churchinmist“The church must stop living in the past.”

“We need churches to be present right here, right now in their communities.”

“Churches that don’t look forward will soon be left behind.”

Pastors and church leaders sometimes make statements like these whenever they worry that subtle distortions in a church’s identity will lead to deviations in a church’s trajectory. What stands out to me about these statements is their temporal concern. They zero in on the church’s understanding of the role she occupies for a particular generation.

The Church in 3-Fold Time

An influential book, released toward the end of the twentieth century, is Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah and several professors of sociology at the University of California. In their chapter on religion, the authors describe churches as “communities of memory.” They write:

“Worship calls to mind the story of the relationship of the community with God: how God brought his chosen people out of Egypt or gave his only begotten son for the salvation of mankind. Worship also reiterates the obligations that the community has undertaken, including the biblical insistence on justice and righteousness, and on love of God and neighbor, as well as the promises God has made that make it possible for the community to hope for the future.” (227)

The Church and the Past 

Notice the three periods of time in this description of worship. First, there is the past – what God has done to constitute the community and bring about salvation. The Church must “call to mind” that memory; otherwise, her identity will suffer and she will abandon her role as a “community of memory.”

We don’t have to read far in our Bibles before encountering numerous warnings of Israel “forgetting” what God had done to rescue them from slavery. The nature of this “forgetfulness” was not cognitive (such as, “We forgot God parted the Red Sea!”) but motivational — the past event no longer had any bearing on present faith or future hope. Once God’s people lost their memory, they believed falsehoods about their world, devoted themselves to superstitions, and sacrificed their distinctive identity that was to shine a light to the nations.

The Church of the Present

Notice also how the definition above includes the role of the faith community in the present. It is not enough for the church to recount what God has done in the past. God’s people must discover points of application – what God’s past actions mean for their present life together, both in public spheres of influence and in personal morality.

True Christian worship includes the call to holiness – a consecrated way of life that creates a culture of faith, hope, and love. Essential to Christian discipleship is the equipping of believers to discern what Christian faithfulness looks like right now, in this moment of time. Failure to consider the present moment is to cast aside our missionary task. We are called not merely to a particular place, but also in a particular time.

The Church of the Future 

Bellah’s description of worship also includes a future orientation where the promises of God are the foundation for the community’s hope. When the community is threatened, either by heresy from inside or from persecution from outside, hope enables the church to remain a community of faith. The memory of God’s faithfulness in the past strengthens us for the present task and extends toward the future.

Many of the ethical exhortations of the New Testament are grounded in future indicatives. “Here is what God says you will be, so live now according to what God has declared.” The community of memory cannot look ever backward; it must be leaning forward into God’s promise.

The Church Distorted

An overemphasis on any one of these moments in time (past, present, or future) to the exclusion of the others may lead to a distorted Christian witness and make it more difficult for the Church to sustain itself as a viable “community of memory.”

Some churches, in an attempt to establish continuity with the past, root everything about their worship and action in the community’s memories. This emphasis on tradition is vital, but as Jaroslav Pelikan warned, there is always the danger that instead of embracing tradition as the living faith of the dead, the Church traps itself in traditionalism — the dead faith of the living.

Other churches focus primarily on the present, intentionally avoiding any indication of the Church’s rich history, and casting aside rituals that smell like tradition. Bible stories are mined for moral lessons on what to do, not as stories that teach us who we are. (There is a big difference in preaching a biblical text so as to point out “the moral of the story” and preaching a biblical text so as to say, “This is our story, and these are our people.”)

And then there are churches that become so focused on the future that they forget the past or abandon their responsibility in the present. One variation of this temptation is to think that “leaning into the future” means discerning where society appears to be headed and adapting as quickly as possible. These churches are ever distancing themselves from Christians in the present who hold fast to distinctive morality or doctrines, and they cut themselves off from almost all of church history, where their innovations in morality or doctrine cannot be found.

The Church in Time 

The Church of the future will be a “community of memory” where people know where they’ve come from, who they are, and who they will one day be. I’m hopeful that we will get this balance right. Maintaining the proper emphasis on the Church’s past, present, future is essential for faithfulness in our time.