“I miss the good ol’ days of the church.”
“I wish we could go back to the way things were.”
“I want my church back!”
Chances are, if you are an Adventist, you have run into phrases like this. In fact, you may even have said them. In my early twenties I went through this “the church is lost” phase where I looked at anything new, different or innovative with suspicion. In my mind, all the churches were going down the path to perdition. If only we could shape up and go back to the way things were – the days when the church was solid, committed and righteous.
In my head, I thought these feelings were evidence of my faithfulness to God. I interpreted my commitment to the church’s past era as a sign of my allegiance to all that is holy and good. Those who disagreed were – well – deceived. But little did I know that I was actually caught up in the sin of idolatry.
In the book of Numbers, we encounter Israel traveling through the desert. But there are no Instagram stories for this journey. Instead, there is a whole lot of moaning, protesting and criticizing of God and Moses. As a result of their whining, the story says, “So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died.” (Numbers 21:6)
As the people were dying, God sent the following instructions to Moses: “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” (Numbers 21:8)
The story is simple. The people are dying from the snake bites. God provides a solution for them. That solution is a bronze snake (Numbers 21:9) attached to a pole. Whoever looks at it will live. The serpent was not magical. It healed only through the miraculous power of God. Thus, in a broad sense the serpent represented God’s continued blessing and presence with his rebellious people.
Fast forward about 700 years and the Israelite King Hezekiah goes on a campaign to purge the land of idols. As he sweeps across on his righteous crusade, something interesting takes place. 2 Kings 18:4 has the story:
He removed the pagan shrines, smashed the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke up the bronze serpent that Moses had made…
The answer is very simple. Just keep reading the text:
…because the people of Israel had been offering sacrifices to it. The bronze serpent was called Nehushtan.
I am not the kind of guy who thinks the church should just blindly accept every new thing just for the sake of it. Neither am I an anti-traditionalist. I think traditions are good, meaningful and necessary. However, I don’t venerate them as though they were God himself. And to be honest, I do think some of us do. While some try and defend their allegiance to tradition with a cloak of faithfulness to God, I fear that often times our refusal to evolve and adapt is rooted in our idolatry of a past era. We worship the church of yesteryear as though it is our Saviour. We idolize the ways of our forefathers as though they are our standard. We venerate, adulate and exalt the former ways as though God is not here today, right now, in this new generation doing a new thing. Like the Israelites we take that which was once a blessing of God and turn it into a curse.
About four years ago my wife and I were scolded because we dared to suggest that, due to the patterns of life in our current generation, a church that gathered in the afternoon instead of the morning might actually be a neat thing to try. The person who scolded us used all the same arguments. “This is how we have always done it.” “The church doesn’t need to change.” “You guys are going to lead the church astray.” And so on and so forth. We gently challenged the idea by appealing to two facts. First, the morning gathering is not mandated in scripture. It’s just a thing we have always done. Second, we are not changing anything other than the hour we gather. There is nothing holier about 11 AM as opposed to 3 PM, and a later service may open doors to reach people who could never attend a morning service. For example, there are more people working night shift today than ever before which means there are millions who are not even awake at 11 AM on Sabbath because they only got to bed at 6 or 7 AM that very morning. A huge part of our population is therefore missed by our refusal to adapt. The morning service may have been a blessing in the past but, if clung to religiously, it can become an idol and a missional curse in the present).1
Ed Stetzer said it best, “If your church loves a past era more than its current mission it loves the wrong thing.”
I couldn’t agree more. And while this might be a bit rough, allow me to speak freely. I often run into this idea of “Historic Adventism” being some sort of pure Adventism that can be found by going back to a certain era (pioneers for some, 1950’s for others). The idea is that the way the church was then represents the best of who we have ever been and if we want to be pure again, we have to go back there. But to be honest, I am always confused by people who say they are “Historic Adventists”2 as though adhering to a past era is a test of faithfulness. I’m not interested in being a “historic” Adventist. I’m not even interested in being a contemporary Adventist. I want to be a biblical Adventist.
Being biblical means I can be in the here and now, interact with the world I live in and speak life to contemporary reality while still being one with Jesus. I can keep my eyes focused on the mission he has called me to be a part of instead of day-dreaming about the past or having nostalgic fantasies of a bygone generation. To such who feel this way, may I remind us that the church is a living organism, not a museum.
So here is my challenge today. Don’t idolize bygone generations. God has led us in the past, yes. He has blessed our efforts in the past, yes. He has done awesome things through us in the past, yes. And we can learn tons from our past. But we must not revere it. God is here today, in the here and now, and he is doing a new thing. Let’s be a part of that. Let’s add to the legacy our fathers started. Let’s honour them by building on what they left rather than trying to mimic them. Our God is a living God. A here God. A now God. And if we have been idolizing the past, then like Hezekiah did to that bronze serpent, its time we break those idols no matter how beautiful they might once have been.
Note: This article was originally published at thestorychurchproject.com. It has been republished here with permission.
- Research in the UK has “has found that between 2007 and 2017, the number of retail workers working nights as their main shift pattern has gone up 50%” See https://www.bbc.com/news/business-44938829 for more ↩
- The term “historic Adventist” means different things to different people and is often used pejoratively. For my purposes, I am defining the term culturally to refer to the idea that there was a golden era in Adventism in which the church was purer and holier than it is now. I am also using the term in a non-pejorative sense. For more on this definition of Historic Adventism see: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1993/10/essential-adventism-or-historic-adventism ↩