20 June, 2024

The Way We Were

by | 1 March, 2024 | 0 comments

By David Faust

Fifty years ago, Billboard magazine named the title song of the movie The Way We Were the No. 1 pop hit of 1974. The film, starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, was a box office success although it received mixed reviews. The song, “The Way We Were,” won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song, and it has been hailed as “one of the most recognizable songs in the world.” 

An honest look at Restoration Movement history also elicits mixed reviews. Our past includes the good, the bad, and the ugly—and it generates provocative questions about where we are headed. What can we learn by reviewing the way we were? 

We were people of the Book. 

Our forebears in the Restoration Movement were devoted to the apostles’ doctrine. They said, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak, and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Preachers encouraged their listeners to imitate the Bereans who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). They understood that if we are not in the Book, we will be in the dark. 

Today, do we preach the whole counsel of God with courage, clarity, and conviction? Are we equipping biblically literate disciples who have a solid grasp of biblical truth and know how to share their faith winsomely with others? 

Our movement captured the imagination of young adults. 

Our leaders didn’t all have gray hair. Barton W. Stone was in his late 20s when the Cane Ridge Revival began, and at age 31 he helped to forge The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery. Alexander Campbell was 28 when he preached his famous “Sermon on the Law.” Raccoon John Smith was baptized at age 20 and ordained to the ministry at 24. Walter Scott was 25 when he first met Alexander Campbell (who was 33 at the time). Campbell later wrote, “Our age and our feelings . . . rendered us susceptible of a mutual attachment,” for both men shared an ardent desire to reform churches that “appeared in a state of the most miserable destitution.” Dissatisfied with the religious status quo, energetic young speakers and writers spread Restoration ideals across the American frontier. 

Today, do we make enough space for young believers to use their ministry muscles? Is the vision for vibrant New Testament Christianity capturing the hearts and minds of the next-generation leaders who will guide us in the future?  

We were unity minded—but often contentious. 

An African proverb says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In its early days, our movement was motivated by Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17, New Testament warnings about division, and the positive example of the first-century believers who “were one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32). When we were at our best, we spoke the truth in love, holding our convictions firmly but explaining them with gentleness and respect. Yet, our tribe often has been scrappy and argumentative. Our internal divisions contradict our lofty vision for Christian unity.  

Do we treat other Christians with respect and “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3)? Have we become so accustomed to division that we hardly notice or challenge it anymore? 

We kept things simple. We were flexible and innovative—relational more than institutional. 

Ours was a grassroots movement. Unencumbered by stifling creeds and theological jargon that muddled the gospel message, churches grew organically through personal evangelism and informal discipleship. Lay preachers earned their living by farming, teaching, or other jobs. Believers dropped denominational labels and embraced the plea to be “Christians only.” Visionary disciple-makers planted new churches, and independent congregations collaborated to send out missionaries. We started colleges, benevolence ministries, and Christian service camps. We gathered in regional and national conventions, not to exercise authority or dictate policy, but because we longed for connection and encouragement. In 1866, a group of entrepreneurs who believed in Restoration ideals created Christian Standard, and for many years it was the longest-running weekly magazine published in America. 

As a general rule, our Restoration ancestors didn’t spend a lot of time and money on expensive buildings. Times were simpler then, but it also appears our churches focused on the mission more than its packaging. Compared to many of our religious neighbors, we gravitated toward church architecture that was functional but unelaborate. Rarely did a congregation carry burdensome financial debt or employ a large staff.  

Things were far from perfect, and we shouldn’t try to reproduce an idealized version of the “good old days.” (Someone quipped, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!”) But we must dare to ask . . .  

Has our movement stopped moving? Have we overcomplicated things? Has spiritual arthritis stiffened us with age and made us more institutional and less relational? Do we still engage in serious study and encourage creative thinking? Do we settle for imitating other churches instead of asking God to show us effective new ways to reach and serve our unique communities? Do we welcome innovative ideas (consistent with Scripture, of course) that will help us engage the culture and lead more people to Christ? 

The ideals that shaped our movement remain as relevant and timely as ever. Are we still motivated to apply them? The lyrics of the song “The Way We Were” asked whether life really used to be “so simple”? Then came the big question: 

If we had the chance to do it all again, 

Tell me, would we? Could we? 

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