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.