My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
Declining attendance. Rising disbelief. Vacant churches. Deficit spending. Lack of leaders. Harsh divisions. Loss of power. Increasing hostility. Those descriptions fit the experience of many in the post-Christendom western world. And for some, the future of the western church looks grim with no hope of returning to the glory days of the past.
I just finished my World and Writings of John Wesley course and submitted final grades. But even though I am formally done with teaching the course, I can’t stop thinking about a sermon John Wesley preached entitled “Of Former Times” based on Ecclesiastes 7:10.: “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (NIV)
What keeps me thinking about Wesley’s sermon is that I think it speaks to the sadness and lamenting of some over the change in the western churches’ fortunes over the past few generations. Much has changed, and it is easy and perhaps even natural to lament when comparing the present state of “ichabod” with the supposed “glorious past.” But what does Wesley say to us in this sermon when tempted to do so? Two things of note:
Wesley was critical of those who portrayed the past as some idyllic time, a wonderful golden age of justice, growth, prosperity, piety, and harmony. He argued that a quick survey of history would show that the past was far from an ideal time, and that the historical record is filled with horrors that should shatter any illusions of the past being a “golden age.” As he said: “But let us endeavour, without prejudice or prepossession, to take a view of the whole affair. And, upon cool and impartial consideration, it will appear that the former days were not better than these.”
Those are important words for us to remember – for while we may lament what has been lost, we need to avoid creating a myth of a golden past. Not only is such a myth wrong (for it did not exist), but it is also harmful in that it leads us to crave something that is not attainable (and that is a recipe for despair). It also blinds us to the working of God in the present.
Wesley went on to argue that the present age was not as bad as critics claimed. In fact, God was at work doing mighty acts. Stated simply, one need not despair for great things were happening if people would just open their eyes. He said: “Shall we now say, ‘The former days were better than these’ God forbid we should be so unwise and so unthankful! Nay, rather let us praise him all the day long; for he hath dealt bountifully with us. No ‘former time,’ since the Apostles left the earth, has been better than the present…We are not born out of due time, but in the day of his power, - a day of glorious salvation, wherein he is hastening to renew the whole race of mankind in righteousness and true holiness. How bright hath the Sun of Righteousness already shone on various parts of the earth! And how many gracious showers has he already poured down upon his inheritance!”
Again, important words for us to remember in the western world. There are difficulties living in a post-Christendom era. But Wesley reminds us that God is still at work, and, as the growth of the church in the global south indicates, the church in some parts of the world is booming. And, if we look closely, even in the western world there are signs of life. God is at work now, not just in former times.
For a copy of the sermon, see http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-102-of-former-times/