What Past?


I play drums on the worship team at my church. It's no stretch to say that you'd be hard pressed to find drums in a church sanctuary before 1970, but that's a whole 'nother post.

Having been involved in church music for years, I know a bit about the mindset of worship musicians. Universally, these folks honestly love using their musical talents for the Lord and for the edification of others. And while you do encounter a few moody introverts, my experience is that folks on worship teams are some of the most honest and open people you'll find in a church.

So it's always been odd for me to hear their reactions when I bring up the issue of playing some old hymns now and then and not the same praise and worship-style music we're trapped in. The response 99% of the time: "Yeah, wouldn't that be great? I sure miss singing those old hymns."

And yet we never get around to playing them. It's like those hymns are from a distant past so dusty that to even trot one out would cloud the gleaming modern edifice we call "The 21st Century Church."

Now some of you are saying that this is not your church. Yours sings those hymns with gusto. Fine. But somewhere in your church a paradigm shift occurred that relegated anything from the Christianity that existed before 1860 to the dark recesses of history, regardless of whether you know who Isaac Watts is or not.No Augustines I've yet to encounter an Evangelical church that doesn't seem to live solely in the moment.

Too many churches today act as if the Church sprang into existence after the Civil War. Eighteen and a half centuries flew by and with the exception of a couple of crusty old Europeans with names like Luther, Calvin, and Knox, Christianity didn't actually exist. Heck, history didn't actually exist, right?

One of the most tortured experiences I ever had in a Third Wave church was when the pastor of the one I was attending was given a portion of the text of Isaiah that was unearthed in the Middle East. It was more than a thousand years old. The group presenting it was tickled pink about their gift, but despite the fact that nearly three thousand people sat packed in the church, I would suggest that maybe ten folks in the seats weren't intellectually yawning. "So what?" would be the collective mantra.

I'd like to know when the American Church put a gun to the head of the Ancient Church and pulled the trigger. What happened that we got so arrogant and self-centered that we looked back on all those Christians who came before us, folks who often went to the flames for their faith, and said, "I'll take a pass, thank you," without considering the ramifications of that stance?

The simple truth about every pitched doctrinal battle now erupting in numerous denominations of Evangelical and Mainline Christianity is that the furor would cease to even be a whimper if we gave credence to what Christians a thousand years ago were saying. The Emerging Church, Open Theism, you name it, someone dealt with it a long, long time ago. But post-Enlightenment, it seems that our minds are stuck on our perceived superiority to what those Dark Ages savages thought.

I'd like to make an exceedingly controversial statement. It's not proffered in most genteel circles because some people would consider it borderline racist or sexist. At the risk of losing readers, I'm going to say it anyway. Just hear me out and think past the rhetoric.

I believe that one of the reasons that many American Christians today have rejected pre-Civil War Christianity as having anything useful to say to us today is because of slavery. The belief here is that if we got the slavery issue wrong back in those days, what else did we get wrong? If there were Christians in those days that thought it was okay to own slaves, then obviously folks back then weren't as smart as we are.

The same goes for how some might perceive women as being treated before that war. Afterwards, we got women's suffrage, their leadership in the temperance movements, and women moving into the workplace. But before that there was only ignorance.

Those two issues (and some others, like the Crusades), I believe led today's Christians down a dark path of swearing fealty to anti-traditionalism. Trying to rationalize older Christian positions on topics that make us queasy have led us to abandon en masse any previous age that did look like our more "enlightened" one.

No one is advocating a return of slavery! But our collective guilt about those less enlightened days must not force us to abandon everything associated with them, particularly the solid theology espoused by spirit-filled men and women of God who lived prior to women's suffrage and the Emancipation Proclamation. Many of those older theologians advocated for greater roles for women in society and the church or were staunchly anti-slavery—but we're just not willing to read them, so they cease to exist.

We cannot live believing that we who comprise the Church in America are the pinnacle of Christian thought. Millions have gone before us blessed of God and we are fools to think that we have nothing to learn from them. Their faith then means something for our faith today. It should come as no shock then that the fact we are adrift in so many parts of of the American Church is that we've grown to despise the very history that has made us who we are.

{Image: Woodcut of Augustine of Hippo, artist unknown}

11 thoughts on “What Past?

  1. rev-ed

    I’ll disagree with you, Dan. I think the apathy toward anything pre-Civil War has more to do with a general apathy toward any history. In the church or outside of it, Americans’ knowledge of history is pathetic. I don’t think slavery or any discrimination is at it’s root. More like laziness.

    Perhaps your worship band should work up “Faith of Our Fathers”…

  2. Broken Messenger

    We cannot live believing that we who comprise the Church in America are the pinnacle of Christian thought. Millions have gone before us blessed of God and we are fools to think that we have nothing to learn from them. Their faith then means something for our faith today. It should come as no shock then that the fact we are adrift in so many parts of of the American Church is that we’ve grown to despise the very history that has made us who we are.

    Amen Dan! I can’t tell you how many strange looks I’ve received over the past few years about my excitment over reading a Tozer (only departed some 52 years ago) or Lewis, let alone Spurgeon, Luther or Augustine. We have gotten to be incredibly arrogant in the church and are quick to dismiss the hard work of those sincere, inspired theologians of yesteryear – hymns included, of course. You sir, have yet again beaten me to another topic of discussion for my own blog. So much the better, as you articulated my own position very well here. Thank you.


  3. Ted Gossard

    In leaving the old behind, too often these churches lack older folks. We need them (I’m not that far from joining them myself, as far as that goes). Yet they are often leaving. Recently heard them say that they don’t mind the new, they just want some of the old.

    It is a great loss not to have the older folks with us. It is important for us to have their input. And they need us as well in their lives. A great loss! (I’ve seen it firsthand).

  4. Caleb W

    Well, I’m glad that in my experience there isn’t such a historical amnesia over here in Britain, or at least not universally so. My church, Mackintosh Evangelical in Cardiff, has a generally good mix of older and modern songs, and that’s something I really appreciate. There are quite a few churches that seem to go to one or the other – when looking for a church here in Cardiff I visited both extremes – all hymns, and all modern worship songs, both of which are really missing out. (By the way, I’m pretty sure that “evangelical” means something slightly different on the two sides of the Atlantic, though I’m not quite sure of the difference.).

    That historical amnesia is present in places here, and I see that it’s something to guard against the spread of. “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”, as the old saying goes.

  5. I disagree with you about the pre/post Civil war issue. But I heartily agree with you about the singing of Hymns.

    I really believe that the reason many of the modern churches now reject the Ancient churches was when the Pentecostals / Charismatics got entrenched into the ‘new thing’ theology . I believe that we got so obsessed with the ‘new thing’ that we wanted it to leave our mark on Christianity and make ourselves famous and get glory instead of God getting all the glory.

    Very thought provoking article

  6. Pilgrim


    I believe it has less to do with active anti-traditionalism than you. Your series on the industrial revolution provides a more reasonable explanation. People have not rejected traditionalism so much as become separated from its influence. I don’t think many Christians in the West look back much further than the introduction of the Apple computer in the late 70s. Technology not only made occupations specialized but it laid the groundwork for the specialization of relationships as well. The internet all but guaranteed that traditionalism and history would be thrown on the ash heap. It is not surprising that it invaded the Church as well. The results are emerging all around us. I believe it will take a lot of prayer and wisdom by the saints to avoid another era of ascetic isolation. The church survived it once and in some ways benefited from the desert monks but with today’s instant communication the outcome will obviously be unpredictable.


  7. burttd

    I think that the general “spirit of the age” in modernism – a sense that all traditions are to be rejected except insofar as they are justifiable by reasoning from “eternal principles” – got assumed by evangelicalism almost unconsciously. Even arguments among conservative evangelicals tend to use appeals to prior holders of the beliefs in question only as a secondary argument, to augment the reasoning from eternal principles (i.e. the prooftexts).

  8. Mr. Incredulous

    Gotta disgree most emphatically with you Dan on two things. First, It’s not that the modern church “snubs” its heritage. It’s just that in its delving into the deepest depths of relativism, it can’t relate to the “old church.” And though many would debate me on the relativism point, their argument is in vain. It’s undeniably true. The proof is in the lack of spiritual fruit that Christians try to force-feed the world.
    My second point is this: traditionalism has nothing to do with how you do things. It has everything to do with core values. Most mainline denominations are more traditional today than they ever were. In some ways that’s good, in others, not so good. Again, the proof is in the fruit.
    BTW, I was a worship team member/ leader as well, playing bass for over 10 years. Let me tell you, it’s quite difficult to add bass riffs to “The Old Rugged Cross” and “O Sacred Head.”
    —G. Ryan

  9. Ted Gossard

    Mr. Incredulous, You may be generally right on your analysis. But shouldn’t there be some give and take within a church? The older folk often can’t relate to the world of the younger folk any better than vice-versa. So why can’t we do a couple of hymns in a traditional manner?

    Dan, I would concur with those who see the difference in generations more in terms of world view difference with their elders, and not the past slavery and women’s pre-sufferage.

  10. All,

    I would offer that the reason history got such a bad name is that too many people wrote it off because of the very mistakes I mentioned. I’ve actually heard people cite slavery and the roles of women as reasons to ignore history. That’s a meme that’s been repeated so often in the last twenty years that it has created the self-fulfilling prophecy I detail here.

    I know folks will disagree. That’s fine.

    Still, the issue is with the Church. I’m not certain that anti-modernism contributed to this or the rise of postmodernism. The Church is behind culture on the postmodernism issue and this has been afflicting the Church for more than thirty years. I think the Jesus People movement, which was not postmodern, helped nudge this anti-past meme along. They were the first generation to fight for feminist and civil rights causes, and those causes led them to jettison history for the reasons I stipulated.

  11. Anonymous

    I’ve yet to encounter an Evangelical church that doesn’t seem to live solely in the moment.
    Before I came to California, I encountered very many Evangelical churches who could NOT live in the moment. Hymns only! NO GUITARS! NO DRUMS! NO INSTRUMENTS AT ALL!

    And even out here, I encountered them.

    As far as hymns go, I love many of the old hymns. Yet, there are many of them where the theology is weak at best.

    I’m a musician, myself, and I enjoy playing music for God. And, given the choice, I’ll play a mix of old and new.

    Yet there is a split that seems unconquerable. Most of the younger folk I’ve met are perfectly willing to sing hymns. But many of the older folk I’ve met are not only not willing to sing newer songs, but are actually openly rebellious against the church’s decision to use newer music in worship.

    And, given those attitudes, what shall I do as a worship leader? Enable rebellion? I don’t think I can do that in good conscience.


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