*A column provided in collaboration with the Center for Healthy Churches (chchurches.org*).

I once was lost, but now am found

After 40 years, my mother-in-law does not know me. She is pleasant, and always asks how my family and I are doing. Yet she cannot remember who I am or why I am in her room. The fog of dementia has enveloped her mind, and her memories have been erased.

A sad reality of this insidious disease is the way it leaves its victim feeling lost. When we lose our memories, we lose a part of us that is distinct. We are left with only the present, without our past or the ability to envision a future.

The result is we feel as though we are lost. That is the word we often use for my mother-in-law: she looks, feels and truly is lost.

Often I engage with churches that seem to be lost in similar ways. Some push away from a rich history in the mistaken notion that their past is a burden to be jettisoned. Doing so cuts them adrift, without an anchor component of their identity.

Others ignore the realities of the present, opting to live in either a toxic state of nostalgia or yearning for an unrealistic future. They overlook the seismic changes in their community and/or culture at large and grow increasingly irrelevant to their community.

Still others choose to hope that the future will become less frightening or will somehow become more like the past they so fondly remember. The future is to be resisted, and so they avoid looking ahead for fear of what they might become.

After working closely with more than 100 congregations in recent years, my observation is that healthy churches fully engage their past, their present and their future in a balanced way.

All three must be part of their thinking, planning and praying. When any one dimension is ignored or fixated upon, the result is some form of feeling “lost.”

So, what does it mean to engage our past, our present and our future as a church?

To engage our past is to acknowledge the legacy, core strengths, critical incidents and unresolved issues that have brought us to this moment in time.

Every congregation is tempted to forget or overlook those who have gone before us and upon whose shoulders we stand. It is always a worthy exercise to remind ourselves of our church’s founding vision, and the hopes and dreams of those who preceded us.

In addition, as with our nuclear family, exploring the key shaping events and hard lessons learned is a way to gain understanding about who we are and why we do some of the things that seem unique to us.

Pushing back even further to the church’s founding in Acts is a valuable reminder of why the church began. Any study of our local history must begin with a thorough review of Acts 2.

To engage our present is to seek to answer honestly the questions of “Where are we, really?” and “How effectively are we being the body of Christ?” One is a question of context, and the other of effectiveness.

Exploring demographic data often reveals a world of opportunity that exists nearby. Honest assessment of our current work, worship and ministry can be a sobering wake-up call to those who assume a level of effectiveness that does not actually exist.

To engage our future is to invite the congregation to peer into the community through the eyes of Christ. Rather than ask, “What kind of church do we want to be?” the question becomes “What kind of church does Christ call us to be?” Those are two very different questions.

Feeling lost is disconcerting and disorienting. Like individuals, a church finds itself when it embraces where it has come from, where it actually lives and where it senses God is leading.

When we balance our past, present and future, we find an identity, a mission and a passion that is otherwise missing.

God bless us on the crucial journey from being lost to being found. NFJ

billwilson_optBy Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is founding director of the Center for Healthy Churches.