the shape of leadership

Moving Past the Good Old Days

Three ways fixating on the past can hurt your church

Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and their retired friends. Their conversations often turned to the old days.

“When I was your age, I could get a hamburger and a soda for 15 cents,” they’d say. “Those were the good old days.”

“They don’t make cars like they used to. Those were the good old days.”

I enjoyed hearing them reminisce about the good old days. But in a ministry context, such comments can be real momentum killers.

Of course, it’s appropriate to recall what God has done in the past. Scripture tells us to remember those things and pass on the testimonies to the next generation. But looking back is problematic when people become so nostalgic for the past we stop believing God for even greater things. Instead of “straining toward what is ahead,” as Paul wrote in Philippians 3:13, they start complaining about where God is leading.

Whether the conversation is about music, clothes, service styles or individual church leaders, the toxic message is the same: The best days are behind us. The mentality that things will never be as good as they used to be places immovable obstacles in front of pastors leading change.

Solomon called out such talk as foolishness: “Don’t long for ‘the good old days.’ This is not wise” (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

A good-old-days mentality in a church is destructive for three reasons:

1. It prevents the church from moving forward. It’s simple really. You can’t move forward when you’re looking back.

A day after his team won Super Bowl 51, New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said at a press conference, “As great as today is, in all honesty, we’re five weeks behind 30 teams in the league in preparing for the 2017 season.”

Coming off a great victory, Belichick was already looking forward to the future. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has expressed similar sentiments, once telling a reporter his favorite Super Bowl is “the next one.”

Successful teams, businesses, individuals and — yes — churches refuse to rest on the laurels of the good old days. The supernatural things God did in our lives and in our churches years ago should generate excitement for what’s next, not paralyze us as we pine for where we’ve been.

God wants to do something new in us and through us today. The best days truly are ahead. “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

Looking back is problematic when people become so nostalgic for the past we stop believing God for even greater things.

2. It minimizes what God is currently doing. I’ve read about what happened at Azusa Street in the early 1900s and the Brownsville revival of the 1990s. I heard the histories of churches I’ve attended and worked in. And I’m keenly aware of the church in which I currently serve. I marvel at what God has done. But I also believe God is still at work, doing many of the same things today.

God is still empowering His Church to fulfill the Great Commission. He promised to be with us “always, to the very end of the age” as we preach the gospel. When people come into a life-giving relationship with Jesus, we know God is doing what He has always done.

Yes, we’re living our own good old days. It’s foolish to minimize God’s role and impact today simply because it doesn’t look like it did years ago.

3. It creates a generational divide. This is not a new problem. In the first century, Paul told Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because of his youth (1 Timothy 4:12).

When younger leaders constantly hear that what they’re doing doesn’t measure up to some former golden era, it undermines their effectiveness and causes division.

It amazes me to see church congregations and boards voting in pastors who are under 40 years of age and then expecting them to operate like people in their 60s. When we have unhealthy expectations of what our leaders and churches should look like, it creates an ongoing internal battle. Such battles are where many churches go to die.

So, what’s a healthy approach? Let’s start by removing this good-old-days language from our vocabulary when we’re talking about the Church. This applies to people of all ages. During my first ministry role, I was often guilty of wishing I could go back to my time and experiences at a previous church.

Let’s create a healthy, respectful dialogue. Younger leaders, if an older individual says he or she wants to return to the good old days of church, graciously ask for a reason. Take the good, and leave the bad. You might find that the person desires to see the church reaching families in the community as it did in previous years. This is an easy transition to talking about how you want to reach families as well.

Older leaders, be willing to try some ways of doing things that may be different from what you did in the past. It’s not about being novel or trendy; it’s about reaching people for Jesus.

Bridging the generational gap is easier said than done, but if we individually reshape our perspectives, we can collectively see some things change. This entire conversation connects back to unity. Keeping it. Protecting it. Working toward it. Creating it.

Paul wrote, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

When we live that out in our churches, those are good days indeed.

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