I’ve been working my way through Paul Tillich’s collection of sermons in The Eternal Now, and came to the sermon entitled Forgetting and Being Forgotten.
Tillich says the following:
Forgetting is probably more difficult for a religious tradition than any other human heritage. But God is not only the beginning from which we came; He is also the end to which we go. He is the creator of the new as well as the ancient of days. To all creatures He has given presence; and presence, although it rests on the past, drives into the future. Therefore, all life has receiving the gift of forgetting. A church that does not accept this gift denies its own creatureliness, and falls into the temptation of every church, which is to make itself God.– Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now: Forgetting and Being Forgotten
We generally tend to think of forgetting as a bad thing, with diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s playing an oversize role in our cultural mindset. And even when not thinking of things like this, forgetting is seen as something that needs to be eliminated: forgetting an important date in the lives of those we love, forgetting things that are important to our loved ones, forgetting an important meeting, or even forgetting to pay the bills.
But Tillich is, of course, talking about the ability to forget the things that hold us back, things that we regret, things that we remember than cause us fear, and even past sins; if we do not forget these things, then they become like a ball and chain, keeping us from moving forward and growing in life.
Only man […] saves the past by remembering it, and he pushes it back by forgetting it. This is the way that every child grows, both physically and in spirit. He preserves and he leaves behind. He remembers and he forgets.– Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now: Forgetting and Being Forgotten
What I find interesting in all of this is that Tillich makes the connection to religious institutions, i.e. the church, and that the church too must forget it’s past, just as people must. And he makes a strong statement in that a church must never stop forgetting. That is, a church must always be willing to rid itself of its own traditions that are holding it back. Because just as much as the present rests upon the past, to rest only upon the past will cause a church to stagnate and become forgotten.
My first inclination was to jump to those churches that had thrown out all forms of tradition, like the Quaker church, or those that had not thrown out any traditions at all, like the Roman Catholic church. Then, I wanted to look at the various churches within the evangelical branch of the Christian faith to see how these words might apply.
But Tillich goes on to say that “no church or nation or person should ever forget its own identity. … And certainly, no church is required to forget its foundation.”
And when I really break things down, the only identity a church has, regardless of the trappings of how one worships, is that the church is comprised of the People of God. That is the identity: God’s People.
And the foundation of every church, again regardless of the form the worship takes, is the great commission. The foundation of every church in every denomination is to bring more people into a relationship with a loving God.
So what do churches need to forget? And what do they need to remember?
During this past Advent and Christmas season, I was again surprised by how many people came to visit the church that I attend. New people. Visitors. People who normally go to other churches. But they came to our church because their church was closed. Closed on Christmas Day.
A typical clergy “dad” joke is to make reference to CEO Christians, which stands for “Christmas, Easter only.” It may not be the nicest way to refer to people, but it touches on a very important fact: some people come to church on Christmas and Easter only. And sometimes those people bring friends. And sometimes those people stick around and become regular attenders, and enter into a relationship with a loving God.
That’s the great commission, simply by opening the doors on a day when you are most likely to receive visitors.
Remembering the foundation – the great commission – will ensure that churches do not turn into country clubs, focused on the needs of the members over the needs of those yet to find that special relationship with the Divine. But when churches forget this foundation, that’s when they run the risk of “fall[ing] into the temptation of every church, which is to make itself God.”
On the other side of the spectrum, churches need to forget the traditions that no longer make sense. I’m not talking about the traditions of worship, like incense and candles, as there are plenty of churches that worship with these things that are growing. The traditions that churches need to forget are those traditions that put the focus on the church family at the expense of those outside the church.
Years ago – and this will sound similar to the idea of churches being closed on Christmas Day – I was the pastor of a small parish in Washington State. As Easter approached, everyone began talking about the potluck that would happen on Ester Sunday. No one expected to be at the church building that we rented that Sunday. I asked how long this had been going on, and the number of years this had been happening correlated quite nicely to when the church had stopped growing.
The difference here is that the entire tradition had been built around the desires of the parishioners. It had nothing to do with the needs of those in the community, or the desire to reach those in the community. The tradition was inward focused; the decision to close the church was based on majority rule, on making the day as easy as possible and as pleasant as possible for themselves.
When comfort takes over and traditions become focused inwardly, the church will notice a decline. And this is because visitors can sense that the church is not open to their needs, but is only open to the needs of those that already attend. It is at that point that the church has become nothing more than a country club. Or, to use Tillich’s more direct language, this is when the church has made itself God. It is these traditions that the church needs to forget, or it too will be forgotten.