The Past vs Future Debate in the Church

One of the great debates within sports is what would a historically great team or a historically great player do in competition with a modern day great team or modern day great player? How would teams or players of different eras compete against each other? How would the Pittsburg Steelers of the 1970s or the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s do agains the New England Patriots of the 2000s? How would the 1996 Chicago Bulls do in a seven game series against this year’s Golden State Warriors? How would Sandy Koufax pitch against the best of today’s MLB hitters?

Most of these debates are just what sports fans do to argue with one another but some of them go to a deeper level of how should the advancements of modern technology and training relate to the history of each sport. Much of the time, it is the historical team or player who feels they could win against their modern counterparts.


Roubaix - France - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Tony Martin (Germany / Team Etixx - Quick Step) - Tom Boonen (Belgium / Team Etixx - Quick Step) - Robert Wagner (Germany / Team LottoNL - Jumbo) pictured during Paris - Roubaix 2016 World Tour Cycling race - photo Marketa/Navratilova/Cor Vos © 2015

Top: Paris-Roubaix from the 1970s; Botton: Paris-Roubaix, 2016.

On Sunday one of the oldest cycling races was held: Paris-Roubaix. First organized in 1896, there have been 114 runnings of the race- stopping only during World War I and World War II. What makes Paris-Roubaix so unique is that during the race, riders must traverse 27 sections of cobbled-stone roads. These roads date back to the time of Napoleon. The first editions of the race rode exclusively on the cobbled roads (because that’s all there were) and left competitors muddy from the roads and bloody from crashes.

While the cyclists have gotten faster and technology has many times eclipsed the technology of the bikes of 1896, each rider feels a connection to the riders who have gone before as they battle and race over some of the same roads that have been used for 120 years. For me, the beauty of the race is the way the organizers and riders of Paris-Roubaix have effectively meshed the history of the race with the pinnacle of modern technology.

In my last post, I mentioned that one thing Millennials desire from the church is to be connected to the past, as well as, the future. When the church holds the past vs. future debate, many times it sounds like the debate between the 1970s Steelers and the 2000 Patriots. In a 2015 interview, “Mean” Joe Greene from the 1970s Steelers said that what today’s players do is “wrestling” while in his era they brought “toughness and mayhem.” Therefore, he said he would have a hard time playing in today’s NFL. In these debates there stands an irreconcilable conflict between the past and the future. We all know that, on a whole, football players are bigger, stronger and faster now then in 1970s but historically great players believe that their era was better.

When the church looks at the past vs. future debate in the way mentioned above it creates a division between those who identify with one era versus those who identify with another. This division emerges from a limited perspective from one side and ultimately to frustration on the other side, because it is impossible to return to a previous era. To go back to our football analogy, fans of the 2000 Patriots never saw the 1970s Steelers play and there is never going to be a way to see the 1970s Steelers, in their prime, play against a team from the modern era in their prime.

So what is the solution?

The church needs to embrace past and future in a similar way to the Paris-Roubaix bicycle race. There must be a way to keep the connection to the past while recognizing and embracing the good things of modern church culture. When it comes to the Christian faith, Millennials have a desire to know and understand that they represent a continuation of a tradition that spans over two-thousand years (the Jewish roots of Christianity go back farther than that) and crosses over many cultural boundaries- even if they are a part of a church with cutting edge media, music and technology. I’m not the first to make this case for an ancient-modern version of Christianity for the church today but I want to quickly suggest three easy things churches and church leaders can do to move toward this ancient-modern vision.

  1. For every modern example, use an ancient example. This suggestion is for pastors and teachers. Instead of having all your quotes from modern authors, theologians or pastors, use quotes and examples from ancient theologians and pastors. Also use quotes from theologians, authors and pastors from different cultures- from Africa, Asia or Latin America.
  2. Explain things. Take time during worship gatherings to briefly explain why aspects of worship are done the way they are done. Why sing songs? Why kneel at a certain time? Why do you do Communion a certain way in your tradition? Why do you do baptism  a certain way in your tradition? In most cases there are historical reasons for these traditions and if your church is going to keep using the traditions then they need to explained.
  3. Use the calendar. For centuries the church has used the calendar to guide it’s worship. It’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel, as the saying goes. There is something special about having Christians from across the globe and across traditions reflecting on the same thing that generations of Christians have also reflected upon.

The past vs. future debate within the church shouldn’t be like a theoretical game between sports teams of different eras. It could be that embracing an ancient-modern approach could re-engage a generation to the church.

One response to “The Past vs Future Debate in the Church

  1. Pingback: Millennials, We Need to Help Close the Gap | ___(untitled)___:

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