The party was huge. It was, after all, the 50th birthday for both my wife and me. We celebrated in our church's gym with our friends. Since that milestone day, I have noticed that I think more often about words like "legacy" than I did previously. Call it maturity, wising up, mid-life crisis or anything else you want, but I believe that what I do today should matter for something years from now.
I pastored what is often called a "legacy church." Phineas F. Bresee, first general superintendent in the Church of the Nazarene, came to Chicago in August 1904 at the invitation of some local businesspeople who believed in holiness. On a hot Sunday afternoon on the south side he officially organized Chicago First Church of the Nazarene with 155 charter members. This congregation has been ministering faithfully ever since, for 70 years in the city limits, 37 years now in the suburbs, and as of a few years ago, back in the city with our second campus.
Today's Chicago First Church is very different than that of yesterday's. It now has the largest membership, attendance, giving, and outreach ministries in its history. More than 60 percent of the congregation comes from Catholic or Lutheran backgrounds, and only about 10 percent from Nazarene. And in the past decade God has blessed with hundreds of new people, many experiencing a personal relationship with Christ and being baptized as believers for the first time in their lives.
Yet the reminders of the legacy are always there. Ninety-year-old Sam came as a young man and now has children and grandchildren throughout the congregation. Jim has served 53 consecutive years on the church board. Several families with up to five generations are still connected to the church.
These are precious people who have loved God, labored for the Kingdom, invested themselves in every way in the ministry, and love the church with a love that cannot be put into words. Even with all of the changes God led us to make across the years. I never saw them as an obstacle to growth, a thorn in my flesh, or people to discard when they disagreed or got in the way. We prayed, talked, loved and forgave each other, and kept moving forward for the advancing of God's kingdom.
When I began my pastorate there in 2000, I found Phineas Bresee's picture, an original, shoved between boxes in a storage closet, sitting in a cracked, cheap, plastic frame with moisture stains on the parchment. Sure, new attendees didn't know Bresee from Joe Blow, but that didn't mean they wouldn't be interested in who he was and what the rich heritage really consisted of for the church.
As the church began to plan its 100th anniversary, I wanted it to be a time of renewed legacy appreciation for the people who had been there, and fresh exposure for those who were new. We celebrated for six weeks telling stories over and over. Often we reminded people that we didn't just show up at this address a few years ago with a fly-by-night ministry that will sink or swim around a pastor or a personality cult. No, this is a stable, thriving, active, relevant, prevailing and ever-renewing ministry. A great group to join in mission with. A fantastic place to raise a family. And people to serve our community with in Jesus' name.
We tried to make decisions as leaders that would make sense looking back 30 years from now, not just what seems right today. We attempted to handle money and facilities and vision and programs with great care, remembering eternal souls were involved, and so is a historic ministry that demands our respect and care.
I tried to remember I had the privilege of building on those who came before me and leading from the steps of great men and women behind me. Yet I was also blazing a trail that future pastors and leaders will have to walk on when they lead. What kind of trail is it? Is it clearly marked? Well cared for, and lovingly walked? Were we doing the kind of ministry that if it disappeared tomorrow, would be sorely missed by the God-seekers and truth-searchers and even the skeptics of the community who are quietly so thankful we were there doing what we do?
It also reminded me that the two other churches I pastored previously had legacies, even if they were not called "legacy churches." One had been a church plant and I was only the fifth pastor in its history. Charter members were all through the leadership, and I treated them with the respect they were due for having had the courage to begin a new church those years before. As we doubled in size and scope of ministry over seven years, they all stayed with me, through the changes, and we saw some great things happen for the Kingdom.
The other had a longer history, with many members who had been there for long periods of time. Over eight years, the church nearly tripled in size, planted two new churches, and experienced massive change, but most everyone stayed with us. We respected those who had been with us the longest, and gave them the right to disagree but invited them to stay with us. Most did. And we were better for it.
Here's the bottom line.
If you pastor or attend a "legacy church," honor and respect those who built the legacy.
Share the story of God's grace through His people with those that are new in your church. Invite the legacy people to pray for you and even join the vision if they can in embracing the future. And then remember this: Every church is creating a legacy. No matter how old or new, traditional or contemporary, large or small.
So what will the decisions you are making today result in 30 years from now? What will they be saying about this era of your history? Will the Kingdom have been advanced and God's people stayed together?
Live, serve, and minister for the future, not just the present. Your legacy matters. And you are making one, you know. Even today!
Kevin M. Ulmet is former pastor of Chicago First Church of the Nazarene, Lemont, and Chicago, Illinois. He has recently accepted the call to Nashville First, another "legacy church."
THE MYTHS OF LEGACY CHURCHES AND LEGACY PEOPLE:
"They don't want to change and never will."
No one likes change except a baby with a dirty diaper, but deep change comes only after trust has been earned by the leadership, and that may take some time! Gonna be here awhile?
"It would be better if they would just go somewhere else."
Oh really? So the people who have prayed the most and tithed the longest and persevered through the storms should just find another church, usually in their elderly years? And where will you be in 30 years?
"There are binding life cycles of churches and that means legacy churches can't grow."
Not unless they are led by the right leaders and the Holy Spirit is still welcome and Christ is still Lord of the Church.
"They don't care about seekers and the lost."
Gently remind they were lost once, and show them you care about them deeply and sincerely. They may just start to care more about others.
"All they want to do is sing hymns and have fellowships and eat together."
So when have you provided times and places for them to sing hymns and have fellowships and eat together?
"We just cannot go visit every person in the hospital or when they're sick or someone dies. We have more important things to do."
So I guess you'll suffer alone and die alone and grieve alone too someday, right?
"We need all new blood and these folks are just in the way."
So you don't need experience and wisdom and veterans of spiritual battles anymore? And how long do you plan for your kingdom to stand?
Holiness Today, Sep/Oct 2011