“Give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion—it’s good enough for me!”
So goes the chorus of the oft-quoted song, considered a plea to remain faithful to the “old ways” in the face of trendy innovations, which by association are considered to be compromises of the “pure truth” of our past.
But just what constitutes the pure “old time” religion so many would wish to defend? In the song, the writer claims that the old-time religion was “good for Paul and Silas,” “good for the Hebrew children,” and so “good enough for me.” But what are the elements of this time-transcending religious expression?
A “church building?” Christian historians are in general agreement that dedicated church buildings did not exist to any significant extent before the early 200s AD. So, the church functioned for its first 150 plus years without such a facility, and for most of Christian history the building style with which most of us are familiar was unknown. Further, throughout the centuries God has launched movements that have operated without the benefit of such facilities.
“Pews?” Evidence for any sort of church seating—pews, chairs or otherwise—is largely absent before the 1400s in church experience. Apparently, before that, Christians stood, reclined, and perhaps even milled about during worship gatherings, but they did not have “seating” at all!
“Organs and pianos?” Not for the first 900 years or so of the church in the case of the organ, which was considered a secular instrument previous to that time. As for the piano, it was not until the later 1800s that it became a common instrument in the church; until then, most judged it to be a secular instrument unsuitable for use in worship.
“Good old-fashioned hymns?” While some sort of singing has always been part of Christian worship, I would suggest that congregationally sung hymns in a form and style we might recognize does not become widespread in the church until the 1600s. Further, the concept of a stirring, heartfelt hymn sung corporately with energy and passion seems particularly rooted in the innovations of the Wesleys in the late 1700s. (By the way, their music content and style was condemned by many Christians as too feeling oriented and emotionally focused.)
“Age level programs offered in the church facility?” History seems to paint a picture of specific church age level programming as a relatively late development. Sunday School began in the 1780s in England, and then as an effort to assist poor children with literacy skills. There is little evidence of specialized structured children’s ministries in the church before that time. Further, structured local church youth ministry as we would recognize it today doesn’t appear until the later 1800s, develops in limited ways through the early and mid-1900s, and begins to be led by specially designated “youth pastors” only in the 1960s.
I admit that any attempt to simplify “church history” is open to contrasting perspectives and understandings of the historical record. However, I share the thoughts above to highlight the possibility of mistaking “form” for “function,” “style” for “content,” and “tradition” for “truth” as we think forward about God’s heart for the church in the next 5, 10, or 25 years. It is a common error to confuse “that with which I am familiar, comfortable, and have experienced as effective” with the unchanging elements of God’s Kingdom essentials. Changes in form and style are necessary for effective disciple multiplication in a changing culture. At the same time, we must guard the essential Biblical truths of content and function that have remained central for 2000 years. May God grant us wisdom to seek His heart and hear His voice as we wrestle with the difference.