Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set. Proverbs 22:28
It is my belief that one of the most significant battles in the church today (perhaps second only to the Calvinism wars), is the divergence in attitude, outlook and approach to ministry between us old fogeys and you young whippersnappers. The older, more traditional, more established folks tend to view the youngsters as half-cocked, wild-eyed radicals and the youngsters tend to view us as hidebound, tradition-mired, stick-in-the-muds.
Perhaps it has always been this way. It has been a long time (32 years) since this 23-year-old kid walked the aisle to receive my M.Div from Southwestern Seminary. I was brimming with self-confidence and though I would have never admitted it out loud, I wondered deep inside how the Christian world had survived 1950 years prior to my arrival on the scene. I often disdained my elders, except for those I venerated – probably in an unhealthy way – and saw myself as God’s spiritual mechanic to fix the mistakes the previous generations had made.
I am exaggerating a little to make my point, but I think that young people have always tended to view their elders in a negative light and in their youthful idealism they come on the scene with passion and power to fix what is broken, to repair the damage done by previous generations.
But things have changed today and blogging has a lot to do with that. Blogging allows the more idealistic, even strident youthful voices to have a greater prominence. In the 80s, those young voices did not really have a platform to air their opinions, but now they can be heard nationally. That is a good thing in some ways, but it can also be a problem.
I am so glad blogging did not exist when I was 25. I’d have opened my big, fat mouth and said some things that would make ol’ fogey Dave cringe today. I recently went back through some old posts and old conversations and saw some of what I said a few years ago – and that was when I was around 50! I think back to some of the obnoxious arguments I had in my college years and I am glad they are not permanently available in cache somewhere. I’d have to change my name and move to Zimbabwe in shame!
I do not want to disdain youngsters as I once disdained my elders. And it is not my purpose to say that we old codgers are always right and you young whippersnappers should shut up and follow our lead. I don’t believe that. In fact, I admire much that you do. I am impressed by your zeal and conviction. I envy your energy and passion. In many ways, I think the young Baptist pastors of today are better grounded theologically, more committed to expositional preaching, more intentional about integrating the gospel into everything we do, that the average pastor was in my day.
I am not anti-whippersnapper!
But I do wish to request that you youngsters think through some truths and perhaps inculcate the admonition of Proverbs 22:28, that you learn to respect the ancient landmarks that your elders have left.
Respecting the Ancient Markers (Proverbs 22:28)
This verse is not a call to mindless traditionalism, though it has been interpreted that way. In fact, I’ve spent my ministry in traditional churches telling them not to be mindlessly traditional. This verse is not a demand that we resist change. In fact, last night in my sermon from Acts 11 and 12 I pointed out the changes in the early church – radical changes. It went from being an all-Jewish church to a largely Gentile church, from a Jerusalem enclave to a worldwide enterprise – all in the space of about 35 years. Change was quick and forceful, and every change brought an increase in the proclamation of the gospel. Churches must change or they will die. It is inevitable.
And the passion of you youngsters reminds us that change is not bad. We do get stuck in our ways, digging our ruts deeper and deeper as we fulfill our call to ministry. I cannot tell you how often I have heard a variation of the “If we just did things the way we did them in the 50s and 60s, we would see the results that we saw in the 50s and 60s.” I have heard that from pastors, from bloggers, and from members of my churches. It is a decidedly unwise attitude, in my opinion. I am not saying that things used to be good and now they are bad and all we have to do to go forward is to go backward.
I do not believe that Proverbs 22:28 is saying that we cannot change, though it is often used to buttress that kind of traditionalism. The meaning can best be understood as you look at the landmark principle in the OT. When God did something powerful, the people of God would raise some kind of memorial or landmark so that the great deeds of God would be remembered in Israel. God did some magnificent things and God’s people built monuments to remember them.
The proverb is advocating that we remember the wondrous works of God in the past, even as we embrace the changes necessary in the future.
I do not believe that the solution to our current ills is to simply go back to the way things were in the 50s and 60s or to hold on to the past. But I want you young whippersnappers to realize something – God did some marvelous things in the 50s and 60s. There were some great things going on in Baptist churches in the 50s and 60s. There gospel-centered people doing gospel-centered ministry in gospel-centered churches. We didn’t articulate these things the same as we do now, but people were gospel-centered nonetheless. It is not fair or right when people (perhaps inadvertently) act as if the churches I grew up in were gospel deserts full of Pharisaical Christianity. It just ain’t so!
A Comment by a Friend
A month or so ago, I saw a comment by a young friend of mine. I can’t remember the exact topic of debate, but I remember the tone and force of his comment very clearly. This is Living Bible version of his comment – a paraphrase, not a quote.
“Back in the previous generation, the gospel was muddled and legalism ruled the day, but now we are restoring the gospel, rooting out legalism, and building a church that is superior to the one you guys grew up in. We are fixing what you broke.”
He seemed to believe that his generation was sent by God to correct the inadequacies, inefficiencies, and errors of my generation. I do not believe he meant his comment to be nearly as offensive and arrogant as it came out – I think it just represented his heart. He viewed the church of my youth with gospel disdain and believed that it was the duty of his generation to repair what we broke.
That comment bothered me a little, but it also reminded me of my arrogant attitude at his age! In 35 years, I imagine that this friend will be hearing from a young whippersnapper whose parents have not even met today who will be telling him that his generation is here to correct the failures of my friend’s generation. It is a natural cycle.
Some Ancient Markers
There were some really good things, admirable and noble thing, that marked the church of my youth. There are some things worth emulating today.
1) Loyalty and faithfulness.
That was just part of the time. People got a job and worked for 40 years for one company, then retired. They lived in a house and a city. It was a stable time. And there was a fidelity among those people, an institutional loyalty. They had the opposite of the consumeristic outlook that so often rtoday. They devoted themselves to God, to the church and served it faithfully.
I notice something in Iowa in those 9 months a year when the weather is bad. Very often, on bad weather days, our younger families stay home. But the elderly folks – those who probably ought not be out in ice and snow – they still show up. Sunday morning is church time and that is what you do! For many of our younger families, church is what you do when there is no family visiting or sports tournaments or weekend getaways.
I understand that there are downsides to this loyalty – a rigidity of mind, a trust in institutions and not God’s Spirit, etc – but there is a sense of loyalty and fidelity in my father’s generation that is not often present in my children’s generation.
2) A Sense of Christian Propriety
Again, this positive can often become a negative, but the Christians of my childhood had a sense that there was a lifestyle incumbent on those who were saved by God’s grace. I am well aware that the pendulum swung too far and some of the legalistic rules of the church of 50s just seem silly today. But we understood that we couldn’t live like the world.
Again, it is a fair criticism that at times this sense of holiness devolved into adherence to extrabiblical rules. But among some of the younger Christians today I see an almost total disregard for standards of holiness; a fear that holiness is contrary to grace or that it leads necessarily to legalism. Perhaps we need to redefine the Christian lifestyle along biblical lines, but it must not be abandoned.
3) A Commitment to Biblical Truth
No generation has ever been perfect in its obedience to Scripture, but the churches I grew up in were absolutely and unequivocally committed to the absolutely truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible.
4) A Love for the Gospel and Evangelism
The idea my friend expressed – that the older generation did not understand or live out the gospel – is simply not true. They loved the gospel.
My point is not that the church of yesterday was better than the church of today. I’m arguing against the assumption many younger folks make that the church of today is so much superior to the church of yesterday. The churches I grew up in had some real problems, but there was real Christianity being practiced by real Christians. The world has changed and the church has to change with it.
But, my young friends, show some respect for the ancient markers. The church of Baptists past did some pretty good things in the cause of Christ. It made some mistakes as well – some big ones. The church of Baptists present is doing some things well and is also making some big mistakes. The church of Baptists future will (hopefully) do some things well and will also fail to be perfect.
Honor the past and build on it, young whippersnapper!