This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


First of all, I love history. I like to read history and biography. I enjoy exploring historical sites and can spend hours in a trance reading every piece of information in a museum. History is very valuable and interesting to me.

I have never served in a church that did not lead with its history… but I have learned that this is often a big problem. As I peruse Church Information Forms, almost all of them mention somewhere prominently the date of the church’s founding. Now, I can understand why churches do this. They want to establish a sense of continuity and stability, proving their effectiveness and faithfulness over time. Like a business attesting to its own trustworthiness, churches are proud to have been around “since 1886,” or whatever.

But one of the biggest problems in established main-line churches today is nostalgia. Presbyterians often have this mindset that dwells on the past, viewing it in rosy and idealized tones. Compared with the “glory days,” our work today seems weak and inconsequential.

The most intense focus of this nostalgia is the 1950’s, when sanctuaries and Sunday Schools were overflowing and we couldn’t build churches or educate new ministers fast enough. For so many churches the tacit expectation of a new minister is to make it 1956 again. Much of the “church growth” industry feeds on this vain hope. Churches have sacrificed their very souls for the promise of full pews and abundant budgets, caving in to advertizing gimmicks and slick, pop “worship,” designed more to attract spectators than to cultivate disciples.

But this problem is deeper. For the whole edifice of Christendom has changed dramatically over the past few decades. I fear that the more we are identified – in our own minds and in the minds of others – with our past, the less able we are to communicate the gospel to today’s world.

In the first place, the past is a distraction. It may be interesting to us to celebrate a church’s colonial heritage or its revolutionary war history, or even to make a big deal out of the Reformation. But how does this emphasis serve the church’s mission today? What does that focus say to unchurched people today, except to proclaim how “yesterday” we are? We may veer very close to the mentality of museum curators or historical reenactors, as if the church were sort of a religious Colonial Williamsburg.

Too many of us think of our past as a golden age of splendid faithfulness. But there is an awful lot in our past not to be particularly proud of. The church of yesterday often supported and encouraged racism, militarism, nationalism, violence towards indigenous peoples, economic injustice, and environmental depredation. Eighty years ago parts of New Jersey were hotbeds of Klan activity, whose leadership included Presbyterian ministers! Some of our past we only lift up in shame and confession.

On the other hand, there are elements of our past that might be worth dusting off and placing front and center. In my first parish in far upstate New York they told the story of how their church was a last stop on the Underground Railroad. There was even a network of tunnels connecting the church basement with nearby homes, so escaped slaves could be hidden before being shepherded across the nearby Canadian border, in perfect violation of Federal law. There is a quality of active and risky faithfulness to be proud of!

But even these positive historical memories can be counterproductive if they simply remind us of how domesticated, timid, complacent, and reactionary, is a church’s mission today.

My point is that, in framing our history as a church, we need to be intentional and conscious that what we are communicating to people today. If we look like we have more to say to people and issues of one or more centuries ago, people are going to notice that and find us and our message hard to relate to.

The good news of God’s love for the world, revealed in Jesus, is timeless. It speaks to each generation. It is always new, fresh, wild, and amazing. When we sift through our past in articulating our identity, we need to lift up the times when our forebears were most faithful at the greatest cost.

And we need to be always seeking to speak and live this faith in terms intelligible to people in our own time and place. We need to lead with what God is doing with and among us today.

1 comment:

John Edward Harris said...

Yep! Yet Jesus and the early church seemed to focus more on the future and the inbreaking kindom of God rather than looking back at what had been.

Your post a few weeks ago about the Celtic Way of Evangelism has prompted me to start reading George Hunter's book by the same name, and I am wondering how the two subjects inform each other.

As we enter Advent, I also wonder how many of us will be focusing on preparing to welcome the returning Christ rather than simply remembering his first coming?