I once caught a deacon throwing choir robes out of the second-story window into a giant fire on the ground below.
“What’s going on?”
By the look and smell of the robes, I agreed and went about my business.
There were probably one hundred burning robes in the fire — enough for every person in the church to take home three or four. I wondered if the choir was ever that large, or if the church ever had a choir. No one knew. The remnant of my first church numbered six on my first Sunday. The church’s history was buried in the graveyard on the east side of our property.
Part of what saddened me in my first church was the lost history. The church was founded in 1856, with few documents describing the past. Community folklore gave some insight into the church’s history, but most people did not have firsthand knowledge.
We do not know our history like we once did — biblical history, family history, and our nation’s history. Why should we care? History gives meaning to traditions. History gives purpose to church practices. History provides insight into culture. History contains all the chapters leading up to the current narrative in the church. You cannot create an enduring story without history. Church leaders can — and should — honor the past. We can do so without losing the future.
1. Have a genuine love for the history of your church. Another church I pastored had a historical marker and a 200-page book dedicated to its history. A key part of loving the congregation was knowing the history. I read the book several times and studied the archives of the church. It was a way to demonstrate love. I made many leadership mistakes there, but at least the church knew I had a genuine love of their past. The only way forward was by knowing the past.
2. Celebrate the parts of the past that support the future vision. You become what you celebrate, and there are plenty of things to celebrate in the past that will push you into the future. For example, my church has a history of planting other churches. Celebrating this culture was a good way to prepare us for the next phase of launching neighborhood sites.
3. Tell the story of past change efforts with a positive perspective. Denigrating the past will taint the future. A negative perspective of past change efforts will not help you craft a vision. Instead, utilize positive past change efforts and tell that story.
4. Turn the legacy into a guide, not a hurdle. Legacy can be either negative or positive. Not everything in the past is worth celebrating. But even the negative parts of a church’s history can become a guide, not a hurdle. You will not know how to take corrective action unless you acknowledge past mistakes. And you can’t acknowledge past mistakes unless you know the history of the church.
5. Ask elderly heroes to show support publicly. Do the work of encouraging those who made history happen. Champion their past causes and ask them to support the future vision publicly.
You can honor the past while not losing the future. In fact, the honor you show the past may become the way in which the future opens.
Originally published at Church Answers.
Sam Rainer is president of Church Answers and pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Florida.