This past weekend, our church held a homecoming service. We invited dozens of members and former members who had once called Stephens home but had since moved off. When we first started preparing for the weekend, I wondered how many people would travel back to our little town for a church service and a meal. The answer was more than we really ever imagined. We went from our normal average of between 30 and 40 to nearly 200.
It was a joy-filled event, but through the preparation and even throughout that Sunday, homecoming reminded me of the uneasy relationship a small church often has with the past. Small-town churches are often in decline for spiritual reasons that were more easily masked when the cultural, demographic, and economic environment was more favorable to growth. Even relatively healthy churches that recall a time when the pews were fuller can idealize the past. There were several wistful comments on Sunday about how people remembered when the building was that full every Sunday.
Meanwhile, those of us who are called to pastor churches like these know that idealizing the past can be harmful for a church’s current health and devastating for its future. One problem is that the “golden age” rarely ever was as golden as it becomes as it is painted by nostalgia, yet the vision of the church can be imprisoned by a desire to go back to a time that is gone. Programs and methods that worked in a particular time and place can outlast their usefulness or restarting programs that have fallen away can become a goal. “If we can just get back to doing what we used to do,” the logic goes, “the good ol’ days might come back again.” Rather than looking forward to the new thing God will do in the church, the ideal future becomes for God to simply return the church to what it was decades before, in a time and place that will never return.
Most church members realize, however, that the church will never return to what it was, and this understanding creates an even more damaging mentality — that the church’s best days are in the past. Like an old ballplayer reminiscing about his playing days, a church can see not only that former place-and-time success as unrecoverable, but also believe that once these “prime years” have passed, the future holds nothing but further decline. The story of the church has already been written; we are living in the epilogue. And so nostalgia can become poisonous.
So how does a pastor lead his church away from this mentality?
One approach that doesn’t work is to try to intentionally poke holes in the memory of the golden past. It’s hard on a pastor’s ego to realize that your tenure will never be considered “the good old days.” But even if a pastor can discern evidence of what was unhealthy in the church in its bygone era, there is no point in arguing with people about whether it was all it was cracked up to be or not. He wasn’t there. He didn’t experience the church in these years, so he has no real basis for judgment. It is healthy for a church to consider the sins of the past in order to repent and ask forgiveness, but these are discoveries that the Holy Spirit must reveal directly to God’s people. Our job as pastor, with regard to the past, is to celebrate it out of thanksgiving to God. After all, the things God did in the church in the past is the reason there is a church to lead today.
So how does a church celebrate the past without living there?
I think it comes down to something a veteran small-town pastor friend of mine told me recently: the reason all the history we celebrate at an event like homecoming matters is because of what God continues to do today. One of the main reasons we celebrate our heritage is because it has defined and led us to where we are now. And God is still doing His work.
To me, that was the greatest blessing of homecoming weekend. Through all of the testimonies shared, it was clear that God’s work through our church is continuing all over the state and country. People were not just coming back because they missed small-town simplicity; they wanted to pay homage to the fellowship where they first came to know the Lord Jesus, who is still active in their lives today. Many eagerly gave to our Alaska missions, as well as to the regular offering, so that the work of God would continue. We not only looked back with gratitude, we looked forward with hope.
Only our Father knows what lies ahead for our church. My task is to point our people forward in anticipation for what God still has in store, while being grateful for the journey that has led us here.