Nobody is exempt from the influence of the environment in which we live, grow, and learn, either for good or for ill. Generation Z (1997–2012) is my generation, and our greatest danger is also our most obvious blessing: the internet. We’ve never lived without it. Witnessing continual technological advancement—and receiving unhindered access to unlimited resources with constantly updated informational tidbits—is normative for my generation. Staying up to date on breaking news is effortless and almost inevitable; we could scarcely avoid it if we tried.
Our favorite thing about the news is simply that it’s new. We are a generation obsessed with fads and trends; we want to talk about what everyone else is talking about and do what everyone else is doing. Otherwise we might miss out and feel as though we have nothing to contribute. Many of us want to build a better future, not reminisce about the past. The former observation is commendable. The latter has devastating consequences.
For my generation, the events of two weeks ago often seem devoid of significance, much less 2,000 years ago (or anything in between). Our postmodern age bears the residue of empiricism, which renders history nearly useless because it is not learned through sensory experience, and although such philosophies have yet to dispense with the merits of history altogether, such a world is only beyond the bleak horizon.
However, I’m convinced that Gen Z Christians need church history as much as any generation, perhaps even more. Church history matters, and our generation more than any other will be tempted to dismiss it entirely.
Here are four reasons we need it.
1. Christianity Is a Religion of Historians
All of us reconstruct the past through memories and stories; we all attempt to be historians, then, whether we realize it or not. But Christians especially must be attuned to such a discipline. After all, so much of what we believe hangs on historical claims. A brief glance at one of the historical Christian creeds, such as the Apostle’s Creed, overwhelmingly proves this point:
- “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”—historical claim.
- “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit”—historical claim.
- “and born of the virgin Mary”—historical claim.
- “He suffered under Pontius Pilate”—historical claim.
- “was crucified, died, and was buried”—historical claim.
- “he descended to hell”—historical claim.
- “The third day he rose again from the dead”—historical claim.
- “He ascended to heaven”—historical claim.
This is a historical creed not only because it is from the past, but because it grounds our beliefs in actual historical events. It claims that something in the past has happened. Christianity is historical, and those who adhere to its claims are necessarily historians. As Robert Tracy McKenzie writes, “God has created us as historical beings, implanted in us a historical faith, and bound us to the past by engrafting us into a historical church.”
2. Church History Is Our Story
When someone becomes a Christian, she is adopted into God’s family (Eph. 1:4–5). The language of “brothers and sisters” is pervasive throughout the New Testament. This adoption into God’s family applies not only of those now living but also of those who have gone before us.
Mary Magdalene, Paul the apostle, Augustine of Hippo, his mother Monica, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin are our brothers and sisters. When we read about the history of the church, we are reading about our family lineage and how the historic Christian faith has come to us today. Christianity did not emerge in a vacuum. We have roots. We have a heritage. We have a story.
3. We Can Learn from Past Mistakes
Anyone who ventures even sparingly into the Christian community will soon discover that Christians disagree on a plethora of secondary and tertiary doctrines. Yet there are indispensable doctrines the church universally agrees on; for example, those things summarized in the creeds. Most creeds were formulated specifically to condemn false teaching and clarify the views of the church. If we neglect to learn of these errors, especially the most extreme versions (heresies), then we endanger ourselves.
Most creeds were formulated specifically to condemn false teaching and clarify the views of the church.
It is not difficult to believe heresy. Indeed, many Christians do without knowing it, which is precisely why it is important to learn about Gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and the numerous others that have plagued the church throughout the centuries. It is also necessary to read how the church and her leaders responded to these false doctrines. If we are negligent in this regard, we may subsequently think and speak wrongly about God—and end up worshiping a different god altogether.
4. Church History Proves the Church Cannot Die
The church always prevails. Through militant persecution and the rise of Islam, through the dark ages and the rise of secularism, through the numerous calamities we have brought upon ourselves, through every storm and raging sea that potentially threatens the church, she proves imperishable, resolutely pressing on into the following age. When it seems the ship has finally sunk, it becomes a submarine; when it is catapulted into the air, it grows eagle’s wings. How is this so?
It’s not because the church is an unparalleled syndicate of intellectual minds; God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise (1 Cor. 1:27). Nor is it because the church has always held positions of power and influence; there was brutal persecution in the early church and today. It is certainly not due to our unwavering faithfulness to God; every generation of the church has been filled with sinners like us.
Simply put, the Christian church cannot die solely on the basis that Jesus Christ already has. A look at the history of the church testifies to Jesus’s promise that even the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18).
For Gen Z Christians, we might suppose that the ancientness of Christianity would drag a dry and impractical message to the 21st century, but the opposite is true. Instead, Christianity’s truth is made evident by its enduring freshness throughout the ages as the gospel transcends every imaginable hurdle, contextualized to every environment and time period.
The story of the church did not begin with us, and it will not end with us. But if we want to build a better future, we must learn to excavate the past.