I was recently reading this fascinating article in Plough Magazine about intergenerational stewardship. I first heard about it while eating tapas with the editor, because apparently that’s my life now.
Anyway, to the article: all well and good you might think, as long as you’re a German Prince with land that stretches back generations in your family. Most of us don’t know anything about our great-grandparents, and in the middle-classes (or more accurately the group that David Goodhart calls “Anywheres” in The Road to Somewhere) in the UK it’s likely that you don’t live where your parents did who don’t live where theirs did. My family has its roots in the North York Moors, from a tiny hamlet that’s been there for more than a thousand years.
Except that my Grandfather left Yorkshire to become a minister, after working in the famous Mousey Thompson furniture makers, and I don’t think we’ve actually traced a route back to anyone who ever lived in Suffield.
Our connection to the land and history is broken. Which makes an article like that one in Plough interesting, but broadly irrelevant to my life and situation.
Enter the ever-interesting Hadden Turner (whose Substack you should subscribe to), who attempts to take those same ten theses on inter-generational stewardship and make them broadly applicable to us all. It’s very worth your time.
I think, as often with Hadden’s work on our relationship to nature, that there are analogies here for the church. We don’t talk enough about the need for history and we don’t talk enough about stewardship.
We probably use the word often enough, but as a Christianese term for due diligence, crossing your eyes and dotting the tea (or something like that). In Hadden’s account stewardship is a virtue of realising that you don’t own the land or the world, we merely hang onto it for a brief while before passing on to others. Which is why, for example, technology with planned obsolescence is an afront to Christian values. We don’t need to buy more things. We need to take good care of the ones we have and pass them on.
Which is a difficult way to live in our world. We get used to the story we inhabit where we buy new things when we want new things. Everything expires on us, very little lasts for ever, and while appeals are made to ‘our grandchildren’ in the context of something like climate change, we very rarely think about things in our day to day lives as being passed on to those who we be around long after we’re dead.
It’s one of the reasons I don’t like ebooks. It’s important to me to curate a library that can be passed on to bless someone when I die. It would be a tragedy for it to end up in a second-hand bookshop, as that implies there was no-one to pass it on to. It’s been hard work and costly for me to slowly build a commentary library, mostly without the benefit of church book budgets to pay for them. That’s OK, but I’d like to spare someone else that pain if I can.
Moving back to the broader principle: we don’t expect things to outlast us. Neither do our churches. If we remembered that the churches we lead or attend are not ours but gifted us in stewardship by God for a little while, I wonder what it would change as to how we live in the world?
If everything we did included thinking about how it will be inherited by those several generations after us, I wonder what we would do differently? The charismatic churches I’ve been part of are largely what a historian would call second-wave charismatic, so grown out of the British house church movement in the 1960s. Even the very oldest is not yet old, the founders’ generation is still alive, even if not all of them are. The idea of thinking three generations hence (or 300 years hence, even) feels ludicrous. An individual church may not even last that long, the received wisdom is that a church lasts 70 years and then needs replanting or will die. I don’t know if that’s true, but it means we rarely think beyond ourselves.
It can even sound like hubris for a church that’s seven years old like the one I help to lead to talk about “50 years time.” It probably is. Yet, we need to get the story into our bones that what we’re trying to do and build is about passing on the faith to those that pass on the faith. If we do we might start to build things that last: both institutions and communities.
In a similar vein, Hadden extols the virtue of knowing the very local history of the place you live. I like looking at church websites because I’m a weirdo like that. I like the detective work of figuring out who they are based on how they present themselves, which is seriously ‘inside baseball,’ I must admit.
One of the things I see rarely is a description of their history. I’ve stumbled across a couple of churches that were only about 40 years old but managed to lay out their story over the years: the leaders they’ve had, the places they’ve met, the churches they’ve planted elsewhere, and more besides.
At first I thought it was a little self-indulgent—you aren’t old enough to have a history worth telling! But the more I dwelled on it the more I liked the rootedness of it. Yes, it leaves out all the real life that happens as the Holy Spirit grips and changes lives, but it still centres a sense of story. This is the people that we are. That guy led us (we know he wasn’t perfect, but he ran the race well). We met there, then here, then we bought this building (maybe we’ll move on again one day). Stories root us and give us guide ropes for moving forwards.
I’m not suggesting that every year we tell the church’s story to everyone on a Sunday in lieu of preaching or something similar (some churches do this, I understand). I am suggesting that we do two things: think our story is worth telling without taking ourselves too seriously and tell our story enough that we can draw a line between the Bible and us. It should be natural for us to find our story in the Story, but we can only do that when we share our collective stories.
I think, by happenstance, when we tell our stories to one another we will find that we also steward them for the next generations.
Photo by Damian Karpiński on Unsplash
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