What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
I went to a conference last week in Williamsburg on generational differences, namely, it was on the “YP” movement (young professionals), and how to engage the next generation in the workplace. One of the interesting things I re-learned was that on a societal level, generations tend to repeat themselves (good thing I remember what I learned with my sociology minor in college). Of course there are always exceptions to the rule on an individual level, but as a whole, there is a “four generational pulse” – generations repeat themselves about every fourth generation.
I haven’t seen this research explicitly applied to church movements and trends, but it is alluded to in several places, including David F. Wells’ The Courage to be Protestant and some sources I came across while writing my megachurch and modernity paper last semester. For example, the current church trend perpetuated by the Millennial generation (and late Generation X-ers) is the emergent movement. While emergents (purposely) make their movement easier to define in terms of what it isn’t rather than what it is, it has been self-labeled “postconservative” and “postevangelical.” In other words, it’s the shape of the new liberalism. But like the writer of Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun, and there is no remembrance of former things.
Many emergents are going back to the writings of the liberals and postliberals, and have thus revamped their view of God and Scripture. However, as Wells says, “they have taken up this fad as if it were the most current, cutting-edge expression in contemporary thought, though in the academic world it has already disappeared.” A characteristic of the emergents is that they typically lack an historical perspective – if they didn’t, they would see the similarities between their faith and that of past liberals that men like J. Gresham Machen so vehemently defended against.
Further, generational research (and common sense observations) show that the baby boom generation is typically emotional, experiential, idealistic, and influenced heavily by business practices. These attitudes manifest in the church as the megachurch/church marketing movement popularized by Willow Creek, et al. I haven’t specifically seen this in research yet (though Michael Horton frequently hints at it), but perhaps the baby boom generation’s church ideals are repeats of Charles Finney and the overly emotional, numbers-driven revivalist generation? There is about a four-generation gap in between the two.
Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. It’s like the writer of Ecclesiastes was writing with the church of the 21st century in mind! A proper understanding of church history is essential to a right “method” of “doing church” – neither surveys and church marketing tactics nor rejecting “traditional” methods of church is the answer. Even more important than a proper view of church history is a right view of God. While church trends change with secular culture and “new” challenges always appear, God’s being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth are infinite, eternal, and unchangeable (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 4).
Further, God has revealed himself in the words of Scripture, to which we must cling – and not just at face value or lip service. The solution to the divide between church and culture is not to make church look more like the culture around it, to adopt a business marketing model to woo attendees, nor is it to reject absolute truth in favor of a “conversation.” Instead, it is to go back to an historical, Scriptural, and often counter-cultural view of God, salvation, and the church found beautifully encompassed in the five solas of the Reformation:
“In Scripture alone is God’s authoritative truth found, in Christ alone is salvation found, it is by grace alone that we are saved, and this salvation is received through faith alone. Only after each of these affirmations is made can we say that salvation from start to finish is to the glory of God alone. These affirmations do not stand simply as solitary, disconnected sentinels, but they are the key points in an integrated, whole understanding of biblical truth…
“This is what I think…carries in it the best help for the evangelical world in its wounded and declining state today. I do not know what the evangelical future will be, but I am certain evangelicalism has no good future unless it finds this kind of direction again. This will take some courage. The key to the future is not the capitulation that we see in both the marketers and the emergents. It is courage. The courage to be faithful to what Christianity in its biblical forms has always stood for across the ages.” (Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, p. 21)