September 29, 2020

Nostalgia. As bad as relevance.

maranatha_singers.praise_1.1974-1-2.13977Nostalgia. It’s as bad for you as “relevance.”

Sunday in church, the pianist played a lovely arrangement of the old Maranatha! chorus, “I Love You, Lord.” Then in response, we sang another chorus that has been a big part of my adult Christian experience, “Give Thanks.” In the more traditional service at our church, we sprinkle choruses like this in amidst the liturgy and I like it. But Sunday something struck me as I listened and sang through “I Love You, Lord” in my head. It would be easy for me to become nostalgic for many of these choruses, most of them written in the 1970’s and 80’s, when CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) was in its infancy and childhood., nostalgic for the way we used to worship, nostalgic for a simpler, idealized past.

Nostalgia differs from tradition.

Tradition encompasses a variety of received beliefs, practices, and associations that are passed down from generation to generation. Like nostalgia, tradition seeks to bring the past forward into present experience.

However, nostalgia is primarily affective in nature. Nostalgia is wistful remembrance. The word itself comes from two Greek words which, when combined together, signify “homesickness.” One of course can be nostalgic about tradition, but the two concepts should not be equated.

Nostalgia is something in which we indulge. That’s fine, as long as we treat it like a piece of rich cheesecake. Making a steady diet of it is not good for our heart health. The most dangerous thing about nostalgia is when it assigns sentimental value to past experiences to such an extent that it virtually defines those experiences as “truth.”

I recall reading Gordon MacDonald’s book, Who Stole My Church?: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century. MacDonald wrapped his lessons in a story about a pastor who was concerned about his congregation. Many of the newer and younger folks were pushing for “relevant” worship, music, and programs, while the older people who had been the core of the church for many years were resisting, unhappy with the idea of “losing” the church they loved. The minister wisely meets with representatives of the two sides over an extended period of time, hears them out, listens to their concerns, and gently helps them to think through what it means to be the church of Jesus, who broke down dividing walls and forged a bond of peace between disparate groups.

larry-normanWhile the younger side sought “relevance,” the established group was decidedly nostalgic for the past glory of the church. As they met, they talked and laughed and reminisced about the songs they used to sing, the catchphrases they had used to talk about the faith, the inside jokes that had grown over the years between them, the spiritual passages they had negotiated together, the ways they used to meet and pray and laugh and study and worship together. All of this was extremely meaningful to these people, as well it should have been, and their minister affirmed the work of God in their lives as well as their love for each other and the church.

However, he recognized that their legitimate remembering had in some ways transformed into nostalgia. It became clear that they must be weaned from it or the church could face schism. He saw that they not only recalled the past with gratitude, they let it define “the Christian life” for them. In their eyes, what those pushing for newer ways were doing was redefining the faith itself. It was no longer simply about liking or disliking certain songs or practices. To them, “God” dwelt in the temple of their experience, and like the elders among the returned exiles, they were incapable of seeing “God” in the new temple: “Many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes” (Ezra 3:12).

Of course, on the other side, the present generation was making an equivalent error in terms of “relevance,” but at least they had the excuse of inexperience and immaturity. In a case like this, it is the older generation who represent “the strong” in Paul’s admonitions and the younger ones are “the weak.” It is the responsibility of the strong — those who “possess knowledge” (1Corinthians 8:10) — to exercise forbearance toward others in the church who lack a more mature understanding.

Yet . . . perhaps they weren’t as mature as their age and Christian experience might suggest. How can you call those who define their faith in nostalgic terms “mature”?

Many of us here at Internet Monk have come out of evangelicalism or other church traditions and found ourselves in a post-evangelical, post-ecclesiastical wilderness. On the blog we have most often focused our critiques on the push toward “relevance” that various forms of the church growth movement have imposed upon congregations and the almost complete disregard of church history and received tradition — “riding the wave” of “cutting edge Christianity” to “change the world for Christ,” and all that you know, along with the circus acts that have been devised to promote it.

But Michael Spencer, having been rooted in Baptist traditions in the American South, used to write just as strongly about churches that were little more than memorials to the “good old days” of the post-war era, when people wore suits and dresses to church, sang the “old hymns” (actually, fairly recent revivalistic gospel hymns), filled age-graded Sunday School classes, heard “real preaching” from the King James Version, and went forward for the invitation. Lots of good in all that, I’m sure. But Michael had seen how wistfulness for all that had killed churches dead. Real dead.

jesusrallyAs I sat there last week, listening to choruses from one of the most formative periods of my Christian life, I had to fight off the nostalgia.

Those songs bring back memories of experiences and relationships and spiritual breakthroughs that mean a lot to me. But I can’t go back. I don’t want to go back. I don’t want the experience of God I had thirty or forty years ago to define my life now or embody “truth” in my mind. On the other hand, I want with all my heart to resist chasing Christian fads in the name of relevance. “New and improved” is marketing strategy, not chapter and verse.

Gerbils will run on a wheel, whether that wheel is “nostalgia” or “relevance.”

Neither one will get them anywhere. And who the hell wants to be a gerbil anyway?


  1. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    “Nothing gets old-fashioned faster than over-relevance.”

    • Richard Hershberger says

      This. The problem, it seems to me, is that “relevance” is defined as “pretty much like current popular music, but usually not as good.” Even if we remove that last bit, we have a constantly moving target.

      I reject the notion that worship music is only “relevant” if it sounds like what you would hear on the local Top 40 station: that the experience of worship and the space it occurs in should be pretty much like what you experience everywhere else, but with more Jesus.

      Which returns us to that “usually not as good” bit. One advantage of having a thousand years of musical tradition to draw from is that you don’t need to settle. There is an awful lot in that thousand years that is forgotten today. There are a few gems buried in the archives, but mostly it is the mediocre or worse, forgotten for good reason. Chase the ephemerally trendy and you never have time to filter out the good stuff from the dross.

  2. doubting thomas says

    It is tempting to want to go back to what surounded you during a past spiritual breakthrough. I heard a sermon on the transfiguration a couple of weeks ago. I love the part about Peter wanting to build shrines on the spot. He was so ready to make the spot be a holy place that he seemed to be missing the whole point of the experience.

    • One of the inspirational photos I have on my phone says this:

      “Don’t go looking back for happiness in the same place you lost it.”

      I think a lot of us go through cycles of wanting to return to that spiritual high. But we need to move on.

  3. I’ve seen up-close what happens to a church that is cocooned in nostalgia. The congregation is very much skewed to the “senior citizen” end of the demographic spectrum. The choir (perhaps 10% of the regularly attending congregation) is the centerpiece of Sunday mornings. They regularly hold their Strawberry Festivals, their Cake Walks, and host visiting musical groups (all light or instrumental music), they have their Daily Bread Sunday school curricula, they have their after-service snack and fellowship time. And they will FREAK OUT if you introduce anything that wasn’t already core practice in the 1970s.

    The congregation, needless to say, is dying off slowly. They burned out one head pastor and two associate pastors who tried to change things for the better just in the short time I attended. There is nothing in their attitude or demeanor that would indicate the city they live in has shifted massively, culturally and ethnically, under their feet in the past 50 years. But no matter. They are faithful. They are as they always have been, and will always be so. Until they die.

    [The denomination of the church in question has not been given, because it is irrelevant to the point at hand.]

    • Yes and I like others I’m sure can provide the counter-example where the hip young pastor comes in and focuses exclusively on the younger members of the congregation, alienates and excludes the older members who are made to feel as if they are “quenching the spirit” if they complain at all. Because they are loyal to the church they simply hunker down and their experience of worship is reduced to an act of endurance. No hint that the HYP has the slightest clue that one day he’ll be the one being elbowed out the door when the next wave rolls in.

      And in both our examples the end result is that the very thing that should unite us, the desire for a transformative spiritual experience, becomes the thing that divides. God forgive us.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I’ve seen up-close what happens to a church that is cocooned in nostalgia. The congregation is very much skewed to the “senior citizen” end of the demographic spectrum.


  4. Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs are not new.

    Nostalgia can fasten on the unworthy or the worthy. Hipitude can attach to the awful or to the awesome.

    A correction for both varieties of narrow focus is to ask, can I take the song home? Can I take it to work? Does it speak to me? Does it speak for me? Even if from the old folks home, is it true, honorable, just, and pure? Even if from this week’s CCM, is it lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise?

  5. I hereby confess to being clincially nostalgic. There are, according to my shrink, STRONG MEDS that can eradicate those symptoms but you end up in Depends and drooling.

  6. Eastern Orthodoxy and RCC have been irrelevant for hundreds of years, they touch timeless desires for community and worship

    • On the other hand, we look rather formidable from the outside, even to someone who might be inclined to investigate outside their own tradition and experience.

      • Hi TOKAH,

        I listen to this ancient hymn of Orthodoxy with my Catholic ears, and I cannot feel a sense of estrangement.
        The deeper we Christians go into the well of our longing for God, the closer we come to one another.
        We can sometimes sense this unity within our spirits which cannot be kept within the more ‘logical’ limitations of diversity:

        • I can’t disagree personally. However…

          I know that though the rendition of the Trisagion you linked brought me to tears as I prayed along, I have friends who would not feel the same way. They would see that as beautiful but “over there”, like a lovely statue. It isn’t all that approachable for them.

          A friend of mine came to Christ via coming to church with me. She became Orthodox. Her father-in-law, a man who has been a committed christian all his life and has visited an orthodox service once asked in confusion, “But isn’t it so… medieval?”

          He hasn’t been to my parish, and I hope if he does visit he will recognize the joy expressed when we sing our services. I can’t assume he will though. For all that it speaks to me and pulls me in, that kind of reverent liturgy is more like a wall to some then a door.

          • Randy Thompson says

            Maybe a better and more Biblical response to the Orthodox Liturgy was that of a Salvationist (Salvation Army) friend many years ago. After the liturgy at which we were both present, and neither of us Orthodox by the way, he said: “Wow! That was straight out of the Book of Revelation!” He was thinking, of course, of Revelation 4 and 5.

            I have never forgotten his response to that service. It always raises, for me, the question of what Biblical worship really is. (One could also include here Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1 & 2, and other such passages.) Somehow, a praise band, no matter how exuberant (or non-obnoxious) falls short.

      • In my experience, I have found Orthodox and Roman Catholic communities to be exceedingly welcoming and friendly. It’s a real credit to them.

        • My experience says the same thing about the Orthodox and the Episcopalians.

          As much as Catholic Answers and the CCC appeal to me, the Masses I’ve attended have been very distant affairs.

          • Oh yeah, the Episcopalians. Forgot about them. Most welcoming religion on the planet, to a fault, if it were possible. “Episcopal church welcomes you” on all their signs, you see them all over NYC. Met several priests and musicians there, and they were tremendous. Went to a high mass (rite 1) on my vacation this year, and was not disappointed. Stellar organ prelude/postlude, dynamic choir that did a cappella motets, very well arranged and creative hymn settings, the whole nine yards. They even offered to let me practice on their organ during the week!

          • In my neck of the woods, it’s “God loves you, no exceptions.”

      • Formidable indeed. I attended a Coptic service last Sunday in honor of the martyrs in Libya — my first Coptic service ever. Even with 20 years of familiarity with Russian and Greek Orthodoxy, I still found it remarkably foreign in many respects. Maybe it was the cymbals that kept throwing me, or the mostly sex-segregated seating (don’t worry, ‘Doxies – we stood most of the time), I don’t know.

        Be that as it may, I was impressed. The wizened priest who gave the homily referred to the placard with photos of the 21 martyrs in front of the iconostasis just once: “There have always been martyrs. We reference them in each service. When we see it in our own time and in this way, it shocks us. But there have always been martyrs.” He then went on with his homily about trusting in God, based on the lectionary for the day.

        A wry smile escaped my lips when the day’s passage from Romans regarding rulers was read: “For they bear not the sword in vain.” In the case of ISIS, they most certainly do. Memory eternal!

        • Memory eternal, indeed.

        • Richard Hershberger says

          “my first Coptic service ever. Even with 20 years of familiarity with Russian and Greek Orthodoxy, I still found it remarkably foreign in many respects. ”

          As well you should. The Coptic Orthodox church is more different from the Eastern Orthodox than the EO is from the Western rite traditions. This is obscured by the shared use of the word “Orthodox” in their names. In fact that schism occurred centuries before the East/West split.

          • I’d have to disagree about the relative differences among WR/EO/CO. Yes, the CO service was different, and in various subtle ways, from the typical EO liturgy I know. Still, it was St. Basil’s liturgy they were using, which is hardly unknown in EO circles, though they tend to use St. John Silvertongue’s.

            And though the schism in question certainly predates the Great One, it’s doesn’t go by such a monicker precisely because it wasn’t so great — as best I can tell, it was mostly a technical point about Christology. In contrast, by 1054 there were a number of significant East-West differences that had arisen. In my estimation, a CO/EO rapprochment is 10x more likely than an EO/RCC at this point.

          • Representatives from Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communions have been meeting regularly for some years now in an attempt to heal this division. I hear things are progressing. Lord willing, restoration of communion between us will happen in my lifetime. I can’t begin to express how much I hope for this. It will be a huge, huge deal.


      • With all due respect I’m afraid the RCC & EO aren’t looking quite as formidable from the outside these days as you might suppose.

  7. So what is the proposed solution? That the old members of the church give in to the hip relevant members of the church?

    • That the old members of the church and the hip relevant members of the church give in to each other, out of mutual submission, because they love one another more than personal preference and imitate the character of Christ by esteeming others more highly than self. The answer is that simple, and that impossible. But as long as preference is the driving force, there will never be peace. When Christ becomes the focus, and worship that proclaims Him becomes the goal, then people who are different can unite around a common identity and learn to express it in diverse ways.

      • “When Christ becomes the focus, and worship that proclaims Him becomes the goal, than people who are different can unite around a common identity and learn to express it in diverse ways.”

        YES, YES, YES!

      • Randy Thompson says

        Well said.

    • The hip are never hip after the new hip arise. They need to realize that.

      The old don’t need to slide into ossification. They need to realize that.

  8. After reading the third paragraph “Nostalgia differs from tradition.” I was hoping for an elaboration that would discuss tradition and why it is not just ossified nostalgia. Perhaps a topic for another day.

    • I would say “traditionalism” comes closer to nostalgia – when we latch on to traditions in unhealthy ways. But tradition itself is simply the body of beliefs and practices that have been handed down from our forbears. It is what we do with that that matters. Much of it deserves to be honored in ways that many churches in our day fail to recognize. Some of it should be discarded or reformed. No church starts afresh without tradition. We always build on the past. This is part of what it means to acknowledge the communion of saints.

      • Precisely! “Building on the past.” Neither living in the past nor cutting ourselves off from it.

      • Randy Thompson says

        Again, I remind you all of the wise and pointed words of Yale’s Jaroslav Pelikan: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

  9. Nostalgia is often selective, too.

    Case-in-point, The Living Bible (green cover). If I pulled out my old copy to give the Sunday reading, some nostalgic members of our congregation (church started in the 70s… Living Bible era) would likely have a conniption.

  10. Joseph (the original) says

    I think there is the very real problem of the ‘older’ members of the congregation not being as mature proportionally to their age as it might be either expected, or implied…

    sometimes ‘older’ saints aren’t vast reservoirs of patience, forbearance, acceptance, humility and love. sometimes older saints simply cranky versions of self-preservation when it relates to the manner which a communal gathering should be expressed.

    but they sure can be a blessing on Church Pot-Luck times! whoohoo!

    the nostalgia element is not limited by time though. youth too can be nostalgic, or more precisely, familiar with a more meaningful method of Church service worship and emphasis. I suppose the comfort factor more than anything else puts the generations at odds with each other.

    those that reference the “one-style-fits-all” of the liturgically rich traditional expressions also realize there has been efforts to be more inclusive with youth-themed worship versions. so there seems to be an effort to help make service attendance and involvement in these faith traditions more attractive, or ‘relevant’, to the younger saints.

    but back to the idea of maturity vs. naiveté; if there isn’t a deliberate effort to bring the generations together outside the one Sunday/Saturday worship service, there can be no benefit of the wisdom the older saints have accumulated for the youth to appreciate, and there is no vibrancy of the youth that can be a source of blessing to the aged. since the opportunities for generational interaction are limited, there has to be a genuine desire to co-mingle as a means to share the unique blessings each generation has to offer others of all ages. if there is no real investment/interest in the people that populate the demographics of each Church membership, there will always be a contention regarding traditions based on nostalgia, familiarity and just plain modernization. MacDonald’s story about the pastor that made the effort to bring the generations together was encouraging. but I feel this is by far the exception and not the rule in most Churches of all stripes today…

    Lord…have mercy… 🙁

  11. (For some reason I want to break out into Tevye’s “Tradition”…)

    Good article that helps balance the usual iMonk push-back against “all things new”. (Overstatement recognized.)

    My take-away is that we should always be discerning about the direction we’re going in worshipping God. Are we dwelling in the past in an unhealthy manner or a healthy manner? Are we looking to change what we’re doing in an unhealthy manner or a healthy manner? Looking back is good sometimes, remembering what He’s done. Tradition and ritual can be good, too, if it doesn’t become rote. Looking forward is good, too, to see what He might us to change, both internally and externally, as long as it isn’t being done for improper motives.

  12. It would be nice too, if those in authority in our churches would be able to hear us when we say we want something we used to have. They assume we are simply expressing nostalgia and the world has changed. They assume that all the rah rah stuff they are doing to build attendance at the contemporary service is building the church. They can’t seem to hear the cries of our hearts when we explain that we worked very hard to build a church where all ages were welcome in the worship services and there were opportunites for different generations to interact with one another. Now the children are sent off to their own thing, much as it was when I was a child. There are no more children’s moments, and many times these were better than the sermon. And there are no more prayers of the people, because heaven forbid, that might make us run over the time allotment.

    Yes, in a way we are saying we think it was better 20 years ago. But the reason is not nostalgia. What we did then was decided in a messy process involving the entire congregation. Now, it’s top down, driven by so called experts who claim to know “what families want.” But they never asked the families who are there. We really are not asking you to go backwards, so much as to listen and make decisions according to the needs of those who are actually attending, many of whom want to attend as families, including the grandparents.

    • Well said, Ann.

      I belonged to a church which 20+ years ago resembled a large family group, with natural interaction between all age groups and the general air of disorganization which was a natural consequence. Now it is much more organized, has ‘Child-friendly Church’ plaques displayed on the wall, a paid youth worker and a Code of Practice to be rigorously adhered to by anyone with the slightest involvement in ‘the youth work’.

      Of course the change is well-intentioned and largely driven by child protection legislation, but one unfortunate side-effect seems to have been to inhibit the sort of healthy relationships which might previously have developed between those over and under 18 as a natural part of growing up. In some cases, kids have gone seriously off the rails and ‘the system’ has not detected the problems in time to stop them, whereas normal rough and tumble in the past might well have done. “Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the observance of fools”, it has been rightly said, and I don’t think it’s simply being nostalgic to have preferred a time when there were fewer of them.

      But there again, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be…

  13. Randy Thompson says

    A year or so ago, I found a copy of one of the earliest CCM albums, Calvary Chapel’s “Love Song.” It was a pleasure to hear it again, both out of nostalgia, but also to find that it was every bit as good as i remembered it to be.

    What was striking about it, though, was how it was both “contemporary” (i.e., “relevant”) and nostalgic. “Welcome Back to Jesus,” for example, tugged on the heart strings of those who grew up in church but wandered off. The song certainly tugged powerfully and nostalgically at memories of church, youth group and Sunday School. The same is true, I think, of “Little Country Church,” shot through with real or imagined memories of Sunday evening services, Gospel music, and simpler times. There is a strong pull here to the past. A “contemporary” or “relevant” means here served traditional ends.

    Then, you could appeal both intellectually and emotionally to tradition, because tradition was still alive in people’s memories (whether good or bad). That is no longer the case. Now, there is only traditionalism, hanging on to the flotsam and jetsam of a Tradition that was torpedoed and which sunk somewhere along the line

  14. Randy Thompson says

    As to worship and relevance. . .

    I increasingly find myself unwilling to be “relevant” to a culture that is sick and maybe even dying. I find great comfort in worship that is completely irrelevant, where I find myself singing tunes that take me out of popular culture and words written by dead people.

    I may not be entertained, but I do have a sense of being part of something bigger and better than the insanity of the present moment.

  15. “On the blog we have most often focused our critiques on the push toward “relevance” that various forms of the church growth movement have imposed upon congregations and the almost complete disregard of church history and received tradition — “riding the wave” of “cutting edge Christianity” to “change the world for Christ,” and all that you know, along with the circus acts that have been devised to promote it.”

    On the other hand, there may be a good shake up going on by some of those churches:
    “For the past few weeks, [Andy] Stanley has been exhorting Christians to ditch their traditional “temple model” ways and go back to the one command Jesus prioritized — to love your neighbor as yourself. The “temple model,” as defined by Stanley, “grants extraordinary power to sacred men in sacred places who determine the meaning of sacred texts.” While the arrival of Jesus signaled the end of the temple model, the pastor said, Christians have continued to create versions of the temple model with rules and rituals that essentially placed the focus on themselves. “The temple model is you-centered,” Stanley explained. “The heart of the temple model is this question: what must I do or believe to make things and keep things right between God and me?

    Read more:

    • Very interesting. The vast majority of what I see would be considered to be derived from “the temple model”.

  16. One of the rare benefits of growing up in dysfunctional churches: Not a lot of nostalgia for all that rubbish.

    But the down side is a tendency to reject all the old practices, including the healthy ones, in favor of the “new things” of God—of getting rid of things solely because they’re more than 10 years old, for fear we’re clinging to God’s “old things.” Newness isn’t progress.

  17. Agreed!