My family and I are planning a trip to the old homestead of Shady Spring. We are wanting to go to my old home one last time before my grandmother moves and we sell the house.
It is going to be a weird experience. The home has memories of family gatherings, Christmas celebrations, and moments spent on the porch with my grandfather. Not to mention the fact that it is my last real connection to where I grew up.
I know that when we go down to the house, as I like to say, that I will do what I often do on our journeys to Shady Spring. I’ll make constant references to what was and what is not.
I’ll bemoan that Rick’s Friend Chicken has long been closed and that the building is in disarray.
I’ll get upset that the car wash is barely recognizable.
I’ll get frustrated with homes that were once pristine that are not a shell of that former beauty.
This will take up the entire one-mile drive from the entry into unincorporated Shady Spring to our home on the edge of U.S. 19. My wife has heard this conversation over and over again to the point she tires of me mentioning what was and what may never will be again.
We do this a lot in the church, do we not? We talk a lot about what was based upon our preferred memory point. We talk about the church in the past tense of what used to be, of what we once did, of how many people were here on a Sunday. We’ll talk about it in terms of our favorite era, just as I do of looking at Shady Spring as if it should always be the mid 1980s.
When we do this, it often leads us to living in a state of frustration and anxiety about the state of the church. That is how I feel every time I drive home. I get frustrated at the town not being what I remembered, and I feel anxious for wishing I could do something to get it back to what it was. I miss the chance to look at what is taking place, now, because I’m too focused on getting back to what I remember as being the best version of the town.
Our focus on the church’s past glory frustrates and leads to anxious days within our mission and ministry. We get frustrated at the current state of the church, because it is not what we remember from our previous glory days. We get anxious believing that only when we quickly return to what was will the church be able to grow. What we are most worried about, if we were to be honest with ourselves, is keeping the building open to have a place to worship.
This focus on the past as a judge of the present reality blinds us to what is truly taking place in front of us. If all we see is the past, we cannot see what is in front of us and the possibility for ministry in our community.
In those journeys to Shady Spring, there are things that I miss because I am too focused on what was. I miss that there are people trying to meet the needs of the hungry in the community. I miss how the high school has been updated to reflect current needs. I miss how there are new people who need to know that someone cares for them.
The same is true in our church and larger community. There are places all around us that give witness to the movement of God and the ongoing mission of the church. No, it will never be what it was once before, but it can be a strong witness of Christ today in this time and in this context.
Churches will only grow spiritually and numerically once it refrains from looking backwards and judging the present in accordance to the preferred past. We honor the past and those memories, but they cannot be what shapes and informs our every decision today. What must guide us, today, is our desire to make disciples of Jesus by loving God and our neighbor.
That is the only measuring stick that matters.