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Three Ways To Use Church History to Lead Change

Past Or Future Directions On A SignpostSpanish American Philosopher George Santayana famously wrote in The Life of Reason, “Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Repeating what happened in the past is the result of either learning or not learning from it, depending on the context. In most cases, we’re talking about mistakes that are repeated because people don’t learn from their mistakes or the mistakes of others. But, there is much that can be learned from the successes of the past as well.

In fact, Santayana goes on to argue that positive change is dependent upon retentiveness of experience, both successes and failures. Inferred in Santayana’s quote is whether the experience occurred twenty four hours ago or twenty four years ago, the simple act of remembering helps to shape our actions and decisions in the future.

What Can Church History Teach Modern Church Leaders?

I love studying history and trying to learn from the lessons of the past. Some people say that what happened in the past is totally unhelpful since the environments have changed. However, in my experience, referring to the past can provide wise advice.

For example, in the case of the Three Great Awakenings, the First Great Awakening (1730-1760) showed us the importance of prayer in spreading revival. The Second Great Awakening (1800-1830) taught us how primary the practice of powerful preaching is to fostering revival. The Third Great Awakening (1890-1920) demonstrated how a revival of experiential faith and spiritual practices is a pathway to spiritual renewal.

How will what we have learned from these three awakenings inform us about the Fourth Great Awakening?

Three Ways Your Church’s History Can Positively Influence Change

No doubt your church’s history, like most, has countless cautionary tales. Of course, there are many positive lessons from your church’s past as well.

Revisiting and understanding your church’s failures and successes can serve as a basis for determining and communicating the changes needed for the future.

And, using the three theories of human history, Challenge-Response, Great Leader-Biography, and Dialectic-Pendulum are particularly helpful approaches to understanding and explaining your church’s past.

1. Challenge-Response Theory: This theory is credited to British historian, Arnold Toynbee, who explained history as a record of how civilizations, countries and companies responded to the challenges they faced.

Associated with memory is story telling. In times of uncertainty, looking back at the narrative stories of how your church responded to periods of transitions, internal crisis, cultural change, financial concerns and growth challenges is a fruitful exercise. Such remembrances can help a church remain confidant, strong and unified as well as provide concrete tactics for dealing with current and future environments.

2. Great Leader-Biography Theory: It has been said, “There is no history, only biography.” The idea is that great people have had the most influence on human history.

In the face of change, considering the impact, words, actions and profile of such people as former pastors, church statesmen, and transformational staff and volunteer ministry leaders can inform the kinds of leaders critical to the long term success of the church.

3. Dialectic-Pendulum Theory: This theory is a three step process view of history founded upon the work of German philosopher, Friedrich Hegel. The theory is the idea that a historical, cultural or organizational situation, the thesis, evokes its opposite, the antithesis, and these two result in a blended whole, the synthesis. Ultimately, the synthesis becomes the new thesis and the process starts all over again.

In time it became also known as “The Pendulum Theory.” Viewed as a swinging pendulum, the thesis is represented on the far left, the antithesis on the far right and the synthesis in the middle.

For example, in the local church the thesis, antithesis and synthesis of Worship may have trended from traditional to contemporary to blended services; Discipleship from Sunday School Classes to Small Groups to Sunday School Classes with Small Groups; and Missions from denominationally sponsored to church sponsored to denominations and churches in mission partnerships.

Researching how your church and denomination has historically responded to Worship, Discipleship and Service can provide valuable insights into the next phase of change that should be considered.

The Take-a-Way

The basic premise is similar in each of the three approaches, we remember and recall individual points and persons in history as parts of a greater whole that provide insights into who we are and where we are going.

It is of paramount importance that we continue to remember the history of our churches in our strategic planning processes, in the sharing of our experiences, in listening to elder statesmen (and women), and by participating in memorials and celebrations that keep the spirit of our churches alive.

We cannot forget, because to remember is to learn from the past and help each other find a better way.




Posted on March 17, 2015

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5