Will Your Church’s Past Become a Slingshot or a Black Hole?

Times were better. Our country was more united. Our churches were growing. We felt better about our present and future.

The pull of the past is powerful. Politicians know it, and so they pick a point in time—a pinnacle from which we’ve fallen, and then frame our current debates around the way to return to a golden era. Those on the right think of the 1950s or 1980s, while those on the left pine for the 1960s. (See Yuval Levin’s work on this subject.)

Churches know the pull of the past as well. A church that went through an era of peace and growth, that faced the challenges of the day and won converts and enjoyed status in the community, can succumb to a widespread malaise once the tide goes out. If we could just go back, say some of the elderly in the church, mourning the loss of a particular church culture.

The pull of the past is a good yet dangerous thing. Its force can either serve as a slingshot, whereby we pull back into the past in order to gain the force necessary to be propelled forward on our mission. Or its force can serve as a black hole that sucks up all our energy and emotion, until our present and future are swallowed up in a void of hopelessness.

How can we tell the difference?

Nostalgia as Black Hole

Let’s look at the negative side of the past’s pull—the descent into nostalgia that supplants mission. There is wisdom in looking to the past in order to find the resources we need in the present, but we are wrong to see history as prescribing a particular path forward.

The idea that we can implement the same measures and methods as previous generations, in spite of how our cultural moment has changed, is to give in to the black hole of nostalgia. It is the choice between living in the past and learning from it. We demand from our ancestors a map for the way forward instead of seeing the past as a treasure chest from which we pull out the resources we need.

As Kyle David Bennett writes:

“Nostalgia hijacks memory. It is the desire to return to an old present . . .

“In nostalgia, one sacrifices the present and the possibility of the future as one squats in the past. Nostalgia implies that God is present in one moment and not another, or more perniciously, that one prefers to be in a previous, unlivable moment more than the one God has brought them to now.”

Longing for the Past and Fearful of the Future

It is one thing to long for and regret the loss of goods we observe in a past era—goods that have been eclipsed or overshadowed by cultural change. R. R. Reno says that the good kind of nostalgia “expands our moral horizons, reminding us that our present form of life lacks something important.”

But the desire to inhabit a different era is idolatrous—a subtle yet undeniable attempt to doubt the wisdom of God, the Creator who gave us life in this particular time and place. We cannot be fully on mission in this era as long as we are longing for another.

Memory can be a sturdy foundation for the future, or memory can suffocate our mission.

Lesslie Newbigin, the famed missionary theologian, warned that “nostalgia for the past and fear for the future are equally out of place for the Christian.” Nostalgia and fear distract us from the question we must be asking:

“What is God doing in these tremendous events of our time? How are we to understand them and interpret them to others, so that we and they may play our part in them as co-workers with God? [The Christian] is required, in the situation in which God places him, to understand the signs of the times in the light of the reality of God’s present and coming kingdom, and to give his witness faithfully about the purpose of God for all men.”

Incarnational Remembering

If orthodox Christians tend to live in the past, revisionists and schismatics wish to jettison the past altogether, crowning our contemporary generation with a depth of moral insight unknown to any of our ancestors. We are right to see a role for the past, but how do we do this?

How can we resist the temptation of despair or nostalgia?

I like the distinction Kyle David Bennett makes between nostalgia and “incarnational remembering.” Here is how he puts it:

“Our participation in the renewal of all things requires remembering the past. When we remember the past, we let the past portrayal of the future inform our present. In other words, when we look to the past, we re-view the present and our world in light of the future. This affects our perception of and action in the present . . .

“Christians are called to remember the past, not to live in it. A follower of Jesus is not nostalgic. We do not turn to the past to reencounter or remedy a personal wound like some do in nostalgia. Rather, we turn to the past in order to reencounter healing and reconciliation with the goal of remedying the wounds of others here and now. Incarnational remembrance is sacrificial, not selfish. It minds the past to draw on it; it does not fill the mind with the past in order to reenact or relive it. Incarnational remembrance renews, it doesn’t relive.”

What are some ways that we can draw on the past to renew our churches in the present? How can we ensure that the past does not squelch but serve our mission in the present? These are the questions we must wrestle with if we are to keep nostalgia from overwhelming our hope.


Learn more about how Auxano’s process helps visionary leaders learn the art of protecting the past while championing the future.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax

My name is Trevin Wax. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My wife is Corina, and we have two children: Timothy (7) and Julia (3). Currently, I serve the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. I have been blogging regularly at Kingdom People since October 2006. I frequently contribute articles to other publications, such as Christianity Today. I also enjoy traveling and speaking at different churches and conferences. My first book, Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals, was published by Crossway Books in January 2010. (Click here for excerpts and more information.) My second book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope(Moody Publishers) was released in April 2011.

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The Difference Between Living IN the Past and Living OUT of the Past

Does your church have a past?

Of course it does. Your church had a beginning, and the movement that birthed your church has a history also.

But does your church’s past have any meaning or significance in the life of your congregation?

The answer to that question does not come as easily.

LIVING IN THE PAST VS. LIVING OUT OF THE PAST

In a previous post, I wrote about the need for churches to live in 3-fold time, with proper attention devoted to the past events that constitute identity, the present tasks before us today, and the future hope that strengthens our witness.

Today, I want to focus on the first aspect — how a church can be rooted in the saving actions God has performed in the past and the sustaining grace He has shown to His people throughout history.

Whenever we hear about looking “backwards,” we feel a twinge of resistance. To look backward must mean we are turning back the clock, giving into unhealthy and nostalgic tendencies that hinder our mission, right? So the solution should be to free ourselves from the shackles of history and tradition in order to better adapt to our times.

This way of thinking makes good sense to many today, but it needs strong qualification. There is a difference between living in the past (with a nostalgic yearning for a golden age of yesteryear) and livingout of the past, which means we see ourselves in continuity with our forefathers and mothers in the faith.

A COMMUNITY OF MEMORY

In Habits of the Heart, sociologists from the University of California claim that a real community must be “a community of memory;” that is, “one that does not forget its past.” They write:

“In order not to forget that past, a community is involved in retelling its story, its constitutive narrative, and in so doing, it offers examples of the men and women who have embodied and exemplified the meaning of the community….” (153)

Lest you think the authors believe a community should look at the past through rosy glasses, they go on to mention how “painful stories of shared suffering” are just as important as recounting their community’s successes. Likewise, an honest community will maintain its “dangerous memories” of when it inflicted suffering on others, thus calling the community in the present “to alter ancient evils.” (153)

A COMMUNITY’S COMMON STORY

The history of your church is a vital component of the health of your church.

Psychologists have discovered that children who know more about their families (where they are from, who are their relatives, what are the milestones in the family’s journey, the story of their birth, etc.) are better equipped to deal with life’s challenges. Writing in The New York Times, Bruce Feiler describes a healthy narrative as “oscillating:” it includes the family’s ups and downs, victories and setbacks. The family’s identity is forged through trial.

What is a church if not the family of God? The common story of our heritage, our roots, our failures and successes – all of these elements have an identify-forging effect on God’s people. Our frequent celebrations of the Lord’s Supper reinforce our identity as followers of Jesus. A common story enables us to thrive in the midst of cultural challenges.

So how do we fight against the “tyranny of the now” that leads us to focus on the present that we forget our past and why it is important?

I see three strands in your church’s history, and each can help the church be a community of memory.

3 STRANDS OF YOUR CHURCH’S HISTORY

The first strand is the most important.

1. We are part of the people of God, who bear witness to the great story of our world.

As believers, we are children of Abraham; we have been grafted into Israel. So when we read biblical accounts, we are not merely reading about people as examples for us today; we are reading about Grandma and Grandpa. These are our fathers and mothers in the faith. When we read about the people of “the Way” in the New Testament, we are encountering the origin of the movement to which we belong.

Bearing witness to the great story of our world means we believe in God the good Creator, our rebellious descent into sin, God’s commitment to bring salvation, His choice of a holy people to be the vehicle for His good purposes in the world, His sending of the Messiah to die for our sin and launch new creation, and His commissioning of the Church to carry His gospel of love to the ends of the earth. Unless we are telling that story over and over again, our Church experience will shrivel up until it merely incorporates a religious aspect into an essentially secular life.

The second strand follows from the first.

2. We stand in a long line of saints who have sought to be faithful to Jesus.

American Christianity leans toward innovation and originality, which is why some of us try to leap over 2000 years of church history in an attempt to reach the pristine faithfulness of the New Testament church. But the New Testament churches were not exactly pristine, and neither is all of church history worthy of being discarded. Rooting our churches in 2000 years of church history (through biographical studies, quotes from important theologians, readings from the church fathers) reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

It’s true that the Church has gotten things wrong, and the Church’s heroes are, like the main characters in the Bible, flawed. For these reasons, we must not glorify the past or seek to conjure up a “golden age;” we should instead give people hope that just as God has used broken vessels and sinful people in the past, He can continue to do so with us in the present.

We are bound to repeat the mistakes of our spiritual ancestors if we are unfamiliar with the temptations they succumbed to. Likewise, we are likely to fall into cultural captivity without the witness of ancient Christianity alerting us to our own cultural blinders.

The first two strands are important for all Christians. The third is important for a local church.

3. We belong to this particular people for this particular time.

Here are the questions that arise from this strand of church history:

  • How did your church begin?
  • What movement was it a part of?
  • What is your church’s purpose?
  • What are your denomination’s distinctive beliefs?

I know of a church that recently went through a revitalization process. The church’s style today is contemporary, and yet the congregation lauds the founder of the church and the leaders demonstrate how the present state of the church maintains the original mission in its DNA. The shared story that emphasizes the original purpose is what pushes the church forward, as part of a movement that has continuity with the past.

KINGDOM OUTPOSTS, NOT LIFESTYLE ENCLAVES 

The authors of Habits of the Heart warn against the dissolution of communities of memory. “Where history and hope are forgotten and the community means only the gathering of the similar, community degenerates into lifestyle enclave,” they write.

Too many of our churches tend to be “gatherings of the similar” rather than, as in Scot McKnight’s terminology, “a fellowship of differents.” The Church should be refreshed in remembering our identity is rooted in the Scriptural story of our world, in line with the faithful saints of God through the ages, and embodied in particular congregations that serve as outposts of God’s kingdom.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax

My name is Trevin Wax. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My wife is Corina, and we have two children: Timothy (7) and Julia (3). Currently, I serve the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. I have been blogging regularly at Kingdom People since October 2006. I frequently contribute articles to other publications, such as Christianity Today. I also enjoy traveling and speaking at different churches and conferences. My first book, Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals, was published by Crossway Books in January 2010. (Click here for excerpts and more information.) My second book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope(Moody Publishers) was released in April 2011.

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COMMENTS

What say you? Leave a comment!

Recent Comments
Sorry, the author of this content has removed the links at the original source!
 
— VRcurator
 
The hypertext link is broken for the pdf download - can it be fixed? Thanks!
 
— Steve Elliott
 
What happens when u dont have a meeting place any more. And u was forced out because the buliding wasnt available any more.
 
— Debra
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.