TMF Blog

Nostalgia and Three Changed Questions

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August 15, 2016

by Gil Rendle, TMF Senior Vice President

Nostalgia and Three Changed Questions

In 2003 my colleague, Alice Mann, and I named three questions we believed to be critical to missional planning in our book, Holy Conversations: Who are we? What does God call us to do? Who is our neighbor?  They are questions of identity, purpose and context.  We learned that discernment did not depend upon which of the questions to begin with – it was often best to start with whatever question had the most energy.  However, it is important to ask all three questions.  Our book has had a lot of resonance with leaders in congregations over the years, and we are thankful that our work has been helpful.

Recently, at a staff meeting I was asked if I had changed my thinking about these three questions.  In other words, had I learned anything new?  My answer was yes.  I deeply believe that if you constantly pursue God’s purpose you will be changed to see new things and to ask new questions.

In this case the change may seem modest.  I have learned to ask these questions using the word “now.”  Who are we now?  What does God call us to do now?  Who is our neighbor now?

I have come to believe that one of our key challenges in the church is nostalgia.  An antidote to nostalgia is to keep reminding ourselves when we are (i.e., now).  I am an early baby-boomer and grew up in the church when it was strong, growing consistently and at the center of the culture.

When nostalgia kicks in, I am tempted to conjure that image of the church and assume that with a bit more hard work, we could be like that again.  (By the way, I’m also tempted to think of myself as having more hair and energy as well as less weight and complaints.)  The problem with nostalgia is that it leads me to think that’s how the church is (or I am) supposed to be and that somehow the world is supposed to be like it was before, as well!

I am captured by the idea that the first task of leadership is to draw an honest picture of the current reality, which in this case is a picture of the church no longer in the center of a changed culture.  Nostalgia doesn’t help, and in most cases reminds us of what we cannot have anymore.  Instead, we need to ask what we are going to do with what we do have.  For example, at TMF we don’t ask, “How do we steward resources left from the past?”  That leads people to try to preserve and protect.  We are trying to learn how to steward potential.  If we steward potential, we will always look forward.  Nostalgia is about the past.  Potential is about the future.

So, the questions have become: Who are we now? What does God call us to do now? Who is our neighbor now?  These deeper questions require the quiet, steadfast leadership of courage willing to walk into a wilderness not yet understood but uncomfortable and inhospitable to how we have learned to live in the past.  If we are honest about the “now,” and if we get that right, we will use our potential in directions that reflect God’s hopes and dreams for us.

Editor’s note:  Our TMF blog shares stories and essays inspired by our purpose: to help individuals, families, congregations and like-minded organizations achieve their God-inspired potential. In this post, Gil Rendle discusses how the lure of nostalgia can prevent us from living into God’s potential for us and our world.


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