You think back to that time often. Maybe it was a decade ago, maybe a generation ago, or maybe it was just a few years ago. It was an exciting time in the life of your church. The sanctuary was full on a Sunday morning, children were running around before the service. The choir sounded good, and the sermons were inspirational. Everyone knew it; your church was making a real difference. Most churches can point back to a time like this in their memory, and many churches want that back.
It is no secret that many traditional churches in the United States are in decline, especially in rural areas. I know them. I grew up in one of them, and I regularly preach at churches in this category. These congregations look around week after week and see empty space in the pews. They pass unused Sunday school rooms on their way to the corner class where they meet. The children’s room has toys on the floor, but they are collecting dust.
Some of these churches speak of change. They know that they must do something and many of them have all the right reasons in mind. They know the Great Commission; they know their responsibility to reach their community; and they want change because they love God. However, as Ed Stetzer puts it in Planting Missional Churches, “For many people a vision for the future tends to involve revisiting an effective past experience.”
Change, in this instance, is not moving forward but returning once again to a period in the church’s history that was deemed successful. It is easy to understand the logic. Church members remember a time when they feel they were about Kingdom business, they evaluate the things they were doing then in order to accomplish that task, and then they seek to apply those today in an effort to bring back the glory days. Perhaps people ascribe the success to a particularly winsome pastor, so they try to find another personality like him. Maybe there were particular programs in place that seemed especially effective, so they try and reinstitute a new program hoping people will attend. Maybe it was music. Maybe it was a robust children’s ministry. Whatever the case, this kind of change always looks backward in an attempt to replicate successes from the past.
In his book, Who Moved My Pulpit?, Thom Rainer calls these people The Confused. “Sometimes the confused includes those who want to hang on to some tradition for their own sense of security and comfort. They may sincerely believe the tradition to be vitally important… In simple terms, the confused give highest priorities to those things that are not high priority,” claims Thom. So many churches desire effectiveness again, and even desire it for the right reasons, but feel that hanging on to a past success is the only means forward. They dissect memories of their heyday looking for the answer to their decline. It inevitably came when something was changed. That charismatic pastor left, or they ended that one program. Now, they are in decline and the vision forward is really a trip back in time.
Simply put, that does not work.
Focusing on the rearview mirror causes you to miss the road ahead.
It is not wrong to evaluate the past. In fact, it is healthy to look back at the evidences of God’s grace in your church. But the needs of a new day are not met by merely recreating the past. Cars have rearview mirrors for good reason. You need to see what is behind you, and it is good to remember your path. However, constantly staring in the rearview mirror is dangerous, because it causes you to miss the road ahead. Churches who desire a return to past successes are missing the road ahead. Unless you are on a race track, the next turn is different from the last one.
For church ministry to succeed today, it must have a clear view of two things: biblical vision and cultural context. There are unchanging truths about the purpose and mission of the church. The church is the pillar and buttress of the truth. It is the body of Christ and sent in continuance of his mission to seek and save the lost. The church presents the light of the gospel in a dark world. The church is a preview of the coming kingdom. These unwavering truths are the bedrock of ministry and are the same in 2016 as they were in 1955. Churches who stray from these principles in search of success have missed the mark completely. They may find some other kind of “success”, but it will not be biblical success. It will not be success in fulfilling the very purpose of the church.
Alongside a clear, biblical vision, churches must also possess a clear view of the cultural context ahead of them. It is on this point that churches who long for the past fail. The culture today is not the same as the culture of the heyday. Truth is, your neighborhood is not what it used to be. That can be a point of dismay for some traditional churches, but dismay is not God’s heart for your neighborhood. There are a host of new opportunities outside your doors. Missions is changing, because your neighborhood is changing. Most of you now have a Muslim or Hindu neighbor, whether you realize it or not.
Your church’s mission is to bear witness to the gospel today just as it was then, but that comes with change as the community changes. If we are not careful to pay attention to the context around us, then we cannot serve as faithful stewards of the gospel to that context. Your church’s community is not going back. Thank God for the blessings in your rearview mirror, but make sure your church keeps her eyes on the road ahead.