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Engaging the Past

Your past is important for understanding your present and for thinking about your future. Your church was born at a certain point in history. People came and went. Opportunities for ministry surfaced and disappeared. Leaders responded with wise and unwise decisions. Conflicts arose and died away. And today you live with the cumulative impact of it all. This stage of the Crossroads Discernment Process asks you to travel into the past in order to see the faithfulness of God, to celebrate and lament the actions of his people, and to learn from it all. Through this part of your journey you’ll learn an abiding truth: Today is never just about today. 

Checklist for Stage 3: Engaging the Past 

This checklist summarizes the suggested steps in this stage of your journey. You’ll find a more complete explanation below.

  • Confirm with your facilitator that you’re ready to move into the good work of engaging the past now that you’ve spoken and listened to one another in initial conversations, developed a Conversation Covenant, and spent some time listening to God. 
  • Review the list of optional activities in which you could engage the past (see the “Summary of Activities” list below) and make selections that seem helpful and fitting.
  • Establish dates and times for the selected activities. We encourage you to start these activities with a meal or dessert.
  • Gather the necessary supplies for your selected activities.
  • Communicate plans to the congregation well ahead of time, finding different ways to convey information so that everyone has an opportunity to hear and participate. Make people aware of these plans a few weeks ahead of time.
  • Consider how you’ll incorporate prayer and worship into this stage—in your worship gatherings, in these sessions, and in suggestions for personal and group prayer and devotions as participants seek God’s guidance.
  • Print copies of the Table Talk suggestion (below) for use during a meal or dessert time that you might wish to incorporate into one or more of the activities.

Summary of Activities

(for important details, click on the links below)

Here are some activities you can engage in as you work through the Engaging the Past stage.

  1. A Night to Remember Remember events and people in the congregation’s past and bring them before God and each other in prayers of praise, confession, lament and hope. 
  2. Testimony Night Personal stories are powerful reminders of God’s faithfulness. During this evening of celebration, people will have the opportunity to share their experiences of God in the context of the congregation’s life and ministry.
  3. Small Group Conversations Engage the past in the context of small groups rather than as a whole-congregation activity. Gather in existing small groups or in small groups that are specially created for this activity. 
  4. Online Book of Congregational Memories Create a website or a Facebook page for others in the congregation to share memories and to experience the memories of participants who have shared. 
  5. Online Catalog of the Congregation’s Impact A team helps the congregation to create and develop an online catalog of the congregation’s impact on its community and the world. 
  6. Worship Services and Sermons Worship planners and leaders assemble a series of worship services or write a series of sermons, perhaps planned for a “memory month,” in which events, processes, and personalities from the past are named and treated appropriately within the liturgy (as opportunities for praise, thanksgiving, confession, lament, etc.).

Table Talk

(for use during a meal or dessert time)

  • Everyone in the group describes a favorite childhood memory. Note: It doesn’t have to be a memory associated with this congregation. The memories will help the group shift thinking away from today and toward the past.

Resources You May Want to Consult

  1. Written presentation: The Life Cycles and Stages of Congregational Development by George Bullard, who offers important insights about a church’s life cycle as well as the dominant characteristics of each stage of that cycle. You might choose to engage the congregational assessment exercise that is included in the book.
  2. Analytical framework: General Systems Theory and its application to the lives of emotional systems such as congregations. For a brief summary of the theory, see Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders by Gilbert R. Rendle (chap. 3).
  3. A number of worship resources are available as you work your way through the Crossroads Discernment Process.

Reflection Questions 

While helping the congregation to engage in one or more of the above activities, the facilitator may use questions like these to draw together important findings and themes:

  • What values/virtues/passions do you see in your past that you can carry into the future?
  • Which people or groups from your past do you need to honor?
  • What mistakes, misuses of power, and conflicts should you acknowledge and/or confess together?* 
  • With whom do you need to reconcile?*
  • What hardships do you need to lament?
  • What do you need to thank God for?
  • What are some key moments when you saw the Holy Spirit lead you into something you would not have done yourself?
  • How has your community been transformed in big or little ways because of God’s work in and through you? 

*If this question leads to a sense that there is work to be done in the areas of reconciliation and/or healing, then the group should feel free to seek assistance from Pastor Church Resources.

Next Step

When you feel that you’ve engaged the past well, you’re ready to move on to the next stage of the Crossroads Discernment Process: Naming the Present.

It’s important to celebrate the accomplishment of the progress you’re making. How will you celebrate the transition into each new stage? A few ideas:

  • Create a bulletin board depicting the stages and an arrow pointing to the stage you’re in.
  • Create space in a worship service to note the transition into each new stage, to hear a testimony about how God worked among you in the previous stage, and to pray that the next stage will be fruitful and constructive as well.
  • Ask an artist to draw the outline of your church logo or of another symbol that’s meaningful to you. Use crayons or markers to color a portion of it each time you make progress, and in the end you’ll have a completed picture.
  • Create a “certificate of accomplishment” for each stage. Send it as a PDF to your church mailing list after each stage completion.

If you find yourself stuck at any point, reach out to us at Pastor Church Resources. We’re here to help. 

Once you’ve completed this Engaging the Past stage, go to the Naming the Present stage.