This is the final part of a discussion on Church Planting. Go here for part 1
It’s Church, Jim, but not as we know it
So said John Wesley who had traveled three hundred years into the future with his close friend, Jim, and walked into the nearest church.
Last time I wrote celebrating the historicity of the Church. The beauty of longevity and commitment. The steadfast love of God revealed over the years. The many saints who have shaped the Church and have demonstrated something of Christ to their generations. Those who have preserved the faith and kept the great treasure safe for us to enjoy today.
I want to join into that great company, that everlasting crowd of witnesses. I want to listen to them and honour them as my spiritual forefathers, and to allow them to shape the Church today through their hard work and wisdom.
As G.K. Chesterton said,
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
Because, of course, I do not believe anything new and I have no fresh revelation or initiative that has not at one time or another been explored in far greater depth in the long history of the Church.
The only man with something new was the God Man, Jesus.
His ministry and teaching was a radical departure from his Jewish contemporaries. Differing even from the ministry of his own close relative! Jesus’ cousin, John, would live in the wilderness crying out for the nation of Israel to repent and prepare the way of the Lord (John 1:15).
Jesus, however, went about Judah eating and drinking and living with the sinners of his time. He was criticised for encouraging a party lifestyle (Luke 5:33) but Jesus was insistent, that since this was a time of favour and blessing, the people ought to celebrate! (Luke 5:34).
He reminds them that one does not put new cloth on old clothes, since upon washing it will shrink and tear the clothes. Nor does one put new wine into old wineskins, since then the wineskin would split.
These stories primarily illustrate the difference between the Jewish traditions and Christ’s announcement that he was the way, the truth and the life.
Yet they illuminate our present situation.
Because Christ was not just a historical figure.
For the Christian, Jesus is always a contemporary, always making his demands upon the world afresh. And so we hear his declaration of the radical departure from the old and into the new. “Prepare new wineskins” we hear him say, “For new wine is being poured from heaven!”.
This seems to be one of the key foundations of Church Planting.
Weaving new garments.
Stitching new wineskins.
Not because those who do so are so presumptuous that they believe these things will endure eternally, but because room must be made for the fresh/ancient demands of Jesus upon contemporary culture.
A casual glance through the history books might show us that the wineskins cracked up generations ago. Nobody noticed, since the culture still declared itself Christian. Now that this paradigm has shifted, the inadequacies of some of the Church’s habits become inescapable.
Does this mean we ought to respectfully disregard the voice of tradition?
That, with all due respect, the great historic figures of the faith are to be silenced?
If the generation before us made a mistake, and forgot what it meant to be Church, and was caught up in the progressive enlightenment movement, and abandoned Christ as it’s Saviour.
Should we dismantle their work?
Or those who were so focused on sending missionaries around the world, that they forgot to evangelise their neighbourhood.
Are they sinners?
Or those who tried to interpret their faith as a ridged set of fundamentals, trying to define the faith by their own rules and understandings.
Are they graceless legalists?
How should we think of our forebears?
Paul of Tarsus, one of the many who defined the earliest Christian traditions wrote:
“By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,”
By grace our ancestors were saved. Through their faith. Not their works. Paul wanted this to settle rivalry between the members of his church, because this sets every Christian on level ground. Indeed, for Paul there was neither Jew nor Greek nor any other division, since Christ had united God’s children (Galatian 3:28).
Yet perhaps I might call to attention the habit of modern people to judge former people. The modern Church to judge the Historic Church. We expect our fellow believers to show grace and have mercy upon one another, and upon the world, yet all the while cursing the generations before us for leaving us with such a challenge.
They could not have predicted the radical shift away from the Christian worldview which would result in the implosion of the grand institutions of the Church we see today! They were simply trying to live out the same faith we are in a different age.
And it is their legacy of faith which becomes a treasure to us today. Though the former prestige and wealth of the Church is depleting, we can look back upon men like John Wesley who brought the Gospel to the forgotten classes. We can remember William Booth and the Salvationists who shaped social policy in such a way that countless lives have been saved. The great student missionary push of the twentieth century reminds us that youth work is nothing new, that passionate faith has power in every age and every culture to bring life and end suffering.
That wonderful history is the movement called Church. I work for an organisation that has existed for little over two years. Yet the faith they know – the Christ they love – endures from generation to generation.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”