“History is a continuing conversation between the past and the present about the future” (E.H. Carr modified by Bishop Lesslie Newbiggin)
Some of us regard history as boring and irrelevant. We had to memorise numerous names of kings and queens and dictators and the dates of their reigns. We had to recall significant battles and coups which altered the course of history. But history has timeless messages for every generation.
Consider Adolf Hitler’s Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941. He was confident of gaining a massive victory with his superior troops and armaments. But they were defeated by the dreaded Russian winter and inadequate supply lines. This military campaign cost Hitler close to the deaths of one million men and eventually led to his defeat in World War II.
If only Hitler had noted a grave disaster that happened two centuries before him. Napoleon Bonaparte in his quest to conquer the world attacked Russia. His troops did not lose a single battle against the Russians. They were instead starved and frozen to death. This led to Napoleon’s surrender and ultimately to the demise of the French empire.
George Santayana’s often quoted words ring true.
“Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it. Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them”
Glorying in Past History
Historian Ian Morris observed that before the beginning of 18th century, China was “the richest, strongest and most inventive place on earth.” The Ming dynasty brought untold wealth. Chinese inventions then were second to none. But China was outstripped by the scientific discoveries of the West in that century. Instead of learning and improving on their inventions, China looked down on the new upstarts. The false sense of superiority and past achievements resulted in what Lesslie Thomas in his paperback Curious dubbed as “curiousity deficit.” China languished and spent the next three centuries catching up.
Sadly, both these traits have repeatedly featured in church history – both ancient and contemporary.
I have been living in UK for over 50 years. Wherever I travel, I cannot escape the visible presence of church buildings. Each year, thousands visit magnificent cathedrals with impressive Gothic designs. I smile when I see the sign at St Paul’s Cathedral describing itself as a monument. Church history reminds us that God’s church throughout the centuries began as a movement. Buildings were constructed to the glory of God and worshippers were flocking into them. Once the congregations were established, they became institutions with their own rituals, forms and governance. Past movements of the Spirit were classified as treasured memories. Struggles for power would occur. Rigid rules prevented needed changes. Today these church buildings are sanctuaries for a few or preserved as historic monuments.
History: review and action
Every church has a history that begins with a glorious past. Over the years decline sets in. Instead of tackling the root causes, leaders apportion blame on changing circumstances or weak pastors. Every decline is preceded by a period when things plateau. Interestingly, a spirit of smugness and satisfaction develops. “We are still able to maintain our services and activities. We are bigger than the neighbouring congregation.” They ignore the dangerous signs of being static. The more “spiritual” ones argue that faithfulness is more important than success (a false dichotomy!) The downward slide continues.
Wise leaders will pause and take serious stock of their local congregation. They look back at periods of history when their church enjoyed the distinct favour and blessings of God, when people flock to worship and the community of faith was characterized by overflowing love. They then identify factors and people that made their church great in the sight of the Lord. Facing up o their decline or static state, they need to look at the at the prevailing social and spiritual climate. What are major tends? Looking at their recent history, they examine decisions and people that hamper growth. Together with other concerned members, they will then seek the Lord. Their heart cry is for the Lord to renew and revive His people. And for Him to give them a hunger for Him resulting in fresh encounters with Him. This will lead to a passion for the lost and to equip members for everyday discipleship.
On a more personal level, I seek to set aside spend time reflecting on the experiences of God’s grace and mighty works in my life. I face up to my shortcoming and failures especially in working together with others. Thanksgiving and repentance follow. When opportunities arise, I seek to share them with fellow leaders so, we can enrich the lives of those who have the privilege of ministering.
History never says goodbye. History says, “See you later.”
When we pray we make ourselves available to God.
Prayer is our declaration of dependence on God. John Maxwell
Prayer is keeping company with God Clement of Alexandria
Prayer is the conduit through which power from heaven is brought to earth. O. Hallesby
Prayer is the supreme way to be workers together with God.
God always works with workers and moves with movers. But He does not sit with sitters. Reinhard Bonke
Let the fire go out of the boiler room of the church and the place will look smart and clean but it will be cold. The prayer room is the boiler room for its spiritual life. Leonard Ravenhill
We pray not because we want to feel good or it helps us but because God loves us and wants our attention. We need to set aside time and space to give God our undivided attention.