It’s Not What It Used To Be

What Every Pastor Should Know About Leading People Who Long for the Past

The COVID-19 pandemic took away much of what people were attached to in our churches. Honestly, we leaders liked them too—being with people we liked, feeling the buzz of activity in the building, singing in worship, running games with kids in a boisterous gym or activity room. 

Then we regrouped. Here and there, conditions permitting, most of us began to build back, relaunching in-person services and programming in some form. But it wasn’t the same. There were fewer people in the auditorium and fewer participants in programs. Things weren’t working the way they used to, both because of restrictions and because there weren’t enough volunteers. It was discouraging and maybe even depressing. 

In the gap between our expectations of what would be and our experience of what was, we may have slipped into nostalgia. Without a doubt, many of our people have.

Nostalgia is what happens when you remember the past but have no imagination for the future.

– DAVE RHODES –

Nostalgia is what happens when you remember the past but have no imagination for the future, so you spend your effort trying to re-create the past or bitterly mourning that you can’t go back. This isn’t just a COVID problem—in most of our churches, sorrow and even anger over the loss of the good old days has been going on for while now. People were already bemoaning how there weren’t as many people as there used to be, people weren’t as committed as they ought to be, and the church wasn’t as good as it used to be.

We might look on nostalgia with fondness, but it can be deadly. Repeatedly throughout the Bible, God calls his people to remember, but he never calls them to live in nostalgia. To the contrary, he commands his people to remember the past in order to create the future.

WHEN CHURCH DOESN’T MEASURE UP TO THE MEMORY

In the sixth century BC, after seventy years in Babylon, exiled from their homeland, a group of Jews returned to the ruined city of Jerusalem. They began rebuilding the temple right away. But after they laid its foundation and built the altar, everyone got distracted building their own house, and circumstances intimidated them from finishing.

After a few years, the prophet Haggai appeared on the scene with a challenge: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin? . . . Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (Hag. 1:4–6). In other words, “You stopped building the temple. How’s that working out for you?”

The people took Haggai seriously and started building again. But as people watched the new temple rise, especially those who were children when the first temple was still standing many years before, they started to sigh, “I remember what the first temple looked like, how amazing it was. This new one doesn’t look anything like it. It’s not nearly as good!” Through Haggai, God pointedly spoke what these people were thinking: “Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?” (Hag. 2:3). How discouraging this nostalgia must have been to the builders and their leaders!

Do you feel that way as a leader today? You know your church is only a fraction or even a ruin of its former self. You’re working hard to rebuild things, but your people are looking around saying, “I remember the good old days. I remember when this place was filled! I remember when we had things going on every night of the week, and everyone pitched in. I remember when God was doing this and when that was happening. And pastor, you’re not building it back the right way, the way it used to be.”

GOD’S PRESENCE WITH US GIVES US STRENGTH FOR TODAY AND HOPE FOR TOMORROW

This situation was as tough for the leaders of the Jewish resettlers as it is for you, so the word of the Lord to them then is his same word to you today: “‘But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear'” (Hag. 2:4–5).

I am with you—these are loaded words. These are the words God said to Moses when he called him to lead the people out of Egypt. He spoke them to Joshua when he stepped into Moses’ shoes, and they felt too big for his feet. He spoke them to David when he became a king after God’s own heart. He spoke them to Asa when Jerusalem was surrounded by the enemy. Jesus spoke them to his disciples, and Paul passed them down to Timothy: I am with you.

Here in the middle of the building project, with spectators who remember the glory of the first temple, stuck in the gap between their expectation and their experience, God said, “I will be with you.” He reminded his people that the distinguishing characteristic of the first temple, what made it so great, was not what they could see—not the gold or the silver or the bronze or the stone. Rather, it was the presence of God with them. And no matter how the new building might compare with people’s memory, God’s presence can come again: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while . . . I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Hag. 2:6–7). Not only that, but “‘the glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty” (Hag. 2:9).

GOD’S GLORY IS COMING TO HIS CHURCH

Maybe your heart needs to hear the same message today. Over the last year, our ministry situation has been so shaken, so disrupted, that in a way, we’re all church planters again, whether in a big church or small, whether rural or urban or suburban. We’re all dealing with discouragement, disgust, and the gap between expectation and experience coming both from the people we lead and from ourselves.

God also warns us and our people against making comparisons to the old temple. Our memory mustn’t trap us in nostalgia, because if we keep building, the glory of the new house may outshine the former one in just a little while.

We don’t know whether God’s presence filled the second temple as it did when Solomon dedicated the first. But we do know that four centuries later, the desired-of-nations entered the temple when Jesus, God in the flesh, walked in as a twelve-year-old boy. Some years after that, in that same temple, Jesus announced, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). We know he meant his body. But we also know that his body-temple isn’t just what rose from the grave: it’s the church—us. “You are the body of Christ,” Paul told the believers in Corinth. “You are God’s temple, and God’s Spirit dwells in your midst.” And “we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:27; 3:16; 2 Cor. 3:18).

We don’t want to build a room for people’s memories when we could build a house for God’s glory.

I believe this is a word for us as we, God’s coworkers, cooperate with him to create the future. We could spend our time trying fruitlessly to rebuild what was. We could give our attention to gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood—the genuinely good stuff that people remember and miss and say they want. But we don’t want to underestimate the glory and the Spirit of God in all of us and in each of us. We don’t want to build a room for people’s memories when we could build a house for God’s glory.

Maybe in just a little while, his glory is going to blow into his temple again. And maybe in this temple that’s as new as the moment and as old as Eden, he will grant peace to us all.


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