I was struck this morning by a comment from Angus Kennedy in a review of a new history of American higher education by Andrew Delbanco. Higher education has lost its way, Dr. Delbanco argues, and it is stuck in an existential crisis of the moment, not knowing where to go from here.
America’s colleges and universities have lost sight of the past and are enslaved to a future they cannot fully predict. This makes maximizing the present the all-consuming motif of the higher education experience, with the result that much of contemporary higher education is an exercise in gratifying whatever may be the intellectual and social whims of the moment. As Mr. Kennedy puts it, “When the trend is towards seeing the past as dead and gone, and everything must be geared to what we are told the future demands, the sad result is that we not only become stuck in the present but can make no sense of it.”
I can’t think of a better way of describing the experience of the contemporary Church. Many of today’s churches have rejected everything about their past – doctrine, liturgy, structure, mission. The past is “dead and gone”; what good is to us today? Instead, churches focus on gratifying the changeable hopes and aspirations of a rootless generation. The result is continuous change and adaptation to a culture in constant flux, an endless guessing-game of what to do next in order to attract and keep the rising generation.
Today’s churches are stuck in the ever-changing present. What they may not be noticing is that their numbers and influence are declining annually, even as they struggle to make the next big adjustment that is sure to enable them to “grow.”
The Scriptures teach that we can only know the full and abundant life God has for us by living in three directions at the same time: grounded in the past, straining toward the future, and making the most of every present opportunity. The Christian movement flourishes best when it rests in the promises of God and focuses on the prospect of the Kingdom, so that it lives in the present by faith in the power and purposes of God.
We are a covenant people, and the essence of God’s Covenant with us is promise. God has extended to us “precious and very great promises”, Peter explains (2 Pet. 1.4), and these are the means whereby He draws us into communion with Himself and participation in His agenda of redemption and renewal. We need to understand these promises and to learn how our forebears in the faith have sought and attained them. The promises of God root us in His faithful Word and establish us on tracks and paths previous generations have traveled in glorifying the Lord in all things. If we do not know the promises of God or how our forebears have pursued and realized these, how will we know where to begin our pursuit of God’s Kingdom each day?
God’s promises mark out the path toward His Kingdom – that reign of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit which we are to seek as our first priority every moment of every day (Rom. 14.17, 18; Matt. 6.33). The promises teach us how to think about the prospect of God’s Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven, what the Kingdom will look like in our lives, churches, culture, and times as it unfolds irresistibly in the days to come. By projecting the promises into our present situation and future prospects, we chart a course for seeking the Kingdom that will enable us to live each moment for the redeeming and renewing purposes of God.
Thus, all our present moments – rooted in God’s promises and straining toward the prospect of the Kingdom – can be redeemed for the service of our Lord Jesus Christ. We take our place in the continuing progress of the Kingdom and the work of the Church, as ambassadors of that Kingdom, in making all things new.
We become “stuck in the present” when we repudiate the past as merely “traditional” or “irrelevant” and focus on a future rooted only in our vain and finite imaginations. If we have no sense of our past – of what God has promised and how our forebears understood that – then we’ll be left to our whims and the spirit of the age to guide us in envisioning a better tomorrow. And we’ll be ever adjusting our present aspirations and experience according to our changing sense of what we really want in life. We’ll be running in place rather than running the race God has set before us.
It is this sense of unsettledness, this lack of reliable direction and meaningful substance for the present, that is causing many people to leave the church. We keep tweaking the worship, building new facilities, hiring more staff, and running all the latest programs. Meanwhile, people gaze at their watches and wonder what else they might be doing this Sunday morning.
Learn the promises of God. Seek the Kingdom. Make the most of every daily opportunity for attaining the former and advancing the latter. Live in the promises, unto the prospect of the Kingdom, every present moment of your life.
This is the Christian’s true and glorious calling.
Related texts: Genesis 12.1-3; Isaiah 9.6, 7; Ephesians 5.15-17
A conversation starter: “Do you sometimes feel as though your life is stuck in a perpetual present?”
T. M. Moore, Principal