That Was Then, This Is Now

Go ahead, think it! This is another geezer whine about the times. Let me assure you, that isn’t the intent. But, there is a reflection about the times that may stir us to reconsider priorities and take aim at the influence of God’s people in everyday life, and our impression on our children.

Travel back with me more than sixty years. My first grade year at Overbrook Elementary School in Greenville, SC is perhaps a good reference point. Every morning at the appointed hour our principal would call each classroom to attention over the newly installed intercom system, lead every class in pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, pray for us, and recite the Lord’s prayer with us. Even though it was a public school we all knew our teacher was a church member, and most of us were raised in Judeo-Christian homes. In fact, the world around us was essentially representative of what we would call today a Judeo-Christian worldview. Every sporting event began with prayer. Most businesses closed on Sundays. Little league and piano lessons, and other involvements were cancelled on Wednesdays because of church commitments. We encountered the Christian influence at school and the world around us, at home, and at church.

Of course, the spiritual landscape of our nation has taken a couple of turns since then. None of those bullet points are reality today. What is more, as I have often written, we’re suddenly the like post-Exodus Israel—

And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work he had done for Israel. (Judges 2:10, ESV) 

Several interesting side notes are important here.

(1) Church attendance is down among the youngest age cohorts in the American population. Pew Research studies conclude that church attendance has declined nationwide among each generational group of nominal Christians, but especially among the younger millennial population. This means that younger Americans are not receiving the church element of spiritual formation today as in previous generations.

(2) Society reflects a secular or relativistic worldview today rather than even a broad Judeo-Christian one. The entire school scenario is but a memory, and there’s little allowance in other involvements for spiritual considerations. Except in isolated commercial situations like Hobby Lobby or several mom and pop retail establishments, spiritual markers or reminders are off-limits these days. In this scenario younger Americans are receiving little spiritual influence.

(3) Studies indicate that parents spend twice as much time with their children today than they did fifty years ago. Still, the 104 minutes per day are usually expended in personal hygiene, mealtime, sports and other out-of-house commitments, and completion of homework assignments.  Little spiritual instruction happens.

Conclusion? Children in twenty-first century America get little or no spiritual input in the shaping of their worldviews. Truly, “that was then and this is now”.

The “this is now” truth is that we will most likely never again see the “that was then” elements of spiritual formation in American culture. So, the question is, how can those of us in the Christian worldview assure the continuation of these values in our own children and future generations. Well, I’m glad you asked.

There is a big picture element here that we cannot ignore. Jesus trained his disciples to be salt and light in a non-Christian culture not altogether unlike our own. The entire New Testament was written when Roman government, Greek culture, and Jewish religion predominated life in that part of the world. Early Christians were aliens and strangers in that unique background. They were taught to influence the world around them through two prescribed disciplines—

(1) Parental responsibility for the spiritual instruction of their children.

Spiritual training began at home in the Old Testament. Parents were expected to instruct their children in the history of their nation, the spiritual dogma of their religious affiliation, and the ever-present guidance of God in their lives. Many Scriptures attest to this family responsibility. Let me note just two.

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7, ESV)

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6, ESV)

This familial spiritual formation was the norm long before formal training and school. It is a responsibility that extends to the New Testament as well. Parents are biblically responsible living the faith, declaring the Gospel to their offspring and people in their household, and insuring spiritual formation. Paul wrote this—

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4, ESV)

(2) Gathering of believers in the early church.

Many New Testament passages affirm the regular assembly of believers in the church. Throughout the Acts of the Apostle the early believers gathered on the Lord’s Day to share communion, fellowship, and instruction. For the sake of brevity, consider these two passages

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42, ESV)

Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:25, ESV)

The point of this “that was then, this is now” reflection is that Jesus prepared his followers to live in this kind of world. Changes in society must not translate as excuses for the loss of Christian virtue in our families. Yes, there was a time when culture reflected broad Christian leanings. Children then were shaped by what they received at home, at church, and in the larger community as well. “This is now” means that those influences are no longer normative. If our children, and grandchildren I might add, are to receive spiritual instruction it must occur when parents, and grandparents, once again take responsibility for religious teaching. We must insist on it in our homes, and by all means, involve our families in the community of faith, Christ’s church. It is more important today than perhaps at any other time in our national history.

Perhaps there can be a renewed ideal—that was then, and it still is now.


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