Looking Backward to Move Forward
J.I. Packer, D. Phil., and Gary E. Parrett, Ed.D.
Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the authors’ book, “Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010). The book explores the historic Christian practice of catechesis–which the authors define as “the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty and delight.” Excerpt used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
We agree with the widespread conviction that many evangelical churches are in need of deep change today. Indeed, the fact that we share this conviction will be very obvious throughout this book. Our premise, however, is that the surest way forward is to carefully contemplate the wisdom of our past. We are not, as it turns out, the first ones who have ever had to wrestle with the issue of how to grow Christian communities and Christian individuals in contrary cultures. We are not the first to wonder about how to nurture faith in the living God and foster obedience to his way. It is not only contemporary church leaders who can teach us how to be “relevant” and “effective” in ministry today. We urge concerned church leaders to, in the language of Jeremiah 6:16, “stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it.”
In the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments we find an abundance of wisdom for building believers who will live to the glory and honor of our God. There are models and mandates, principles and practices that are as relevant for ministry today as they ever were. Church history also provides us with numerous examples of vibrant, fruitful seasons in the lives of God’s people, when true disciples were truly being made, when whole communities were alive with and for God’s glory. We do not disdain the idea of looking around at contemporary models to find guidance for our own ministries of disciple making. But we do suggest that this not be our only source for wisdom, or even our primary source. Instead, we would counsel, let us look back before looking around. Our first gaze, of course, must be to the testimony of the Scriptures themselves. Whether we are considering historic practices or contemporary ones, as professed evangelical Christians all our thinking and efforts should be vetted by diligent study of, and contemplation upon, the Bible.
From this biblical basis, how shall we best proceed? Perhaps we could apply a version of C. S. Lewis’s familiar counsel. Lewis argued that for every book we read by an author who is still living, we should read one by an author who has died. Or, if that is too much for us, then for every three books we read by living authors, we should read one by a dead author. Our counsel here is that for every new method we meet that purports to promote congregational health today we look back to the well-tried methods that promoted congregational health in the past. Such an approach will serve us well in many areas, but perhaps none so important as that of making disciples for Jesus Christ. There is so much wisdom for us in the practices of those who have gone before us if we will only humble ourselves to listen and learn.
Dr. J.I. Packer, Board of Governors’ Professor in Theology Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, is regarded as one of the preeminent evangelical theologians today. He is the author of many books, serves as a Senior Editor and Visiting Scholar of Christianity Today and contributes to a variety of theological journals. He holds MA and D.Phil. degrees from Oxford University.
Dr. Gary A. Parrett is Professor of Educational Ministries and Worship, and Chair, Division of Ministry, at Gordon-Conwell. He has taught at Gordon College and served in pastoral ministry at churches in Boston, New York City, New Jersey, Seattle and Seoul, Korea. He earned an M.Div. degree from Regent College and an Ed.D. from Columbia University.