The Difference Between Living IN the Past and Living OUT of the Past

Does your church have a past?

Of course it does. Your church had a beginning, and the movement that birthed your church has a history also.

But does your church’s past have any meaning or significance in the life of your congregation?

The answer to that question does not come as easily.


In a previous post, I wrote about the need for churches to live in 3-fold time, with proper attention devoted to the past events that constitute identity, the present tasks before us today, and the future hope that strengthens our witness.

Today, I want to focus on the first aspect — how a church can be rooted in the saving actions God has performed in the past and the sustaining grace He has shown to His people throughout history.

Whenever we hear about looking “backwards,” we feel a twinge of resistance. To look backward must mean we are turning back the clock, giving into unhealthy and nostalgic tendencies that hinder our mission, right? So the solution should be to free ourselves from the shackles of history and tradition in order to better adapt to our times.

This way of thinking makes good sense to many today, but it needs strong qualification. There is a difference between living in the past (with a nostalgic yearning for a golden age of yesteryear) and livingout of the past, which means we see ourselves in continuity with our forefathers and mothers in the faith.


In Habits of the Heart, sociologists from the University of California claim that a real community must be “a community of memory;” that is, “one that does not forget its past.” They write:

“In order not to forget that past, a community is involved in retelling its story, its constitutive narrative, and in so doing, it offers examples of the men and women who have embodied and exemplified the meaning of the community….” (153)

Lest you think the authors believe a community should look at the past through rosy glasses, they go on to mention how “painful stories of shared suffering” are just as important as recounting their community’s successes. Likewise, an honest community will maintain its “dangerous memories” of when it inflicted suffering on others, thus calling the community in the present “to alter ancient evils.” (153)


The history of your church is a vital component of the health of your church.

Psychologists have discovered that children who know more about their families (where they are from, who are their relatives, what are the milestones in the family’s journey, the story of their birth, etc.) are better equipped to deal with life’s challenges. Writing in The New York Times, Bruce Feiler describes a healthy narrative as “oscillating:” it includes the family’s ups and downs, victories and setbacks. The family’s identity is forged through trial.

What is a church if not the family of God? The common story of our heritage, our roots, our failures and successes – all of these elements have an identify-forging effect on God’s people. Our frequent celebrations of the Lord’s Supper reinforce our identity as followers of Jesus. A common story enables us to thrive in the midst of cultural challenges.

So how do we fight against the “tyranny of the now” that leads us to focus on the present that we forget our past and why it is important?

I see three strands in your church’s history, and each can help the church be a community of memory.


The first strand is the most important.

1. We are part of the people of God, who bear witness to the great story of our world.

As believers, we are children of Abraham; we have been grafted into Israel. So when we read biblical accounts, we are not merely reading about people as examples for us today; we are reading about Grandma and Grandpa. These are our fathers and mothers in the faith. When we read about the people of “the Way” in the New Testament, we are encountering the origin of the movement to which we belong.

Bearing witness to the great story of our world means we believe in God the good Creator, our rebellious descent into sin, God’s commitment to bring salvation, His choice of a holy people to be the vehicle for His good purposes in the world, His sending of the Messiah to die for our sin and launch new creation, and His commissioning of the Church to carry His gospel of love to the ends of the earth. Unless we are telling that story over and over again, our Church experience will shrivel up until it merely incorporates a religious aspect into an essentially secular life.

The second strand follows from the first.

2. We stand in a long line of saints who have sought to be faithful to Jesus.

American Christianity leans toward innovation and originality, which is why some of us try to leap over 2000 years of church history in an attempt to reach the pristine faithfulness of the New Testament church. But the New Testament churches were not exactly pristine, and neither is all of church history worthy of being discarded. Rooting our churches in 2000 years of church history (through biographical studies, quotes from important theologians, readings from the church fathers) reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

It’s true that the Church has gotten things wrong, and the Church’s heroes are, like the main characters in the Bible, flawed. For these reasons, we must not glorify the past or seek to conjure up a “golden age;” we should instead give people hope that just as God has used broken vessels and sinful people in the past, He can continue to do so with us in the present.

We are bound to repeat the mistakes of our spiritual ancestors if we are unfamiliar with the temptations they succumbed to. Likewise, we are likely to fall into cultural captivity without the witness of ancient Christianity alerting us to our own cultural blinders.

The first two strands are important for all Christians. The third is important for a local church.

3. We belong to this particular people for this particular time.

Here are the questions that arise from this strand of church history:

  • How did your church begin?
  • What movement was it a part of?
  • What is your church’s purpose?
  • What are your denomination’s distinctive beliefs?

I know of a church that recently went through a revitalization process. The church’s style today is contemporary, and yet the congregation lauds the founder of the church and the leaders demonstrate how the present state of the church maintains the original mission in its DNA. The shared story that emphasizes the original purpose is what pushes the church forward, as part of a movement that has continuity with the past.


The authors of Habits of the Heart warn against the dissolution of communities of memory. “Where history and hope are forgotten and the community means only the gathering of the similar, community degenerates into lifestyle enclave,” they write.

Too many of our churches tend to be “gatherings of the similar” rather than, as in Scot McKnight’s terminology, “a fellowship of differents.” The Church should be refreshed in remembering our identity is rooted in the Scriptural story of our world, in line with the faithful saints of God through the ages, and embodied in particular congregations that serve as outposts of God’s kingdom.

> Read more from Trevin.

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Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax

My name is Trevin Wax. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My wife is Corina, and we have two children: Timothy (7) and Julia (3). Currently, I serve the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. I have been blogging regularly at Kingdom People since October 2006. I frequently contribute articles to other publications, such as Christianity Today. I also enjoy traveling and speaking at different churches and conferences. My first book, Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals, was published by Crossway Books in January 2010. (Click here for excerpts and more information.) My second book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope(Moody Publishers) was released in April 2011.

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comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you Ed for sharing your insights into the Church Growth Movement. I have my reservations with Church Growth models because it has done more damage than good in the Body of Christ. Over the years, western churches are more focused on results, formulas and processes with little or no emphasis on membership and church discipline. Pastors and vocational leaders are burnt out because they're overworked. I do believe that the Church Growth model is a catalyst to two destructive groups: The New Apostolic Reformation and the Emerging Church. Both groups overlap and have a very loose definition. They're both focus on contemporary worship, expansion of church brand (franchising), and mobilizing volunteering members as 'leaders' to grow their ministry. Little focus on biblical study, apologetics and genuine missional work with no agenda besides preaching of the gospel.
— Dave
comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you for sharing such a good article. It is a great lesson I learned from this article. I am one of the leaders in Emmanuel united church of Ethiopia (A denomination with more-than 780 local churches through out the country). I am preparing a presentation on succession planning for local church leaders. It will help me for preparation If you send me more resources and recommend me books to read on the topic. I hope we may collaborate in advancing leadership capacity of our church. God Bless You and Your Ministry.
— Argaw Alemu
comment_post_ID); ?> Amen!!
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