One of the great assets of Presbyterian churches is our history. We see the history of our congregations as one of our great strengths. And it is, but it can also be a great impediment to being the church we need to be in the future. While there is much to say about this, I want to be brief.
When the history of the church takes prominence in the life of the church it creates an environment of preservation. The expectation by the membership is to not change, but to preserve the past in the present. Often pastors get into trouble because they have insufficiently protected the past. I often speak of the pastor as "the curator of the museum of memories." One of my client churches actually has a museum in their church, and they are justly proud of their 200 years of ministry.
However, they are like many churches. Their honoring of the past has hidden liabilities in it.
1. It assumes that new people want to share that history at the level they do.
2. It breeds a passivism that is critical and defensive.
3. It is a selective memory that provides a basis for no change or even the addressing of potential change. The only change is to return to the golden days of the past.
4. It assumes that the current strengths of the church are the same as the good old days or that those strengths or practices of the past are still relevant for today.
5. If they know that the church is decline, then the answer is to return to a time with the church was strong.
This phenomenon is no respecter of theology, culture or region. Even new church developments quickly develop this behavior. So, what is the answer?
1. Whatever your past strengths are, they still matter. They just need to be interpreted for a contemporary time.
2. The preservation of the history of the church cannot be the church's mission. That mission needs to be a call from God to be a loving, redemptive force in the world. Most likely, the strengths of the past were built on a foundation of a vital, healthy church life.
3. An honest appraisal of the church's current situation is essential if the future is to become a realistic aspiration. Except in certain situations, I don't find that reliving the issues of the past are productive for creating a hopeful vision of the future.
4. Membership identity needs to shift from the church to the church's mission from God. It is a shift from membership to call.
5. You need to honor the past by looking to the future. This requires a change in mindset to determine what should be the impact of the church in the future. Whatever that impact is functions in the same way that the impact of the church in the past did to create the love, devotion and commitment of people to the church.
The key to making this shift of perspective lies with the pastor and the Session. You are the leaders of the church, and if you can honestly address this reality, then you have made the most important step forward. All subsequent steps will be easy compared to the one that admits need.
If you want to know more, just give me a call or send an email.