Why Does Historical Knowledge Breed Effective Change?
Updated: May 11
As an April Fools’ gag a few years ago NPR published the following article:
As you might imagine, the “comments” section was soon filled with folks who wished to opine about why America doesn’t read anymore.
Likewise, every rising generation in the church wishes to offer critiques, often harsh critiques, of the Christians that precede them, even as they increasingly sound like the fools in the “comments” section who haven’t even read the story. A rebuke from David McCullough is fitting, "All problems have histories and the wisest route to a successful solution to nearly any problem begins with understanding its history. Indeed, almost any attempt to solve a problem without an understanding of its history is to court failure."
One of the benefits to knowing church history is it provides a validating context that makes criticism sound less like a whining child in the backseat and more like an experienced navigator riding shotgun. Without the perspective of church history, the criticism of the rising generation sounds either like a mere hatchet man who blindly chops away at the status quo or a mere maintenance man who blindly perpetuates it.
The fuller quote from George Santayana's famous maxim needs an audience, for in it he explains why those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvements: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience."
There is no perfect church and there is no perfect generation of Christians. The church must be always reforming and the rising generation will almost always be the catalyst for reform. But effective criticism that leads to effective change starts by looking backward, not forward. If the church wishes to fulfill the Great Commission of going and making disciples, two critical questions require an answer: (1) How does one become a Christian? (2) What is a Christian?
Both of those questions are practically unanswerable without knowledge of the culture of conversionism and the history of the altar call. That is why my book, The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call is a must-read for the rising generation of Christians who wish to participate in the urgent reforming of the church.
David McCullough, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017), 20.
George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense (Dover, 1980).
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