Yesterday I argued that an inordinate desire for the new, coupled with a growing abandonment of the historically received faith, is now having hugely negative consequences in many Protestant mainline churches. We must again be reminded that, "She who marries the spirit of the age becomes a widow in the next generation." What is called for is a reformation, a return to the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” This is not a call to modern fundamentalism but a call to a robust, confessional faith that shares in the recovery of three elements of our faith and practice. But how shall we go about this recovery? I answer that in order to reform the church in our time we need to recover at least three core commitments.
First, we need a return to the Holy Scriptures as authoritative in all matters of faith and practice. Many people and churches must be re-introduced to the Jesus of the New Testament as well as the high doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon. We must go back, back to a more robust, confessional understanding of Christ and our faith.
I have become thoroughly convinced, through firsthand experience in various types of churches, that most of the problems we now face result from a sad and appalling ignorance of the Bible. Church leaders are able to promote non-biblical teachings and practices because the people did not know the Bible.
The careful study of the Bible must never be taken for granted, even in the most conservative churches. Many conservative churches do not read the Scriptures in public worship. And multitudes of pastors do not know how to properly preach the Scriptures. Liturgical churches have a huge advantage if they follow the church calendar. (This doesn’t stop them from running headlong into error, however.) The calendar leads a church to worship God in real time through the life of Jesus, from birth to Ascension, each year. Such churches, however, must also follow a solid plan for daily Bible reading that takes their members through the Bible each year. But too few encourage or practice it faithfully. Services in all churches, liturgical or otherwise, should be composed of rich, textured biblical prayers and expressions. We refuse to turn what happens in front of a congregation into a performance on the stage, however we practice our common worship. Even the most biblically evangelical churches need to take care about these matters lest they assume too much about their people and their real knowledge of Scripture.
The second core commitment that is needed more than ever is a return to prayer, especially corporate and congregational prayer. We cannot merely assume prayer in private and not make it a major public concern. Prayer is essential to the Christian life and it is the life and breath of a living, healthy Christian church. I am amazed at how much conservative churches talk about prayer but how little actually goes on in their services and meetings.
Further, we must understand that the church's life of corporate prayer is centered in the Lord's Supper. It is a sign of health that more and more churches are celebrating the Lord’s Supper more and more often with more and more healthy emphasis upon its importance for faith. The life of prayer is continued in private devotion and family gatherings. These practices should incorporate the praying of the Psalms, consistent and even consecutive Bible reading and the use of written prayers from the whole church. The ancient practice of daily hours of prayer are perpetuated in some traditions and are being recovered in some contexts where they have either never been present or they are being recovered. And services of morning and evening prayer should also be taught and practiced. Most Christians I meet do not have daily communion with Christ because they do not really pray. We must encourage, and teach, a life of prayer if we want to reform the church biblically.
Third, we need to recover a proper emphasis upon tradition. Some Christians are accused of being stuck in the past, especially by progressive and more liberal Christians. I believe the much greater danger is an uncritical acceptance of new teachings and practices that undermine the historic faith itself. We need what my friend, the late Robert Webber, called “ancient-future faith.” It is right to lean into the future and to prepare for what the Spirit will do. But the Spirit does not lead us to abandon the historic faith in the process. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever" (Hebrews 13:8). One has said, “The faith of the past is the wave of the future.” I believe those Christians, and churches, that know the past and have a fresh anticipation of what the future holds, because of the great and abundant promises of God, will be most ready to live faithfully in the next generation. The prophet Jeremiah, "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls" (Jeremiah 6:16).
I am discouraged when I look around at the destruction being brought upon the church by radically progressive measures regarding same-sex practice. But I am encouraged when I look at the church throughout the world. And I am encouraged by the growing number of younger Christians who see the need for a truly “ancient-future” faith perspective. May their number grow and may the conversation now begun hoist our sails so we might catch the wind of God that is clearly blowing throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. Christendom may be in its death throes but the church of Jesus Christ across the globe is anything but dead or dying.