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.


    11 replies to "Why Study Church History? Reason #3: Studying church history will conserve the faith for the future"

    • Stuart

      May I ask what you had in mind with the term “pre-Christian models and methods”?


    • Michael J. Svigel

      Stuart. Great question. I’ve always hated it when authors replied to questions with, “Read my book,” but you have to admit your question is a BIG one. I’d quickly run out of allowable characters in this response field. I’ve written a number of essays both critiquing modern ministry models as well as promoting some pre-modern approaches. By the way, when I say “pre-Christian, pre-modern,” I don’t mean “PRIOR TO CHRISTIANITY,” but prior to “Christian culture,” i.e., when Europe was still Roman and the Church had to face the challenges of pluralism, paganism, and persecution.

    • Stuart

      It is a big one indeed.

      But thanks for your answer, I understand what you have in mind now.

    • KWilson

      With the mega-churches thoroughly entrenched in programs to support themselves (out of necessity), I suspect that it is too late for that model. Their underlying commitment to professional CEO clergy is at odd with the historical eras you cite. A change would require complete restructuring. The hierarchical structure of such churches (and the schools and colleges that feed off them) largely disenfranchise any real ministry development within the congregation. It is a massive monetary structure.

      That said, smaller churches with more emphasis on Pastoral clergy who are called to pastor rather than climb the ministry hierarchy, supported by development of knowledgeable lay preaching and teaching, are more likely to facilitate early church type development.

    • Tony

      Dr. Svigel,

      I don’t disagree with you, but as I look around and see the shrinking evangelical church, I can’t help wondering if God is pruning His church. For far too long, people have sat in our evangelical pews whose sole contributions to the kingdom have been (a) to puff up pastors (“See how many people attend!”) and (b) convert perfectly good oxygen into carbon dioxide. That may sound more cynical than I mean it to be. Perhaps by closing under-performing churches the Lord is ensuring that the pastors who are left are pastors by calling, not just pastors by vocation. By blowing away the chaff, perhaps God is simply revealing the wheat. By pruning some, perhaps He is preparing us for genuine growth?

      Just a thought.

    • Michael J. Svigel

      KWilson, not to cross-reference, but your statements are completely in line with an essay I wrote a while back entitled, “7 Ministry Models from Ideal to Awful” available at my essay-depository, (click on the essay’s link on the left sidebar). I completely agree with you.
      And Tony, I don’t understand the “but” after “I don’t disagree with you,” because I think I may completely agree with you… at least the words you wrote, if not the sentiment. I am, however, an equal-opportunity optimistic cynic—I can find deep, embarrassing problems with every tradition in every era, but at the same time I have a deep faith that God is working out His perfect plan often in spite of us. Sometimes that plan requires pruning and purifying.

    • mbaker

      i often think smaller churches who have stuck with traditional orthodoxy are being left behind in favor or of the more popular ‘me-too’ gospel, which I define as agreeing more with a personal culturally relevant perspective than a traditionally orthodox one. Thank God though, Christ says the gates of hell will not prevail against His church.

    • Michael J. Svigel

      mbaker: I wish what you’re saying wasn’t true, but it is. I call what you’re describing “Metrodoxy.” But not to worry. The giant churches have a ministry model that is unsustainable… The age of the Big Box Church is in its twilight (despite appearances). If this is true, all that will be left are the smaller to medium churches who had held out all these years. Let’s tune in again in 30 years and see…

    • bethyada

      Apologies, wrong thread

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