There’s a great deal of debate in the church these days. That happens in times of uncertainty and great upheavals. And let’s be clear, COVID-19 and the changes wrought on society have caused a great upheaval. All the things that were normal to us have been shaken to their core. The question is what do we do now?
Do we look to the past and try to go back to what we thought was normal? Or do we go forward into an uncertain future?
Unfortunately isn’t just not as simple as one question. There are many other questions that relate to this that we should be asking.
Should the church look to nostalgia for guidance of how to proceed?
Should the church return to something in the past because that was the ideal of what church should be about?
Should the church try to recreate the times in which there was more money and more people in the pews?
Are the best days of the church in the past? That’s the core of what this way of thinking is about. If the best days of the church are in the past, then it makes sense that we would want to recreate those days.
But there is a major problem with that way of thinking. Actually there are many problems with that way of thinking. For one thing, what exact time are we trying to return to? Is there a specific date? Year? Something specific that we can point to? What makes that day or year or something so much more special than any other time in the church’s history? Why is that time better than when Jesus walked the earth and got the church started with just a handful of people?
Is it the numbers? More money, more people in the pews? Maybe it was that the church was given some kind of special place in society?
While there may have been more numbers and special privilege, was it really all that great? There was abuse going on after all – just hidden and behind the scenes. There were abusive systems in place – the congregation would abuse the pastor, but give the pastor a prominent position and voice and say. And the pastor in turn would abuse the congregation through manipulation and demanding that things be done his way (yes, there were only male pastors during this time). This is certainly not true of every congregation, but I’ve heard enough stories over the years to know that this was not a rarity.
Were the best years of the church in the past? Really? Or is this just our rose-colored glasses perverting our view of the past and making the past into a nice black-and-white TV series from the middle part of the last century where there were supposedly no problems, everyone got along, and there was a homemade meal that was prepared just right every time? Too often we have a idealized memory of the past.
I would argue that the best days of the church are yet to come. In fact, I would argue that the church teaches this in its theology. It has been this way since the very beginning. The story of creation is one in which God creates and everything is just perfect. And then sin comes in. Humanity is cast out of the garden. But here’s the thing, God never tries to get everyone back in the garden. Yes, the end of Revelation (chapters 21 and 22) sure sound like re-creating the Garden, but that’s not exactly it. There are elements of the garden in Revelation, but it’s not re-creating the Garden. It’s a newness. “A new heaven and a new earth.” Not a re-created old garden.
In Hebrews 11:1, we hear, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That isn’t looking back to the past. That’s forward looking.
In other words, the best days of the church are still to come. He have hope for the future.
Which makes sense. One way of describing time is that God is at the end of time holding out God’s arms and pulling us towards God and the full embrace of God. We are moving towards the fulfillment. How could that not be the best days yet to come?
In practical terms, this means that as churches emerge from this pandemic, they need to ask themselves, how are we oriented and where does our faith reside – in the past or in the future? Is God a God of the past who tries to re-create the past? Or is God a God we are moving towards in which all things will be made new? Once we are clear on our answer, then churches can plan and make appropriate changes. These changes may be significant. It may require churches to explore and examine why they exist, what the role of a pastor is, what is discipleship, what is membership, what does ministry look like, how do we use the money of the church, what is the role of technology, where do youth fit in, how are decisions made, how do we use our property and other resources, etc.
We’ll answer these questions (if we are willing to explore them at all), based on whether we believe the church should go back to some mythical time that never really existed except in our minds, or by looking to where Jesus is taking us and where Jesus is showing up.
The church has long preached life, death, and resurrection. Now is the time to live into this proclamation. Resurrection isn’t about re-creating the past. It’s new life, better life. But some things need to die in order to experience this new life. Our old ways, and nostalgia no longer serve us and the church. We can’t go back, nor should we want to. Everything has changed – the culture, technology, education, relationships, and the church too. We aren’t called to hide from change, but to deal with it. We are called to deal with reality so that we can be a witness of the Good News to those around us. They need to hear and see the Good News in action. The world around us needs to see and hear what moving towards God at the end of time is really like. The church has a mission to move forward, not retreat back in time. We can’t go back, nor should we. That time, those circumstances, no longer exist.
The church is the body of Christ. Bodies change over time. I’m 45. I can’t do the same things that I used to be able to do 20 years ago. Nor should I. That body is long gone. But I have gained valuable wisdom and insight – something I didn’t have when I was 25. I’m not called to forget the wisdom and try to re-establish my 25 year old body. I’m called to deal with my reality right now, and bring what I have learned with me. The church is called to the same thing.