The Lord’s brother, Jude, urged Christians “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The Greek verb translated “delivered” refers to a sacred trust or tradition. Paul described this tradition as he handed it down to the Corinthians: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand. . . . For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Cor. 15:1, 3). Jude used the same language as Paul for receiving the tradition and sending it forward to the future. In this case the things “received” and “handed down” were the central truths of the Christian faith.
Paul also wrote letters to his younger disciple, Timothy, for the purpose of encouraging the next generation to faithfully convey the core Christian tradition into the future. Paul wrote, “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (2 Tim. 3:14). He also said, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). By observing what our spiritual forefathers fought to preserve and pass on, we come to understand and appreciate the need to continue the pattern established by 2 Timothy 2:2. By looking back, evangelicals today can learn how to conserve and convey the timeless message through time-tested methods.
Today the evangelical church is facing numerous serious crises directly related to their inability to make disciples who are passing the faith on to the next generation. To put it bluntly: evangelicals today are dropping the baton but still running the race! According to a 2006 Barna Group study, 40 to 50 percent of kids who were “equipped” in church youth groups walk away from the faith or the church in their college years. Study after study shows that evangelicalism itself is shrinking in America. Mega church and multi-site ministries mask the problem, as far too many of those big box churches grow in number by weakening smaller churches, not by converting the lost or restoring the un-churched. This kind of model of ministry is simply unsustainable. In many respects, American evangelicals are simply failing to pass the faith on to the next generation. Unless this trend is halted, the disaster will be epic.
The incredible challenges we’re facing today aren’t new. Pluralism, cynicism, paganism, immorality, political corruption, war, persecution, social unrest, atheism, skepticism, and me-theism—the early church thrived in that kind of culture, while we’re doing all we can to simply survive. As we look back at the history of the church, the pre-modern, pre-Christian models and methods of evangelism, catechesis, initiation, and life-long discipleship can help us re-think how we face the current challenges in our increasingly post-modern, post-Christian world. By studying church history we can rediscover and restore wise and effective ways to conserve the faith for the future.
It’s not too late.