has to be that way. After all, people wouldn't want to remember anything if they also relived the pain of that experience. We try to forget those experiences that cannot be remembered without re-experiencing the pain involved.

People find history, the known, the traditional comforting. Change, while it happens all around us, disorients us. We want some things that don't change because that brings comfort to our world.

There must be some middle ground. There must be some way that gives a healthy respect for history and yet builds toward to the future.

The Bible has a great understanding of history that helps us. It continually reminds the readers that history is important. History is meant to be remembered, honored, learned from, and built upon, but there is no sense of longing to return to some fabled "good old days." The Hebraic culture saw history as moving forward and progressing. It was important to remember, but it was not meant to dominate or be a goal to return to that history. History was the foundation upon which everything current and future was built.

In fact, when the children of Israel longed for the "good ole days" they were considered disobedient. Why? Because they weren't following God toward the goal that lay ahead! Ezekial puts it very bluntly, "So you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when in Egypt your bosom was caressed and your young breasts fondled." They weren't looking to the things of God they were looking back to some perceived better day. But this wasn't anything different than their forefathers who followed Moses into the wilderness. They longed for the comfort of Egyptian slave labor. They forgot their suffering at the hands of Egyptian slavemasters. There seems to be a sinfulness to looking back.

History is the soil in which we are planted. It is the soil in which we are rooted. We continue to grow and reach new heights, not because we are so good or innovative or even different from those who have gone before, but because we are standing on the shoulders of great men and women that have gone before us.

Many think it a dishonor to change the methodology of those giants of the faith, but it is more dishonoring to stagnate and not to build on what they accomplished. Some believe that this person or that person left us the perfect system. They believe that by changing what the person did you are saying the person "didn't get it right." In reality, the change is only possible because the person built the foundation in the first place. It is an extension; moving forward in the spirit of what that person accomplished.

This serves as both impetus and warning to church planters, young leaders, and pastors. We must move forward missionally, but we must also honor the foundation of those who have gone before. We really are not doing anything all that cutting edge and different. It does look different than at times in the past. It has different verbage and technology. But we aren't the first to use contemporary music (see Martin Luther) or any of the many other things that we think qualify us to be called innovative.

The problem is that most generations have enculturated the Gospel to their time and audience, and then stopped growing. They failed to keep moving forward, missionally, and became content with the changes they had made over the previous generation.

I guess the question for us is not only "What do we need to do to present the Gospel to our culture?" but also, "How will we continue to change our presentation so that future generations will be able to receive it as well?"

1 comment:

  1. That is a particular question I've asked myself many times, mainly because I was hired to change the worship music from traditional to contemporary at my church. What I ultimately figured out was that (in the arena of worship music) each church must to find their own balance. But balance there MUST be.

    I seem to be seeing a lot of this topic come up in what I'm reading about the election this year. Many conservative columnists and bloggers are reminiscing about the good ole' days of the Reagan era, lamenting about the lack of the perfect Republican choice this year.