September 28, 2012
It never ceases to amaze me how much the past sounds like the present. In helpful ways church history provides an informative backdrop, especially when it comes to controversial issues.
A few examples:
- Hymns were rejected at first as a poor substitute for Psalter songs (singing the Psalms)
- John Calvin refused to use an organ because he viewed it as a worldly instrument
- Songs written by Martin Luther were considered too contemporary because they were written to pub tunes
- Radio was called sinful and unfit for ministry use because Satan is the “prince of the power of the air”
- Sunday Schools were originally started as outreach events
Church history helps us realize that people are people in any age. And some issues seem to surface in every age of the church because the universal denominator is the same: people.
But there is a positive side to this phenomenon as well. Sometimes, there are things that we think are novel and new in our present age when they are simply old ideas with a new context. Take, for instance, small groups.
I recently stumbled across a fascinating book written by William Williams (1717-1791) who was a Welsh preacher and leader during the 18th Century revival movement that swept through Wales. Over time he became a forward thinker and organizer of “experience meetings” as a follow-up to the spiritual renewal that was happening in his country. The Experience Meeting: An Introduction to the Welch Societies of the Evangelical Awakening records his philosophy and practice of putting people in small groups for the purpose of spiritual growth and accountability. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), Pastor of the Westminster Chapel in London, was a student of this spiritual movement in Wales. He wrote the following in the introduction to the 1973 publication of William’s work:
“The object of the societies was primarily to provide a fellowship in which the new spiritual life and experience of the people could be safe-guarded and developed. Each member gave an account of God’s dealings with him or her, and reported on any remarkable experience, and also their sins and lapses, and in so doing compared notes with one another in these respects. The emphasis was on daily life and living, the fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil, the problems that arise inevitably in the Christian’s pilgrimage through this world of sin.”
Sound familiar? Amazingly the spiritual needs of people and the means by which they are met have not really changed.
The problems and controversies are the same as well. Listen to how Lloyd-Jones describes the issues that these small groups faced:
“The task of conducting these ‘experience meetings’ obviously called for great wisdom, spiritual insight, tact, and discretion. They could easily degenerate into exhibitionism on the part of extroverts, and lead to scandal as private matters were related involving others. It was in order to obviate such troubles and disasters and to instruct the leaders in this most important work that the Rev. William Williams wrote this little book…”
However, even more remarkable is the diagnosis of the spiritual culture in William’s day that necessitated the small group/experiential meetings. According to Lloyd-Jones, the church was plagued with superficial evangelism which encouraged easy-believism and neglected real conviction of sin and repentance. Sanctification was viewed through a psychological lens which discouraged self-examination. Finally, there was an over-emphasis on intellectual knowledge and a preaching of a social gospel. All of this led the spiritual life of the church to be cold, barren, and absent of power.
Amazingly similar, isn’t it?
Thus, Lloyd-Jones prayed that pastors would read William’s book and employ experience meetings in their churches. He viewed the meetings as a venue for great spiritual renewal and even revival.
“I would particularly urge ministers and pastors to read it, not only because it will prove to be an invaluable help in what is now called counseling of individuals, but also because I would press upon them the importance of introducing such meetings into the life their churches. Much untold blessing would follow.”
Biblical preaching that called people to a conviction of sin and repentance was the hallmark of the Great Awakenings. But it was small groups that kept the fire of revival going – one person, one group at a time.
It helps us to see things through the lens of church history. There are no new problems; just new versions of old ones. And there are not many new solutions. In fact, it is often the case that the best solutions are old ones; the kind that have been tested in the crucible of time. Church history helps us think clearly about the old and the new with the hope that one could repeat the best of the past while leaving behind the worst.