Back to the Good Old Days

Pastor Craig Carter

Whenever a setback occurs, a normal response is a desire to return to the way things were. 

The baseball pitcher who suffers an arm injury just wants to return to the mound. 

A business that faces financial ruin longs to get back to operating in the black again. 

Do you remember how we felt immediately after Hurricane Michael?

We all wished (and prayed) for the return of running water, for power to be restored, and for our yards to be free of downed trees and debris. We talked about the good old days of when we had air conditioning, could watch TV, or could go to the drive-thru at Chick-Fil-A. 

Then as a congregation, we longed for the good old days when we had a comfortable sanctuary, or could enjoy a fellowship meal together, or could drop our kids off at AWANA Club. 

As human beings, we are creatures of habit, so when our world is disrupted we long for a return to the status quo. Unfortunately, the way things were isn’t necessarily the way things ought to be. 

For example, the baseball pitcher’s elbow injury may have been caused by poor throwing mechanics so his comeback necessitates some changes in his delivery, oftentimes making him more effective in the long run. 

Or the business’ financial troubles may have been the result of wasteful habits so their comeback requires them to put new procedures in place and their profits soar as a result. 

While none of us would wish a Cat-5 hurricane on our worst enemy, some of us have to admit it gave us the chance to get rid of some worn out furniture, do some remodeling and updating of our homes, and get to know our neighbors. In some ways, we learned the good old days weren’t all that good in comparison. 

For us as a church, things were pretty good prior to 10/10/18, but not perfect. So the storm has given us the chance to come back better than ever. As I discussed last week, it certainly has enabled us to get “back to the basics” of prayer, Bible study, group fellowship, and the Lord’s Supper. 

As our comeback proceeds, it’s only natural to long for the good old days but we need to be careful that we don’t fall into old familiar patterns that aren’t constructive. 

I lost the use of my office due after the hurricane so for the next six months, I operated out of my car with a computer in a backpack. Then for the next year, I sat at a folding table and moved throughout our building that was undergoing reconstruction. I occupied virtually every conceivable space at one time or another. 

Sure, I longed for the good old days of having a nicely furnished and roomy office, but I also realized some benefits of doing without. At the time of the storm, my office was filled with piles of clutter, most of which ultimately proved unnecessary since it was dumped in the trash. I also became aware that I had been spending too much time in my comfortable surroundings and needed to get out and see people more.

Now that I have a new office, guess what’s happened in a relatively short amount of time? I’ve resumed my old habits and created new piles and retreated inside. 

The good days aren’t really the good old days when it comes to the way I function in an office environment. But the real problem isn’t the good old days, it’s the good old days I returned to. 

I probably need to go all the way back to the good days of my first job in the Air Force. I worked with classified materials in a research facility. We had a “clean desk policy,” meaning when you left at the end of the day, everything had to be removed from the desktop and other work spaces, ensuring no secret documents were left out. 

Then I think about how I related to my office when I first became a pastor. I spent mornings in the office but visited homes and hospitals each afternoon. I’d probably do well to get back to those good old days of ministry. 

In a similar way, our comeback is going to require us to get “back to the good old days.” But not the good old days as most of us remember them. The good old days we need to get back are the ones we share as United Methodist Christians.

The time immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection was the “heyday” of the Church. During this time period, the Kingdom expanded rapidly, many lives were changed and souls saved. Likewise, the formative years of Methodism were the best of the good old days. In 1776, 2.5% of American residents were Methodist. By 1850 it was 34%. Now in 2021 we’re down to 2%.

So, what can we learn from our spiritual ancestors that will shape our comeback?

What we discover is that some tried and true principles emerge from the good old days of both Christianity and Methodism. Let’s talk about them in terms of some of the common activities of the church.

1) Worship

One of the reasons God put us on this planet is to worship. Through the ages, worship has been an important activity for God’s people. 

When you think of worship in the good old days, what comes to mind? 

Spirited singing of gospel hymns? Fire and brimstone preaching? Altar calls?

Surprisingly, little is said about these sorts of things in the Book of Acts. Instead, the identifying characteristic of worship in the good old days was signs and wonders. 

A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together … all the while praising God… (Acts 2:43, 47a NLT)

The apostles were performing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers were meeting regularly at the Temple… (Acts 5:12 NLT)

When the Early Church worshiped, there was no question that God was in the house. People were miraculously healed, folks were delivered from demonic torment, and on one occasion, two lying members were struck dead!

When most people think of Methodist worship they think of a fairly dignified, even stodgy, atmosphere … but not in the good old days of our denomination. 

Time precludes me from an exhaustive treatment of the subject but let me share with you just one description of a Methodist gathering. This is from John Wesley’s journal on Jan. 1, 1739:

“About three in the morning, as we were continuing in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we recovered a little from the awe and amazement, we broke out in one voice, ‘We praise thee, O God!’”

John Wesley recorded 31 instances of supernatural occurrences (healing miracles, visions, being overwhelmed by God) in the first seven months of the Methodist revival alone. I don’t know what you think about such things, but be careful what you say about them. 

One of the recorded instances recounted people being overcome by fits and seizures who “could not be held down.” Wesley wrote, “One woman was greatly offended, being sure they could help it if they would … when suddenly she fell down, in as violent an agony as the rest.” (6/15/1739)

My friend and fellow pastor Mark Nysewander has a word of advice for when you see something in worship that you don’t understand or agree with: “Don’t criticize, just say ‘That’s interesting.’” ☺

I’m not saying these kinds of occurrences have to be present in worship, but what if they were? Would it make any difference in terms of the impact on us and on others? Regardless of what you think of these kinds of events, surely you can see that they would get people’s attention and might even convince some of the reality of a Divine Being?

And if these sorts of things are not happening, how do we know that God is real and present among us? I’m just asking…

On a limited basis I’ve experienced signs, wonders, miracles, and instantaneous healing. Here’s what I learned from those occasions. For one, they point to a greater reality and cause folks to respond in praise and worship. Second, they don’t occur when people don’t ask for or expect them to happen. So if you don’t want signs and wonders in worship, don’t ask for them or expect them to happen. 

But if you say, “Give me that old time religion,” follow the example of the first followers of Christ…

All the believers lifted their voices together in prayer to God: “Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:24, 30 NLT)

The result: After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 4:31a NLT)

2) Fellowship

If I asked modern day Christians, “What’s the most essential practice for believers?,” I have a feeling the (vast) majority would say, “Attending corporate worship.”

In contrast, if I asked the same question of Early Christians, the answer would be, “Participating in koinonia, or group fellowship. As we discussed last week, the first Methodists would answer similarly although they’d probably call it, “Engaging in Christian Conference.” 

In both cases, they’d be talking about joining with other believers in small groups. And it doesn’t have to be either/or, it’s both/and. 

They worshiped together at the Temple…met in homes… (Acts 2:46 NLT)

In the good old days of both Christianity and Methodism, the key point of participation was meeting with a few like-minded Christians. 

When we think of fellowship in the good old days, we think of potluck suppers, dinner on the grounds, or snacks served between services in the fellowship hall (notice how food always seems to be involved?!)

Those sort of things have been part of Christian and Methodist heritage, but real fellowship is much greater and deeper. Fellowship of the old-fashioned kind involves being together in unity. 

As we observed last week, the first Christians did life together – met together, ate together, worshiped together, prayed together and served together. 

How much togetherness was there? Acts 4:32 tells us: All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. (NLT)

As a result, “There were no needy people among them…” (Acts 4:34a NLT)

There is so much I want to say on this subject but I have to leave that for another day. Here’s the sort of “good old days” of fellowship I long for within the Lynn Haven UMC: 

That every member would have someone in the congregation they could call in the middle of the night and be confident that whatever need they might have would be met.

Do you have that sort of person in your life? If you do, it means you’re in fellowship with other believers and enjoying being together in unity. If you don’t, you won’t get it sitting in the worship center for one hour a week. 

As I said last week, find a few people and start doing life together. Start with some basics like prayer, Bible study and sharing a meal. 

Before moving on, let me mention one thing about the word, unity, because it is commonly misunderstood. Christian unity is not sameness or uniformity – everyone looks/acts/thinks alike. Instead, it is singleness of purpose (i.e. commitment to a common cause)

So unity doesn’t mean we agree on every little detail (the Early Church didn’t!). It does mean we agree on one thing – Jesus is Lord! Every one of us has Jesus in our heart and mind. When that happens it is very attractive, because unity is a missing commodity in the world today. 

That leads us to the final aspect of doing church like in the good old days…

3) Evangelism

We all know that Christ has called, and even commanded, us to go and tell others. That is, to proclaim the good news and make disciples. 

So what do we think of in terms of evangelism in the good old days? Passing out tracts, going door-to-door and inviting folks to church, sharing the Four Spiritual Laws, taking an evangelism class and then going out witnessing?

Interestingly, none of these methods was used by the Early Church. As a matter of fact, they had no organized plan of missions and evangelism. Instead, the church grew (and grew rapidly) almost by accident…but it wasn’t an accident, at all. 

According to the Book of Acts, much of growth came through the other two practices we have mentioned – worship and fellowship. But the first Christians didn’t invite folks to come to their worship services. Instead, the signs and wonders taking place attracted a crowd and people responded in faith and joined in praise to God. 

On the Day of Pentecost, when the disciples of Jesus spoke in tongues, but everyone understood them in their own language, 3,000 people were saved. A few days later the disciples healed a blind beggar, many believed, and then they were up to 5000. Pretty good evangelism effort, huh?!

They also didn’t invite unbelievers to join their small group for a meal and fellowship. No, instead, it was their unity that brought them favor and goodwill and caused people to want to join them. It’s what Jesus predicted when He prayed, “I pray that they will all be one…so that the world will believe you sent me.” (John 17:21 NLT)

But more than anything else, the greatest evangelistic tools employed in the good old days of both Christianity and Methodism was holy living. 

Let me describe what I mean by “holy” since it’s often misunderstood. It wasn’t “holier than thou” practices or lists of do’s and don’ts. “Holy” means “set apart” so the first Christians lived in ways that was consistent with their faith and different from the ways of the world. 

Early Church writer, Cyprian, put it this way: “We do not speak great things but we live them. We are visibly distinctive.” 

As a result, the church grew steadily and consistently because some, not all, wanted what the Christians had – integrity, sexual purity, being servants, caring for the poor, refusing to retaliate, etc. They embodied Jesus’ teaching, especially as found in His Sermon on the Mount.

The first Christians were the original counter-culture group that showed others there is a different and better way to live. The original Methodists picked up on the same notion. 

Those who joined the movement were expected to follow the General Rules of the Methodist Society: “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins…by doing no harm and avoiding evil of every kind, doing good, and attending upon the ordinances of God.”

Under those categories, specific behaviors were identified (each to combat a particular societal issue). There were prohibitions against drunkenness, slaveholding, fighting, buying and selling of “black market” goods, and speaking evil of public officials, to name a few. In other words, Methodists were to be different, or holy. 

As one writer notes, “The distinctive and countercultural expectations of Methodists was not a deterrent, but a positive factor in the growth of Methodism in its first century. When Methodism began to compromise with the world and tried to blend in or ‘be relevant,’ it began to plateau and then decline.” (Thomas Lambrecht)

What does this mean to us as we seek to get back to the good old days? It means we find ways to be different and provide unbelievers a model for living. 

“Our churches will not grow until people see that following Jesus Christ makes a difference in our lives. Authentic Christians down through history have always been thought ‘strange’ by an unbelieving world, but people will not buy what we are selling unless they see that it works in making our lives different and more fulfilling than theirs.” (Thomas Lambrecht)

What can you do and what can we do to show others that following Christ works?

I know the methods employed back to the good old days work because they worked in getting me to where I am today in my walk with Christ. As I wandered somewhat aimlessly in my early 20’s, I was impacted by people who believed in signs and wonders and some unexplained phenomena captured my attention and pointed me to God. Those same people invited me to a small group and showed me a different way to live that I found very attractive and something I wanted. 

By following these tried and true practices, we can return to the good old days, the glory days of Christianity and Methodism. 

Better yet, they’ll help us and others experience the great new days of the Lynn Haven UMC and help us complete our comeback. 

I long for what is described in Acts chapter 2 but I haven’t yet experienced it fully:

A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They worshiped together, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved. (Acts 2:43-44, 46-47 NLT)

God, you did it once in the Early Church, you did it a second time in early Methodism, now do it one more time in the Lynn Haven UMC! Amen!