Here’s a question for you-- and it's one that I encourage members of the community of faith to think on: "What makes an ancient-future church?" I’m blessed to be the pastor of the first-ever church start built intentionally from the ground up on Ancient-Future principles. We call it Epiclesis: An Ancient-Future Faith Community
, and we’re located in Sacramento, California.
Over the course of the next few months, I’d like to take this space to dialog with you, too, about that question. Folks often ask it; perhaps you have as well: Just what is ancient-future? Is it a worship style? Is it a movement of some kind, say, in church growth?
Now, sometimes when describing what something is, it's also helpful to say what it is not, although I want always to be careful about that when the topic turns to church. I do not think for a moment that we’ve got it all figured out at Epiclesis or that I have arrived at some final destination of great understanding. Goodness, I learned my lesson on that long ago.
I know of a church that launched a new, additional worship service (deeply dividing their own congregation, by the way) with great marketing fanfare by telling the world that they were nothing like all those boring churches with the oldy-moldy music. Listen, churches that build on style alone may eventually find that they have become the oldy-moldy church that they so badly wanted not to be. In my view, perhaps nothing "dates" a church more than when it camps out in a particular style, even when it's labelled “contemporary." Besides, Simone Weil once said, "In order to always be relevant, say things that are eternal."
So let me try to give you a bit of both-- both what we are at Epiclesis and, by necessity at times, what we are not: Ancient-Future is not a denominational affiliation. It is not a worship style. Ancient-Future embodies a worship theology-- and I would point out that it's a living, present theology that goes beyond the Sunday worship event. So, what makes us Ancient-Future at Epiclesis? What does this mean for us?
The first point I’d like to touch on has to do with the past.
Part of what it means to be Ancient-Future is that we listen to and learn from the past. The modern world, and in large measure the modern church that it helped shape, often said, or at least implied, that old ways of doing things were ineffective, inefficient, or inferior. (Once a pastor told me brimming with pride how he was able to serve more than a thousand people communion in seven minutes at his church.)
But the Holy Spirit has a history, as Thomas Oden says, and we would do very well to learn how He has moved and worked in the lives of our spiritual forebears. Epiclesis endeavours to draw upon the whole of church history-- not one particular period or style-- to inform and shape our corporate worship and our daily lives of faith.
My mentor, Bob Webber, said that the "road to the future runs through the past"-- that any meaningful living out of our faith in the here and now must engage the tradition and practice of the early church and classic Christianity. Ancient-Future, to him, wasn't some gimmick or latest fad, but rather a deep immersion in the common, refreshing waters of the well that is ancient faith and worship. I also remember Bob talking about how very often we can fall into the habit of putting a “frame” around our particular denominational or personal embedded beliefs—and then assume that all of Christian history progresses stream-like from that fountain forward.
I want to commend to your reading Christopher Hall, author of several books including one of my favorites, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers
(InterVarsity Press: 1998). Dr. Hall, by the way, will be the guest speaker for a gathering this coming June of the Ancient-Future Faith Network. Email me by clicking here
, and I’d be delighted to give you more information about the Network or the gathering. Hall writes beautifully about the “absence of memory” and the suspicion of the past and tradition in the minds of many modern evangelicals. Looking at the ancient church and the Fathers, reading the Bible and even worshiping through those lenses helps us, Hall writes, to escape our own traditions and, perhaps especially, the thinking that “history is progress” and allow ourselves a backwards glance. “God has been active throughout the church’s history and we rob ourselves of the Holy Spirit’s gifts if we refuse to budge beyond the comfort zone of our own ideas,” Hall says.
Now, just think on this a moment: Wouldn’t it be refreshing, even thrilling, to design artful worship with a full palette of resplendent colors and textures arrayed before you, rather than limiting choices by, say, time period or style? If God’s story in worship calls for something—an appropriate word or music or refrain or prayer or image—from the year 2003, then use it. And, if telling God’s story in worship calls for something from the 12th century, then dig in. There is much to learn about worship—and about living a life of worship—from the deep treasure trove of our rich Christian past.