Why isn’t this month’s namesake featured on more church newsletters and websites? Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, endings, and time, has two heads that face opposite directions. One head looks back at the last year while the other looks forward to the new, simultaneously looking into the future and the past. Janus would be a fine symbol for congregations that cannot decide which direction they should be facing. The absolute necessity of both old and new is obvious, and yet old and new have a longstanding, ongoing battle in the church.
We have been to churches that hope tomorrow will be 1958 and churches that stay away from anything older than they are; churches that still give ten points for reading the Bible every day and twenty for being on time and churches that discuss the theological implications of the films of Will Ferrell; churches that got their Hammond Organ when the funeral home closed and churches that got their drums when the pastor’s rock band broke up; churches that smell of incense and churches that smell like the gymnasiums they are six days of the week; churches with paintings of rivers in the baptistery and churches where the baptistery is a river; churches where they hug and say, “God loves you and I do, too” and churches where no one has hugged in years; churches with kneeling, reciting, and genuflecting and churches with clapping, waving, and dancing; churches that are emerging and churches that are submerging; churches that love whatever is covered with dust and churches enamored with whatever came in the mail this morning.
The churches in which I grew up loved the old. Things seldom changed. One churchgoer put it this way: “This is what I learned at First Baptist Church. I learned that unleavened bread is Chicklet-sized soda crackers. I learned that the Hebrew word for grape juice is spelled w-i-n-e. I learned that the moneychangers at the temple were communists, not capitalists. I learned that every passage of scripture has three points. I learned that Sunday school teachers have an unlimited supply of construction paper, Elmer’s glue and Popsicle sticks.”
We were serious about the ancient words. We had dog-eared Bibles with multi-colored underlining and sermon notes scribbled in the margin. We taped memory verses to our mirrors, refrigerators, and baby beds. We took sin seriously. The church warned us about the dangers of worldliness and the hypnotic glitter of having, doing, and thinking what the sinful crowd has, does, and thinks.
There are so many good things about churches that love the old that it takes a while to realize that some crucial things are missing. God calls us in new, surprising ways. Churches in love with the old miss the gospel that’s always new.
There is also danger in the opposite direction. Some churches accept only what’s new and push aside everything that’s old. We’ve been to churches that love the new. They can be a lot of fun. It’s fun to sing without a hymnal when the words are on a big, big screen, to sing what has been called 7-11 music–seven words repeated eleven times. It’s fun to hear easily understood, often alliterative sermons with titles like, “How to Be Happy,” “How to Have a Happy Marriage,” “How to Have Happy Children,” and “How to Have Happy Children Who will Have Happy Marriages.” It’s fun to watch clips from Avatar that supposedly illuminate the story of David and Goliath. It’s fun to have Pepsi and potato chips for the Lord’s Supper. It’s fun to go to church and be surprised by what’s new.
Churches that love only the new can be so much fun, so genuinely joyful, that it takes a while to realize that something is missing. God calls us to walk ancient paths. Churches in love with the new miss the old gospel.
Jesus’ advice is to love the best of the old and the new: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of the treasury what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). We know it is not either/or, but both/and. We read the new by an old light. We see the old in a light that is new each day. Janus had the right idea. We need to look both ways.