Over the past several decades I have mentioned that the “good old days” were not necessarily good for many, if not most, people. This morning I read the following in Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore:
No one needs to be told that we live in a time of materialism and consumerism, of lost values and a shaft in ethical standards. We find ourselves tempted to call for a return to old values and ways. It seems that in the past we were more religious as a people and that traditional values had more influence throughout the society. But whether or not that is a blurry, nostalgic view of the past, we want to keep in mind Jung’s warning about dealing with present difficulties by wishing for a return to former conditions. He calls this maneuver a “regressive restoration of the persona.” Societies can fall into this defensive strategy, attempting to restore what is imagined to be a better condition from the past. The trouble is, memory is always part imagination, and tough times of another era are later unconsciously gilded into the “good old days.” (pp. 231-2)
And by extension we deal with the same temptation in the Church. There is that which is good — remaining or returning to a previous status in the Church. Obviously in regard to a solid Biblical basis, a doctrinal foundation, etc. remaining or returning are good, healthy, encouraging for the Church. The Scriptures never change, our confession of the faith should not change. Remaining on that foundation derives from THE Word, namely Jesus Christ,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine. (John 8:31)
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)
And Paul wrote,
holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. (Titus 1:9)
But often the call for the “good old days” refers to outward actions, or perceived “real way of doing things.” But as Moore reminds us, “memory is always part imagination.” In the church, that may be a prescribed time to worship, length of worship, specific order of worship, etc. This is not to say that anything was necessarily wrong with the past in each of those cases, but they may not achieve what had been taken for granted in the past.
Notice that desire to return to the good old days may be well intentioned. But often it misses the mark. As a young boy in church in the early-mid 1950’s, sometimes sitting alone (parents would drop us off), the adults behind us would snapp our ears if we turned in the pew to look around. This happened more than once! I was curious who I could see (most the of time there would be 250-300 in each worship service). I shudder if that is the good old days!! I suspect today’s children would wholeheartedly agree. I suspect parents would be more than a little disturbed if that happened now. It ain’t the good old days.
Moving forward without reaction to the past
So how do we address this “good old days” view in the Church? We can start by acknowledging that the Church has never been perfect or ideal. Consider how many of Paul’s letters address problems in the first century. And it didn’t change in later centuries. Sometimes the 4th century is heralded as the “Golden Age” but remember that the Council of Nicea (AD 325) had to deal with the heresy of Arius and his followers. And that battle actually got worse after the Council, for about 100 years. If anything, what makes it “golden” is that the Church fought for its life, a struggle that took its toll on people and churches. The Church was continuing to be formed in a sinful world.
Thus, our congregations today are still being formed in a sinful world. We can’t look back and wish for the good old days of our memories. We can cherish the past of the Church and of our congregation, yet we recognize that we live in the present, not the past. The Church of the past is what God did then among those people, yes, sinful people, just like us. But the Church of our memories doesn’t exist.
Thus, we look at how we live out the reality of “Christ in us” individually and as a congregation. What remains of the past should not change: Our faith is in Jesus Christ, as with the Church of all ages. Our doctrines come from Scripture, as they must and have throughout the Church. Our confessions summarize those truths. We hold fast to these.
In the present day of the Church, we use technology when it can help us, or open new avenues of reaching people with the Gospel. This includes the digital life we inhabit with all the opportunities and challenges that it offers. But there may be changes in worship because of that. New translations of the Bible come on the scene. Liturgical wording changes. After all, we don’t read the Scriptures or sing the hymns on Sunday morning in Hebrew and Greek, or Latin, or …
Our view of the past, present, and future is formed and guided by Scripture. We let Scripture speak to us and others on its own terms. That is challenging, but also refreshing. God speaks to us through His Word, but it is a fresh Word, a life-giving Word, a life-generating water in the Word, a life-sustaining meal in the Word. And that is not just a memory, it is a present reality that never changes. That guarantees the hope that we have:
This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.
The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:21-23)
[Jesus said] Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (Matthew 25:34)
It is a better new day!