Five Ways to Honor the Past While Not Losing the Future

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?”

“Fire hazard.” 

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 two-hundred-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.

Posted on February 1, 2023

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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  • As you might imagine in an area which dates to Jamestown Colony (Virginia), history is important. In my years of ministry I have confirmed that there is a thing “institutional DNA” which transcends living memory. One question from the generational families is “who is your kin?” Because to whom you belong is important in the story of the community.

    Story is important – not as an idol, but to understand how things function. Knowing the story can describe the underlying tension which nobody who has been in the community for generations recognizes because “that’s always the way things have been since my great grandma was here.”

    Another part of knowing the history is, if a church has been around long enough there will be practical examples of God’s promises and the tenets of our faith. In our church, there have been two long-term periods where the church was empty – right after the Revolution and in the early 1800s for nearly 30 years leading up to the Civil War. There is a story of redemption and reconciliation in those events. Likewise, the leadership got in trouble in ~1738 and there was a leadership issue forced by the Governor (remembering we were the King of England’s church at the time). Yet, out of that issue, the church continues operating in fits and starts for nearly 300 years.

    Last, learning a church’s history shows the pastor cares. Not just for the institution but for the people with whom the pastor is supposed to serve. It is a way to build trust and show that you care for all parts of the life of the church.

  • Man, is this blog a breath of fresh air! I belong to a Facebook discussion group for SBC pastors, and this morning I saw where someone had asked the question, “Which traditions in your church have become an idol?” Of course, many chimed in with their pet peeves (some of which were quite petty). I suggested that maybe the war on tradition has become an idol. I agree that a church shouldn’t be bound by tradition, but not all traditions are bad, and I think it’s much more dangerous for churches to be obsessed with each new fad that comes along. As you said, there is a happy medium between tradition and change.

    Thanks again for a timely blog.

  • I believe it was Aubrey Malphurs who wrote in his book, Advanced Strategic Planning, to always honor the past but never worship it. For some, the best glory days of the church are always found in the past and they feel that they need to be resurrected in order for the church to thrive again. It’s a skilled and wise leader who respects the church’s history and embraces a changing future.