the weblog of Alan Knox

We Have A Short Memory

Posted by on Sep 20, 2010 in church history, discipleship, elders, office | 11 comments

We Have A Short Memory

When it comes to our church traditions, beliefs, and practices, people tend to have a short memory. We believe that whatever has occurred in our lifetime – or our “church time” – must have occurred through all of the history of the church.

I remember when I first realized this. When we were discussing leadership for our church, we started talking about “elders.” Of course, coming from a Baptist tradition, most of the people used the term “pastors” and “the pastor.” Someone said, “We’re not Presbyterians. We don’t have elders; we have pastors.”

I scratched my head at that statement. Why? Because I knew that historically Baptists had used the terms “pastor,” “elder,” and “bishop” interchangeably. In fact, the London Baptist Confession of 1689 used all three terms, preferring “elder” or “bishop.” The Baptist Faith and Message of 1925 (the earliest confession of our own denomination) used only the terms “elders” and “bishops.”

But, the people who were part of our church only knew about the term “pastors.” Since that was the only terms they had heard, they assumed it was the only terms that could be used.

Of course, this doesn’t only apply to what we call pastors/elders/bishops. Did you know that Sunday School only started (at the earliest) in 1751 in England? And, it wasn’t started to teach people Scripture; it was started to teach children living in slums how to read so that they would not become criminals. That’s a far cry from modern Sunday Schools, isn’t it? But could you imagine suggesting a Sunday School that didn’t teach the Bible or Christian doctrine, or Christian living? Why can we not imagine that? Because we have a short memory, and we assume that what we’ve experienced is the way it’s always been done and the way it should always be done.

What about Youth ministry? Surely the first Youth ministry was started by Peter or Paul, right? No. Actually, youth ministry did not start until the industrial revolution (late 1800s to early 1900s) as a way to provide community support for young people who moved away from the farms (and their home town community support) to be near the factories. Youth ministry kicked it up a notch in the 1940s and 1950s to help servicemen returning from World War II. (But, note, these were not primarily teenagers, but people in their early twenties.)

So, why can we not imagine a church without a youth ministry? Because that’s the way we’ve always seen it done, and so that must be the way it’s supposed to be. We have a short memory.

You could say the same for our “traditional” hymns, which tend to be only a couple of hundred (at most) years old. Or traditional church instruments. Or so many other beliefs, programs, and activities of the church. In many cases, we don’t realize that what we’re doing or what we believe is a relatively new invention or creation. (Note, this does not mean that these things are bad in and of themselves.)

It’s true. We have a short memory. Typically, our memory only reaches as far back as our own experiences.

But, the church should never be based on our experiences… or our traditions, for that matter. The church is much more than that. Perhaps, this is why I love to look at the church in Scripture so much. In those images and stories and encounters and corrections and instructions, we find a beautiful picture of a timeless community built around the continued presence and work of Jesus Christ.

When we focus on the church from a scriptural perspective and on the presence and work of Jesus Christ, our memory gets much, much better.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-20-2010

    This is true in all sorts of places. We call it recency bias in financial services, the idea that whatever the market is doing now is the “norm”.

  2. 9-20-2010

    Good thinking! The church I attend is an Assembly of God, yet we do not have Sunday evening service, and a few years ago we let the Sunday School go and began to concentrate on the Biblical education of our children at our mid-week as that was more effective.
    We have received some interesting reactions. Now, our teens want the time Sunday Morning to study, so we have classes for them on Sunday morning, but do not call it SS. This has come about simply because they wanted it.
    You are right – usually what we mean by “traditional” is what we remember in our younger years – not necessarily what is really very old or Biblical. By the way, just because it might be “old” does not make it Biblical – just thought I would let you know I understand that. That is what the reformation was all about.

  3. 9-20-2010


    I see the same thin in web development… or with the use of computers in general.


    Exactly. I’m not opposed to SS or other program as long as we know why we’re doing it and we’re open to stopping if its not doing what its intended.


  4. 9-20-2010


    You are now writing about the bane of my years in ministry 🙂

    I didn’t smile about it then. I can now!

  5. 9-20-2010

    Wait a minute. I thought Barnabas took Mark with him so he could hold youth rallies in the cities they visited.

  6. 9-25-2010

    Being a part of a small house church for 35 years with only 3-4 families, we didn’t offer all those traditional activities. After all these years, we found that the young ones learned much more sitting under the teaching with the flock.

  7. 7-15-2011

    Presbyterian(PCUSA)/frozen chosen here. 🙂 I love traditional music, don’t even try to take it away!

  8. 5-9-2012

    A little observation about traditional music. Well, traditional vs. contemporary. There are those who do not believe that contemporary music has any place in the Church. I have read an article or two by people who are vehemently against contemporary music, claiming it to be a sin. Well, consider this:

    What we consider to be traditional music was once the contemporary music of its day. If one were to study the origins of some of our most beloved hymns, it would be found that the original tunes came from pub/bar songs. As for the organ, an instrument preferred for the playing of traditional/sacred music, it was once considered a sinful instrument, as it was only used in such secular places as carnivals.

    It is interesting how we base tradition on what we were raised with, vs. what history can show us. The thing about tradition is, like any cultural thing, it changes over time. The big key to tradition is allowing it to change and not making it into mandate or law. Jesus never said tradition was wrong. It is wrong to worship tradition, but not wrong to have, practice or observe tradition(s).

  9. 5-10-2012


    Yes, most of our “traditions” are actually quite new. Like you said, we accept what we grew up with (are comfortable with) and reject anything that’s different (uncomfortable). I also agree with your statement about Jesus and traditions. My goal is to encourage people to question what they consider to be “the way it has always been” or “the way it must be done.”


  10. 11-21-2012

    I wholeheartedly agree with the heart of what you’re saying here. We confuse our traditions with God’s mandates. It actually makes me think of Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 15. I wonder how different our modern churches would looked if we were willing to kill every sacred cow that didn’t align with the mission of extending the Kingdom of God

  11. 11-22-2012

    Alan, I have been reading the book Pagan Christianity recently and trying to wrap my head around the broader issues that you tackle on your blog. It has been a mindblowing experience for me, not because I promote the book or any movement in its entirety but because it has really helped me to think about the traditions I embraced. I feel freed somehow from a type of blindness or ignorance, and yet I am not sure what I am being freed TO if you know what I mean. Perhaps it is more of a journey than a destination, and in a negative sense it felt like an opening of pandora’s box because I had placed much of emotional security in the traditional assumptions of ‘how we do church’ and who I was and who God was in that setup. For instance, I once thought I might go ‘into full-time ministry’, now I don’t know if I believe in it. I now am so aware of the church service that I attend and how cultural and often unscriptural a lot of it is – like communion not being a proper meal anymore, or the ineffectiveness of sermons. There are many more examples. But what I am trying to say is, I think it is psychologically scary for some people to relativize their traditions, especially when they are spiritual traditions which give the sense of being built on something absolute. I know I have found it painful, and I think of myself as quite open to change.


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