When I decided to follow Jesus I immediately joined a church that was associated with a certain denomination, a year later I went to that denomination’s nearest Bible College, and over the next thirty-plus years I went on to plant and pastor three churches under that same movement’s covering. I have no beef with my brothers and am quite happy to be part of this particular family of churches. I have many relationships among the ranks and have been abundantly more enriched by it than disappointed. I still agree with the statement of faith and vision of this historic denomination and have taught and practiced most of its basic tenets over the years. Nevertheless, over the last few years I’ve noticed some of our officials – good men and women all – say something along these lines: “Let’s not forget our history and our distinctive identity as a movement. We’re people who still believe what our forefathers believed about – – – . We’re – – -. Don’t forget who you are!” (So as not to offend or confuse anyone regarding the point I’m making, I’m keeping my particular affiliation a secret. Feel free to fill in the blank with your own association whatever it might be within the Christian family.)
My objection is not about my particular brand of Christian. Like I said, I have good friends within the movement and still believe and practice the way of Jesus that I was taught early on (for the most part). An encouragement to keep that way in the forefront is always welcome and gets a hearty “Amen” from me. I don’t care how popular my brand or belief is, if it’s true I’m in! It’s always a good thing to “fan into flame” whatever we know to be true, especially since we believers do have a regrettable history of permitting our spiritual vitality to ease into dormancy. It’s especially tempting to hide certain beliefs or practices when they’re either unpopular in some other Christian circles or a potential turn-off to spiritual seekers. But I figure that if practiced in a decent and orderly fashion, the truth is always apt to attract real seekers to Jesus and win the respect of most spiritual naysayers. After all, Jesus was the least politically correct man of his time and yet was as winsome a witness as anyone.
But it was something about the way the reminder to return to our roots was framed that gave me pause. It just felt a little off. It’s not that I object to what my predecessors believed, but what made me flinch was its connection to our “identity.” It felt like we were being pitched with a sort of nostalgic loyalty to our particular historical narrative and how that narrative identifies us as different, if not better than, other groups.
While I do genuinely honor those who’ve paved a way for us to walk, I’m not particularly inspired to stay on that way out of a sense of nostalgia. If I’m compelled to retain the original coordinates on my GPS it’s because I still believe those coordinates to be biblically accurate! To put it plainly, I still practice the things our movement inculcates, not because of a historical distinctive or a denominational expectation, but because I still see it in the Bible and because the Holy Spirit continues to prompt me to do so!
I’m just saying that I believe what I believe and do what I do because God put it in his book and also in my heart. While I honor our unique history and its heroes, my allegiance is more to what the Bible teaches and commands (as far as I can tell) than to an institutional identity. My loyalty is to Jesus and what he wants me to believe and do.
It seems to me that preserving one’s historical identity is energy misspent, and it’s not only the denominationalists that are culpable. Renewal movements tend to develop similar types of allegiances to the initiation of their movement and their spiritual mother ship. Their history might not be as lengthy and their structure as time-honored, but the trend appears to duplicate certain beliefs and practices that they’re convinced brought the renewal in the first place – like an emphasis on healing, worship, the second coming, a missional strategy, orthodox liturgy, emerging ministry forms, reformed theology, communal living, etc.
I assume that the Spirit led each of these movements – to one degree or another – into one or more of these emphases for whatever reason or season. Their founders responded to the Spirit and his Word, and those of us who follow in their steps do the same. But as time goes on we seem to lose sight of the Spirit’s original impetus in those early pioneers and are content to be carried with the current that it left behind. We’re content to step in the footprints left by our founders rather than in the prints that the Spirit prescribes in his Word. We develop a corporate identity that promises more immediate results, a more tangible momentum than the Spirit often does, and more impetus than the Bible itself. Could we be confusing wine with wineskins?
Our spiritual traditions are good insofar as they have their origins in God, his Word, and his will. We should always be willing to return to the roots that run past our own movement’s history and go all the way back to Jesus.
I remember a story of a young girl who was watching her grandmother cook the family Christmas ham. “Why do you cut off the end of the ham, Grandma?” she asked.
“Well, when your great grandma taught me, her tiny oven was too short for the ham, so she would cut the end off in order to make it fit,” the old culinary mentor said. “I guess I’m just used to doing it that way.” The end game of nostalgic motivation in the practice of certain spiritual realities is cutting the ends off of the ham even though our oven is big enough for the whole thing!
I can be as sentimental as the next guy and do have a great love for my particular spiritual family, its history and its early heroes. But at the end of the day I do my best to believe what’s promised in Scripture and try to behave in ways prescribed by the Spirit.