Chasing the Past

Recently, I had a conversation with a lay member who was putting together the communion elements. I asked a simple question: “Why do you place a cloth over the communion elements?” They responded, “I don’t know. That was how I had been taught.”

Every church that has been opened more than a few years has set in motion “the way things have always been done.” The leadership team sets down markers for growth, spiritual renewal, programs, partnerships and precedents each year. Many of these are unintended and only come about because they fit the current reality that they are facing. But for leaders and members alike, it freezes what should or should not be done in time. “How we have always done it” sneaks up on churches and becomes set in stone overnight. 

The reality is that these innocent activities have set down small idols for some at the church, and to break from tradition is almost antireligious. Chasing the past is symbolized by refusing to move things from their current position, changing the decor, or even removing a piece of furniture in fear of losing the memories from the past. The mindset of chasing the past holds captive churches and leaders who want to move forward but are unable or even unwilling to do so out of fear of hurting or angering someone.

In whatever assignment God has placed me, I have had to deal with the past as I have tried to help the church enter the new God chapter. I came to realize that the past is not the enemy nor are the people who harken back to the days when everything was great in their eyes. Here are a couple of other lessons I learned.

The past is the hero.

Unless planted in the last year, the local church you are in has a rich history of tremendous highs and incredible lows. Looking back on its history, you can see the moments where God moved; in those seasons, the marker of “hero” is set in place. The pastor who was leader at the time of the great awakening of growth through numerical increase, new buildings, campus relocation, or large community gatherings has a shadow that looms large over the leaders who came afterward.  

Those glory days are held in high esteem by those who were there. As the paradigm has shifted to slower growth or even decline, the need for a leader-savior in some people’s mind becomes more vital as the emotions of what was and what is come is put into focus. 

If you are serving in a church that is hero-worshiping the past, begin to help them see that the past cannot dictate the future but can help the church know the potential of the church. Honoring former leaders and the church’s history celebrates what God did, but is also a reminder of what God can do again. God is doing a new work inside of the church, and while the past is remarkable, God has plans that fit your current neighborhood and where he hopes to lead your congregation. Help your church focus on Jesus, not people, and watch how things begin to happen earnestly.

The past dictates the future.

In the example I shared at that beginning, my dedicated volunteer was doing everything just like the previous volunteer had taught them. But on a bigger scale, what if your church is so focused on doing things the way they have always been done that it is missing out on what God is doing now? 

Refrain from falling into the pattern of doing something that looks right but feels wrong. Begin to lead your people to pray for what God wants them to do right now. Become a right-now serving church that reaches the needs of those inside and outside the church today. God has a plan for your church. Pray and allow the Spirit to guide you to that plan, and then enable the future to dictate your pattern of serving.

In a world challenged by division, do not allow the past to divide members with the future reality of where God is leading the church. The glory days are not behind the church but before it. There are people in the community today where you serve that need your people, programs, and love for the community. Be a church where people feel welcome to enter and find a home in your pews. Strive to stay open to what others say by allowing God to do a fresh new thing as you celebrate the past, but strive forward to the future. God has a perfect plan for your church if you are willing to chase the present more than the past.

Desmond Barrett
Desmond Barrett
Desmond Barrett is the lead pastor at Winter Haven First Church of the Nazarene in Winter Haven, Florida. He is the author of several books and most recently the co-author with Charlotte P. Holter of Missional Reset: Capturing the Heart for Local Missions in the Established Church (Resource Publications) and has done extensive research in the area of church revitalization and serves as church revitalizer, consultant, coach, podcast host and mentor to revitalizing pastors and churches.