As I look at the variety of books on church growth, church organizational patterns, church trends, and church management, I see an unsettling trend. Either the book is focused on maintaining the past–reliving the traditions and experiences of the past–or it is focused on continuing what is currently working–maintaining forever today’s models–or it is focused on pressing past everything that we have known to find an entirely new way of thinking. You may ask, “Well, doesn’t that cover all the bases? One of them should be right.” But my fear is that in the press of conversation about the church, we lose balance.
A church that is focused on the past cannot be a living church. Instead, it is a re-living church.
Just as a person with Alzheimer’s can waste away while reliving the experiences of the past, a church that focuses on reliving the past will die. This church may be living off of fat stores for the present, but it does nothing to ensure for itself a future. This church will die.
The church that is focused on the present is a selfish church. It is the narcissist church that insists upon forever maintaining itself as the star–not realizing that as the context changes, it must change to be effective. This church is forever keeping up with itself–never looking forward with dreams, never looking backward to correct mistakes. It is rudderless–directionless. This church will fail.
The church that is focused on the future is a pointless church. In its quest to be church of the future, its only definition is in rejecting past and present. This church dreams but does not accomplish, plans
but never executes. How can it, when the moment the future arrives it becomes nothing more than the present, and swiftly the past? This church is anchorless–having nothing to keep it from being blown about by every wind and wave.
What then should the church look like? How does a church avoid these pitfalls?
One of the most common injunctions throughout the Scriptures is to remember. Exodus 13:3 gives a stirring command to remember: “Remember this day in which you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out of this place.” In Exodus 20, the people were told to “remember
the Sabbath.” Throughout Deuteronomy, the injunction to remember brought with it both a warning and an encouragement. Remember God’s judgment and fear. Remember God’s mercy and obey. Remember what God has spoken. Remember God’s greatness. In the New Testament, we are told to remember Christ’s words. We are given the rite of Communion “in remembrance” of Christ. The church can not and must not disobey what is so obviously a part of the Christian life: Remembering the Past.
Paul’s life and letters clearly demonstrate the importance of the church being within the present. Paul’s epistles were not so much letters of remembrance or letters of vision casting than letters grounded in the current events of the church. Paul was busy dealing with the contemporary needs of the church–II Corinthians 8 refers to the physical needs of the church in Jerusalem and how the Corinthian church was going about meeting them. Galatians
addresses the immediate theological needs of the church of Galatia. The words of Christ also portray this present tense activity of the church. The teaching of Christ is not merely stories of the past nor prophecy of the future. Christ commanded concerning the present. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “When you bring your gift to the altar…” “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” These are not injunctions of the past, nor dreams for the future. This is a present day command. The church can not and must not stray from what is so obviously a part of the Christian life: Being relevant in the Present.
One cannot read the Bible without gaining an overwhelming sense of the future. The prophecies of Daniel and Revelation put shivers down spines, but even without getting into “end time theology”, the future is an integral part of Scripture. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is directed not only at the current believers, but at those who would come. The Great Commission, while being a present command, conveys a heady promise of the future. “And Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Paul preached of the greatness of the inheritance that will be revealed. Romans 8:23-25 says, “Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for
it with perseverance.” The church can not and must not fail to possess what is so obviously a part of the Christian life: Hope for the Future.
As a church, we must press past a time frame or a verb tense. We must refrain from arguing opinion. We must lay aside the idea that progress comes by throwing out the old, or that continuing the old is progress. We must recognize the value of God’s progression of history–how the past shapes our present, which in turn shapes the future. We must recognize our role as facilitators of the narrative of God’s story. We are not the author of the story, we are merely participants in a chapter of the story. We cannot break out of the narrative to begin a new story. No, we must take the chapter we
have been given and continue the story on.