The Feast of Many Memories

On the Thirtieth Year Anniversary of John Leith’s From Generation to Generation.

If you keep an eye on the market for home improvement supplies, you are seeing some healthy indications. Even the sales of tools are up. A do-it-yourself, fix-it-up mood has caught the attention of many homeowners.

A similar optimism has energized church leaders. Webinars, Zoom share times, and continuing education conferences provide an endless supply of over-the-counter remedies for whatever you need for pepping up your church. New member slow down, drooping mid-summer outings, and slides on the stewardship graph–– there is a promising remedy for all of these. Sub-specialists are ready, and the amazing thing is how little time they need to get you up and running.

If business corporations can hold training sessions, explore potential mergers, restructure locations, and dissolve nonproductive units, well, why not churches? It might sound like common sense. Unfortunately, when it comes to churches, history offers some different lessons. Even the empirical evidence, and, after all, what could be more important to us than that, does not provide encouraging results. And the question of the lasting effects could be another matter altogether.

More than thirty years ago John Leith observed these changes in the management of churches, and it began to appear to him that many of us had begun to lose our way. He brought these observations to the broader public at lec-tures given at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1989 and in a book entitled From Generation to Generation: The Renewal of the Church According to Its own Theology and Practice the following year. His view could be captured in a few words. While sociological studies, new organizational remedies etc. have their use, the more basic issue, the termites in the floorboards, is more fundamental. Our problem, as he had uncovered it, was theological and spiritual. Could the very thing that we had always taken for granted and in which had confidence have become our Achilles heel?

There could be more than we might imagine involved in this. Years ago, when my wife and I were standing outside of the ruins of the cathedral in St. Andrews, a long black car pulled up. A couple hopped out. They introduced themselves and asked why we were there. I offered the explanation that I was studying theology at the University. The man responded with the kindly question that I must have prepared for doing this at Georgia Tech. After all the two different fields must have sounded reasonably alike to him.

Years later, in what seems now to have been another life, I was meeting with book dealers in New York. We were discussing the prospective title for a soon to be published volume. I suggested a title that included the word “theology,” after all that was what the book was about. The response from the publishing authorities was quite direct. “Not a title like that. After all, you want someone to buy it, don’t you?”

Leith’s diagnosis goes to the heart of the matter. And our basic issue is that we hardly know what the theological heart is any longer. How can we recover vital and compelling ways to move the basic doctrines of the Christian faith down from one generation to another if they seem to be overly abstract and without power to us? A rediscovery and recovery process, starting with the church itself, might be needed.

One of the distinctive things in his book is the apparent simplicity in his remedy. “Apparent,” however, could be a misleading word for us. As Leith develops his argument, he declares that the remedy lies in preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. However, the yellow caution light is blinking for us. It is these time-honored practices but with a difference. And we had better not mistake what could be a shark for the sea bass that we had loved to catch. While the remedy consists in a recovery of that which we had thought we had been engaged in doing all along, there is a good deal more. Leith says that the most productive and most compelling models for these three responsibilities can be found in the history of the church itself. And this could spell trouble. We simply may not know how to go about finding them.

These models could be deeply imbedded in what we had thought that we had known about the past, and the chances are that they are hidden in the very matters that we had skipped over lightly. Even our approaches to knowledge itself could have disguised them. There is a difference in how we go about learning things. And this is where you and I, it seems to me, can learn to lift up the stones, look into the briar patches, and recover the vastly significant treasures from the traditions that could make theology the most enriching thing we have ever encountered. What we discover in these old histories might astonish us and lead us to change the ways in which we go about preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. And, surprisingly, they might offer new possibilities for our lay leaders as well.

Here is a little narrative that, while it has little to do with theology in the overt sense, might hold some promise for us. A man named Elias Kulukundis was born in London and soon moved with his parents to the United States. All four of his grandparents, as well as others in his family, had lived on the very small island of Kasos in the Aegean Sea. His family having settled in Rye, New York, he graduated from Philips Exeter and Harvard. So, he was all set to become a modern secular man. However, at the age of 27 he decided to visit, having never been there, his ancestral home on Kasos. His discovery of the inner meanings of the traditions in his past led him to write the book that was published in 1967, The Feast of Memory (New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston). And perhaps that journey toward which John Leith would encourage us would become a feast of many theological memories for you and me.

Richard A. Ray
The Reverend Richard A. Ray, Ph.D. (St. Andrews University), has been a pastor, professor, publisher, college president and is now chairman of the Board of the Presbyterian Heritage Center, Montreat, North Carolina

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