Friday, November 2, 2007

Reinventing the Wheel

It is fascinating to see how often you see good Christians surround themselves with the mythology of human reason. Coming from a progressive church, I was surprised at how much of what I had believed about religious practice was little more than incorrect human opinion and rumor.

We must always seek the truth by digging to the heart of every matter that we address. You would never go on a picnic without checking the weather. You would never go on a trip without thinking about your route first. Investigation is an important part of planning. A wise maintenance man once told me his secret for project success: "Plan the work and then work the plan." Those are words to live by.

How does that apply to the way we live as the church? For the sake of harmony and wisdom, we must be truly humble. We should always grant our brothers and sisters the benefit of the doubt by trying to see the situation from their point of view. Of course we are not just talking about the saints that we agree with. We should reach out and try to understand those who we disagree with better. Of course, that does not end with the Christians who live right now. We must strive to understand the point of view of all Christians in all times. We must always be on guard lest we allow our nice opinions to get in the way of the facts. Fellow Christians, past and present, have a great deal to offer if we are willing to listen before we formulate an opinion. Too often, we jump with our gut instinct and hurry into the work without doing the proper planning. The wisest men in the world become that way through decades harsh self-analysis.

If you think that I am just talking to the close-minded traditionalists, you are wrong.

No where is this need more obvious than on the progressive rim of Christianity. When my beliefs and practice became orthodox, I was suddenly aware of the prejudicial, erroneous opinions that I had held about my more traditional brothers. More importantly, I came to realize that the great accomplishments of the so-called contemporary churches were little more than an exercise in wheel reinvention.

In many cases, generations have passed since the fathers of the progressive church did away with many of the practical wheels of orthodoxy. Years later, we have new (and regrettably uninformed) generations of progressives who take pride in the new inventions that they have offered up to the church. They hold up these new wheels and wonder how the church ever got along all this time without them. I was one of those wheel reinventors. I think that the majority of progressive Christians genuinely believe that they are saving the church and introducing answers to problems that were never addressed before. The truth is that the older, better wheels have always been there.

Let's look at some examples of the trend that I am talking about:

1. New Wheel: The Small Group vs. Old Wheel: The Small Church

For years, many progressive Christians have told us that small churches are not the ideal. The invention of the "megachurch" (and the drive of every congregation to grow and evolve as quickly as possible) seems to have consumed American Protestantism. Conventional wisdom says that a small church is unsuccessful or ineffective while a large church is blessed and better equipped to participate in the salvation of mankind. Churches not only need to be big, they must be independent. In progressive thought, a church is an autonomous unit with alliances to other like-minded churches. They have councils and conventions, but individual liberty for both the soul and the congregation is prized far above these things.

Soon after the idea of a small church was abandoned, progressives began to push the need for "Small Groups" (fancy Lutherans call them conventicles). Small Groups are usually started to help Christians feel connected, get involved, and promote accountability. This novel concept centers around a small, tight-knit group of disciples who answer to a complex hierarchy of church supervisors. Eventually, you see this strategy evolve into a network of loosely affiliated Small Groups who use a common building. To many Christians, the Small Group concept is necessary, but... it is really a reinvention of the small church concept that they so often discourage. In the megachurch, the Small Group leaders take on the pastoral role and the head pastor becomes a powerful bishop over the small "churches" that exist in his one-building bishopric. Did they see this coming when they disparaged small churches and the episcopate in the first place?

In this case, the old wheel is so much better. Small Congregations have the benefit of direct pastoral supervision. The new wheel usually places the most charismatic, 'learned' laymen at the head. There is no doctrinal authority. There is no proper call. Often there are no teachers who can read Greek or Hebrew. The door is wide open for the teaching of heresy. Sheep need a real shepherd to lead them, not just well-intentioned fellow sheep. As a result, the Small Group is cheated out of a valuable, divinely instituted resource: direct pastoral care.

2. New Wheel: The Neo-Calender vs. Old Wheel: The Church Year

The Liturgical Year is the heart of the church. It really does keep the blood moving. A church who eagerly embraces the Christian calender is vibrant and alive.

Long ago, progressive Christians decided that all the festivals, feasts, and sections of the church year were not worth observing. The liturgical colors went out of style. The distinctions between different parts of the liturgical year went away. Eventually, the liturgy itself went out. I grew up without them.

Suddenly, there are problems. Progressives wisely identify the sense of malaise that overcomes the congregation. Concerned with a flock that appears to be going through the motions, the well-meaning progressives initiate "New Measures" to revitalize the congregation.

You see that today. In congregations where advent is not observed, you see people bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas. You see pastors and laymen constantly trying to remind their brothers and sisters that "Jesus is the reason for the season." There are programs put in place and fortunes spent to try to connect the joy of the holiday season with the birth of Christ. Yet there sits the old wheel of advent: an entire month of special services, feasts, and liturgy that successfully deals with this very ancient problem.

Advent is not the only example. You can bet good money that congregations who hold regular revivals to bring their congregation back to Christian living do not observe lent. The seasonal feasts we call "ember days" have become so antiquated that even most Lutherans have no idea what they are. Around this time of year, churches invent "harvest parties" and "October festivals" to combat the pagan influences of Halloween. Little do they know that the ancient church invented four such festivals (one for each season) to do the exact same thing.


I could go on with more of my list of proofs for my point. I jotted down about a dozen of them for this post, but that would constitute beating a dead horse. It is important to realize that nothing new is ever introduced into the church by men. New ideas have always existed in one form or another. The good ideas have generally been accepted and improved. The bad ideas are usually rejected. Embarking on a new initiative without checking to see if that path was already blazed is foolish and risky.

History is an important subject. We want all of our children to learn from it. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. This concept is especially true for church history. At best, "new" ideas are a waste of energy as we attempt reinvent concepts that are already available and fully developed. At worst, "new" ideas are introduced without the benefit of examining the historical consequences that history grants us. In the end, most reinventions are little more than shadowy echos of what was once thrown away or viewed as unnecessary. A church that goes off without the wisdom of the previous generations is a child who still thinks his parents are ignorant, old, and out of touch.

The historical orthodoxy of the one, holy, and apostolic church is the best exploratory committee that any congregation or council can ever assemble. When you work within the framework of the entire church in all times and all places, you gain the constructive input and criticism of 2,000 years worth of souls who have already tried what you are attempting. It is not a cultural battle of new verses old; progressive verses traditional. It is a matter of being properly informed. It took me too long to understand that... Lesson learned.

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