WAY BACK in 1997, Leith Anderson wrote these words:
“As soon as people walk into a church, they can tell if it is oriented toward the past or the future. They don’t discover that by what they see as much as by what they hear. When I visit a church or catch conversations in my congregation, I listen to how people talk about one subject: the greatest days of the church.”
That is so true.
If you’ve been around a church for any length of time, you probably have heard someone refer to the “good old days,” usually in a conversation about how good things used to be compared to how bad they are today.
It’s not always malicious; in fact, it rarely is. Often it’s the result of nostalgia mixed with memories and a desire to recapture a feeling. The “good old days” might have been when a child was baptized or a spouse started attending church. Maybe it was a certain preacher that they felt more connected to.
Memories, especially precious memories, are good and serve a healthy purpose. They remind us to be grateful and to be aware of God’s faithfulness and provision.
But no one – or church – can live in a memory.
It is one thing to honor the past. It is something altogether different to try and recreate it when the conditions and culture have changed.
As Anderson points out in his book, churches that are oriented towards the past are not good at attracting and retaining new people. Why is that? The new people may need to know context and history, but the “good old days” stories will soon wear thin and not provide the one thing they desperately need: hope for the future.
There a simple ways you can tell if a church is past or future oriented:
- Do they promote a culture of risk and innovation?
- Do they invest in the next generation?
- Do they have a sense of excitement and anticipation?
- Do you hear “that didn’t work before” or “I can’t wait until the next time”?
When a church believes the greatest days are always out in front of it, it will attract those who want to be a part of progress. This is not to say a past-oriented isn’t attractive. It is. It just attracts people who also believe the best days are in the past. Rather than exuding holy optimism, it breeds an unholy cynicism.
Reflecting on the past is one thing. Constantly reliving the past is not healthy.
In Philippians 3, the apostle Paul tells us to forget about what lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead. Every church would be a better church if they could forget a few things and keep their eyes focused on the future.