Recently Lynda and myself have been sorting through the archives. We have found so much stuff! Old photographs, school reports, diaries etc. And it’s been a real dilemma knowing what to keep. We haven’t room to keep everything. But we want to keep some memory of the past. I am sure when we go through what’s left we will wonder why we kept some things and threw away others.
Churches, I believe, face a similar kind of issue. There are some churches which cling very rigidly to the past, where any change is seen as a threat and a challenge. There are others which simply get rid of any tradition and try to reinvent themselves from scratch. I’ve always tried to get a balance between the two extremes, but I suspect there is never a completely right and wrong answer to the question of what to keep and what to let go of, along the way.
On a practical level, I never cease to be amazed at just how much stuff a church can accumulate in a very short space of time. If we ever have to clear St Barnabas, then I think we will be surprised just how many things we have gathered over the past 13 years. Again, knowing what to keep and what to let go will involve some difficult decisions.
Are there any Biblical principles to help us? In the Old Testament the people of Israel were given detailed instructions about the furnishings they should make for the tabernacle which they carried about with them before they entered the promised land. When the temple was built, equally detailed instructions were given about how this was to be equipped, as a reminder that God had chosen to make his dwelling right there among His people.
The problem with the Israelites was that too often these furnishings became an end in themselves. So, for example, they carried the ark into battle as if it were just another national god (1 Samuel 4). The bronze snake Moses made for the Israelites’ healing became an idol worshipped in its own right (2 Kings 18:4). Why was this? Because they neglected the most precious thing of all they were supposed to carry around with them – the word of the Lord. By the time of King Josiah the book of the Law had been completely forgotten, and was only discovered when workmen were busy renovating the temple (2 Kings 22).
In New Testament times the church did not have any physical buildings. But the first believers, aware of the history of Israel, were conscious the one thing they needed to do was to pass on the word of the Lord faithfully from one generation to the next. So the apostle Paul was careful to pass on the essentials of the gospel as he had himself received it to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:3). His concern for his “son” in the faith, Timothy, was that he would guard the deposit of the teaching entrusted to him and pass it on to reliable witnesses (2 Timothy 1:14, 2:2).
No doubt as churches became established, the question of physical buildings and their furnishings became a live topic. But it seems to me that as we go forward, it is so important we remember the priority of passing on the word of God. Churches as institutions are very good at investing resources to preserve the fabric of their buildings. But they are only of importance in as far as they tell the story of the faith passed on from one generation to the next. And if there is no passing on of the faith, the church simply becomes a museum and a tourist attraction.
We need to remember this particularly at this time when nationally the Church of England is under pressure to alter the faith delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3), as issues of human sexuality are being debated at the highest level. I love the history and the sense of mystery found in our churches, but the reason why our churches have lasted from generation to generation is that they have heeded the teaching passed on by Jesus to Paul to Timothy to reliable witnesses and ultimately to us.
I still haven’t solved the issue of what to keep and not to keep. That remains a tough one to answer. I rather like the picture of me aged 5, though!