Local Church Ministry

Is the Past the Hero in Your Church?

The older I get, the more I understand the nostalgic pull of the good ole days. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s front porch with my extended family on warm summer evenings. I remember getting lost in the woods with my childhood friends. I remember my mom cooking a grilled cheese sandwich for me every day. I miss those days. Whenever I take a trip down memory lane, there’s always a part of me that wants to stay there awhile.

If you’ve been a member of your church for several years, I’m sure you have fond memories as well. There are probably times when you find yourself desiring to go back there too – dinner on the grounds; packed Sunday school classrooms; weeklong revivals – such happy memories.

Trust me, I understand. The good ole days are the good ole days for a reason. Unfortunately, some churches try to live in the good ole days. In doing so, they reveal that the past is their hero. These churches talk about the past frequently and are unwilling to make changes that could be interpreted in any way as dishonoring the past. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is a common phrase. 

While it’s appropriate to honor the past, your church can’t live there. Doing so will make present and future ministry efforts quite difficult for your pastor and other church leaders and could ultimately lead to the death of your church. In fact, as Thom Rainer explained in his book Autopsy of a Deceased Church, “the most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero.”

In Philippians 3:13-14, Paul encouraged his Philippian brothers and sisters to follow his example regarding the past. He explained his approach this way: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.” In other words, honor the past, but focus on the future. 

While this verse can be applied in many different ways, I want to limit the discussion for the remainder of this post to how your church’s past relates to your present and future pastors. Here are a few specific suggestions to avoid allowing the past to have a more prominent position than it should:

  • Remember that a beloved former pastor is not your pastor anymore. I understand; I have fond memories of some former pastors as well. For a season, they fed, led, protected, and comforted my soul. I am grateful for the various ways they impacted my life. But that season has come to an end. Therefore, don’t pick up the phone or text a former pastor every time you need spiritual guidance. He isn’t your pastor anymore; allow your current pastor to be your pastor.
  • Avoid comparisons between former pastors and your current pastor. Try not to say, “That’s not the way our former pastor did it.” Just as you probably wouldn’t enjoy hearing about all the great things from his previous church, he probably would prefer not to hear about how he will have a hard time filling a beloved former pastor’s shoes. Allow him the freedom to pastor your church the way God leads him to do so.
  • Avoid comparisons between former pastors’ wives and your current pastor’s wife. For all of the same reasons listed above, your current pastor’s wife does not need to constantly hear about how her predecessor did things. She already has enough on her plate without trying to live up to someone else’s reputation.
  • Avoid posting historical artifacts in prominent places. Again, while it is appropriate to honor the past, your current pastor will probably not want to see a huge oil painting of a former pastor with a thirty-year tenure hanging in the church foyer. It will cast too long of a shadow. A church library or historical room is an appropriate place to collect and display artifacts from the church’s past. Just don’t do so in ways that imply that the church’s past may be more important than its future.
  • Learn from the past. The good ole days might not be as good as we remember. We tend to recall the good times, while the tough times are more likely to fade from our memories. However, as the old saying goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Consider how many times Israel forgot about their past mistakes and how that led to devastating consequences. Therefore, don’t forget past lessons learned, for they can help you and your church make better decisions in the future.
  • Talk about the future. While it’s fun to take a trip down memory lane, it’s also exciting to dream about the future. Talk to your pastor and fellow church members about your hopes, dreams, and fears regarding the church’s future. The more you talk about the future of your church, the more you will invest in it.

I have a ton of great memories from my past. I’m sure you do too. But if you commit to being humble, you will not selfishly allow the church’s past to dictate its future. The past cannot be the hero of your church. That position has already been claimed by Jesus.

Note: This post is adapted from a chapter in my upcoming book, The Church During the Search, available for pre-order now on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3f2Lbc0

Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

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