Sunday, June 17, 2007


Some years ago I came up with what I call the "Monument Theory of Church History." It works like this: In every generation, God is doing something; people are drawn to it, and after some years, most sit down at that spot and build a monument to what God did. One result of this is that the landscape is littered with Christian monuments to God's past activity--Lutheran monuments, Presbyterian monuments, Methodist monuments, Christian Church/Church of Christ monuments (the one I grew up in), Pentacostal monuments...all over the map. Even the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s produced a few. The Vineyard churches grew out of that time, and while John Wimber, their most prominent leader, lived they stayed vital. But he died in 1997, and five or six years after that I began to see signs that the concrete was starting to set. (We spent about 10 years in Vineyard churches in Cincinnati and in Batesville, In.)

The trouble is, while people are building monuments, God moves on and does something else, usually in a different spot, with different leaders, different focus, different aspect of truth He wants to highlight. And I came to the conclusion a long time ago that I don't want to spend the rest of my life polishing some monument; I'd rather be part of what God is doing now. Yes, it is great that God did something in this spot maybe 20 years ago; but the monument that's been erected here, while very nice, is not Him--and I want to be where He is now.

There's a place in south-central Kentucky, about 10 miles or so from the Tennessee line, called Red River Meeting House. Around 1787 a log Presbyterian church was built there. The region was known as "Rogues' Harbor" for the lawlessness of its inhabitants (travelers often disappeared while passing through). After several years of prayer by the small group of faithful Christians in the area, a Communion service in 1800 set off a major revival, the first of the frontier camp meetings. A visiting clergyman hosted another event at his church at Cane Ridge in northern Kentucky, and what the historians call the Second Great Awakening was well under way (the first was in the mid-1700s, involving John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and others.). "Rogues' Harbor" changed its character and lost the name, and became known for hospitality to strangers. It also became a center of anti-slavery activity--slave owners who had believed Negroes to be not fully human and without souls saw the Holy Spirit falling on whites and blacks alike and were convinced that they had been wrong about slavery.

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church, a small denomination that formed out of the camp meetings, still owns the property. The original log church was followed by several buildings (the original log building's site is now part of the cemetery). When the last of them was disintegrating in the 1950s, and the congregation no longer existed, a group of local people partnered with the Cumberland P.C. to preserve it as a historic site. A replica of the log church was built on part of the remaining open land (and replaced in the 1970s after vandals burned the first one). In October each year a weekend commorative gathering in honor of the original camp meeting is held by a mixed group of local people and historical reenactors. There is still a feeling of peace that hangs over the grounds.

We (me, my wife Miriam, and my younger son Caleb) were part of the commemorative gatherings for several years. Caleb and I were part of the impromptu band that played for the services, we camped with the reenactors, we enjoyed ourselves there. But there came a time when we concluded that it was time to put our energy into what God is doing now. It isn't that monuments are wrong; but sometimes a good thing crowds out better things. We need to learn from the past, but we must live in the present, and if possible build for the future.

I once read an interview with Carol Wimber, John Wimber's widow. She said he was never that worried about the future of the Vineyard, but that his hope was that their kids would find what God was doing next and go be part of it. I think he was right.

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