In the church, as in life, it’s often hard to give up things that have become old friends. Sometimes, it’s hard to know when they have outlived their usefulness, and we must exercise wisdom in removing archaic fixtures.
You might have seen that Basking Ridge Presbyterian’s 600-year old white oak tree has died. Under that tree in Bernards, New Jersey, George Whitefield preached to over 3,000 people in 1740. Legend has it that George Washington picnicked beneath its outstretched limbs. My own ancestors worshiped at that church; indirectly, the shade of that tree has helped shape my own soul. That which served so well has died and must be removed.
Remove archaic fixtures we must, because devotion to the archaic reveals in us an insufficient eschatology. Loving what met needs in the past over what meets the need of the moment fails to anticipate the glory that is to be revealed. It trades a vision for the glory of Christ for earthly forms that are passing away. With the Apostle Paul, we must always seek fidelity to Christ as we count everything as loss for the sake of Christ that we may ultimately attain the resurrection from the dead. With Paul, we forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. We press on for the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8-14).
The congregation I serve is making renovations in parts of its 100 year-old building. Long-time members might not be thrilled with all of the changes, but they see that the changes are designed to serve the needs of today and lead a new generation to Jesus. I appreciate their willing attitude because it reveals vision. And there are other changes. We have always used physical Psalters in our worship, but we are introducing the projection of the Psalms for singing onto a screen in our service. It’s different, but as members have observed how much more robustly those with developmental disabilities are able to sing, the rest of the saints have seen that we are a little closer to heaven.
Our denomination introduced a new edition of the Psalter a decade ago that uses twenty-first century English. Why? Is it because we despise older forms of English? No, it is because we know that Jesus wants us to effectively lead people today to know him and anticipate eternity with him before the throne. Jesus and the apostles used the Septuagint along with then-modern language to keep pointing people forward. They did so without requiring that their hearers use the old forms. Sometimes, we have to acknowledge that the old forms might have even been better; but it is better to use a form that actually functions, as we see in the case of our Lord and his apostles.
The irony is that usually when we are stuck on old forms, we are stuck on forms that were developed by those with a great vision for the future and were simply trying to meet the need of their day. Personally, I love the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I’m not yet entirely sure what I think of The New City Catechism, but it’s easy for me to spot what I perceive as its weaknesses. Still, I was challenged by a comment from Tim Keller at this year's The Gospel Coalition Conference. In response to the question “Why do we need a new catechism?” he said something like, “Why haven’t you written a new catechism?” The reformers—Luther, Calvin, Ursinus, and Westminster—wrote new catechisms to instruct people and deconstruct the false teaching within their culture. Our culture, Keller pointed out, is always catechizing us afresh, and we need to rise to the challenge and catechize ourselves and our children in eternal truth. Our culture asks “How can you be true to yourself?” or “What makes you happy?” or “What should you do if someone tries to stop you from pursuing happiness as you define it?” Are the tools we are using effective to counter the catechisms of our culture? If not, what questions should we be asking our children and others to counter error and inculcate truth? If heaven is our aim, we must be posing the right queries.
The truth never changes and specific forms that God has commanded must never change. Sometimes, the old forms are just what we need. We need wisdom to know when to shift gears in response to shifts in language, technology, and style. Not everything new is good or effective. But, our default is too often to cling to the archaic and seek to move people back in time culturally rather press forward to the culture of heaven.
Basking Ridge’s oak is gone. But there is a future. What remains on the property is a young oak about twenty feet tall that grew from an acorn of the historic tree. It is not as glorious at present as its archaic ancestor once was, but it is serving far more gloriously today than that which has faded away. Children will seek shade beneath its branches as it stretches its branches heavenward in the years to come. Hopefully, they will appreciate the glory of the old tree, but they will look for refreshment beneath the new. With them, let’s appreciate our past, but let go of the archaic and embrace an eschatology of hope in Jesus Christ by embracing that which lives today.