8 Ways Nostalgia May be Killing Your Church


memoryNostalgia is sentimental remembrance of previous times or significant events that continue to stir happy or meaningful personal recollections. It can be a healthy time of reflection as long as its primary purpose is to remind how the past laid the foundation for the present and future. If, however, those remembrances result in an excessive yearning and compulsion to return to the “good old days,” then nostalgia may be killing your church.

The word nostalgia is derived from the two Greek words: nostos, meaning homecoming, and algos, meaning pain. The medical professionals who coined the word in the late 18th century were describing an emotional and physical condition, not the current meaning of wistful thoughts of earlier times. In its original definition, nostalgia was viewed as a crippling condition that rendered sufferers incapacitated by despair or intense homesickness.[1]

Nostalgia was considered a legitimate reason for voluntary release from military service even until the 1860’s. If a soldier became too overwhelmed by thoughts of home or the life he left behind, his abilities for service could be compromised.

Nostalgia in reasonable doses can provide a sense of comfort. But too much can have a negative effect perpetuating the belief that an earlier time is preferable to present day conditions. Getting caught up in feelings about a more ideal past can make the present seem unfulfilling by comparison.[2]

Excessive nostalgia can cause a church to romanticize, idealize and even embellish the past in an effort to coerce present generations to perpetuate that past for future generations. Consequently, extending those previous practices can limit a congregation to its past performance, potentially killing its present and future efforts. The end result is a church that attempts to re-create divine moments, events or even seasons based almost completely on the idealized emotions that were originally stirred.

8 Ways Nostalgia May be Killing Your Church

  • Attempts are made to canonize one particular style or genre of music.
  • Conversations begin with Do you remember instead of Can you imagine.
  • An inordinate amount of time is spent planning and preparing reunions and anniversaries.
  • Much more time is devoted to protecting old practices than praying for and considering new ones.
  • Leadership vision seems to look in the rearview mirror for the way things used to be instead of out the window for the way things could be.
  • Budgets are absorbed on the physical and organizational institution without considering its mission.
  • Leaders are selected or dismissed according to how they can best represent and perpetuate the past.
  • Resurrecting or recreating older actions to reflect former generations always takes priority over newer actions to impact future generations.

Nostalgically designing the vision, practices, procedures and future of your church to replicate the Good Old Days usually succeeds in getting it half right…it is old.


[1] Adapted from http://www.wisegeek.org

[2] Ibid.



11 Responses to “8 Ways Nostalgia May be Killing Your Church”

  • 61 & counting Says:

    Who likes traditional? Who likes contemporary which BTW has been around 30 years at least?!

    I grew up Catholic. I remember hearing Mass in Latin. These days, Penticostal exercising my faith in contemporary circles. I’ve read many articles about and I’ve lived in & listened to people on both sides of the controversy. Y-e-e-s controversy.

    My Pastor prefers the PC phrase Worship preference. My “worship war” observations:
    1. Traditional – snooty, sanctimonious, & critical. “It’s wrong because it’s (different)”
    2. Contemporary – “Try it, you’ll like it.” “Oh well…”

    I found some of the previous comments critical & one-sided, one incredibly long winded, one or two talking out of both sides of their mouths, one brief and pointless. I imagine a couple of you are KJV-only divisionists but that’s for another discussion.

    Those of you that like Traditional, more power to you but keep your criticisms to your self. Rock on Contemporary!

  • Is Worship Nostalgia Killing Your Church? Says:

    […] The word nostalgia is derived from the two Greek words: nostos, meaning homecoming, and algos, meaning pain. The medical professionals who coined the word in the late 18th century were describing an emotional and physical condition, not the current meaning of wistful thoughts of earlier times. In its original definition, nostalgia was viewed as a crippling condition that rendered sufferers incapacitated by despair or intense homesickness.[1] […]

  • David Manner Says:

    Hey Daniel,

    I’m happy for you to continue sharing content from my posts on church leaders.com. Thanks for asking.

  • Daniel So Says:

    Hello David,

    I hope this message finds you well!

    My name is Daniel So, and I’m editing the worship channel for ChurchLeaders.com.

    Thanks so much for sharing your great content with us in the past. I’m reaching out to you to verify that we continue to have permission to share your articles on CL — with proper attribution and a link back to your site.

    Please let me know what you think. Thanks!


  • Bob Henderson Says:

    Great article. I think this speaks to the issue of relevance in worship practice. But, relevance means different things to different people.

    I actually use the admonition of Paul that he makes in Ephesians (as well as elsewhere) to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” as a guide for relevance.

    I interpret psalms to be: “songs that use the actual words of God.” If we repeat back to Him his words to us, that is a way of giving Him honor and praise. Hymns, to me are: “songs that proclaim the attributes of God, or His Church.” These are ways to teach us about “who God is!” And my understanding of spiritual songs is: “songs that allow us to speak individually to God.” These may be thought of in the context of prayer.

    As I plan each week, these serve as an overlay to guide me in my song choices. I find excellent examples of all of these song categories in recently written music as well as in songs from the past. Blending them together for these purposes as well as to fit the theme of the day seems to overcome much of the resistance to both older songs as well as newer songs in a rather eclectic congregation.

    Continuing to teach that the purpose of songs in worship is not the song itself, but rather the honor and praise of our Savior also seems to help. Nostalgia, it seems is inward directed, but our worship needs to be outward directed to Him, as well as to our fellow worshipers. I have found that that there is a richness of advice in these scriptures.

  • Linda Ingram Says:

    Thank you Craig Collins for expressing my sentiments exactly. “Throwing the baby out with the bath water” is a perfect description of how many people, including myself, feel. Blessed with God given musical talent, I was deeply involved in church music (Sanctuary choir / Children’s choirs / Special music / and more) for almost 30 years.

    Enter: contemporary church music. In essence saying, “Thanks for your years of devotion and music ministry, but you are not needed. Your style is antiquated and not welcome anymore.” Mind you, I am NOT opposed to change and to incorporating some contemporary music. But when the style of my generation is completely tossed out of worship, (I was born in 1956) you have sent a message to me of disregard, no different than the disregard shown to people who feel unwelcome in certain churches because they cannot look or dress the part of ‘that church’.

    I also agree with your comments,
    “Many of our great hymns teach us who God is, what it is that we believe, and who God calls us to be. Many of the newer songs ignore that aspect and focus on feeling alone.”
    “Many of the newer songs can focus too much on “self” rather than God.”
    You certainly ‘hit the nail on the head’ with these statements. A friend of mine said, “It is like they are trying to be in charge of my emotions and put me in a transcendental state of mind, when in truth, I need to be in charge.” A valid point in my opinion.

    I live with a heavy heart and live with guilt, that I am not serving God and not using my talents as He wants me to. He is my Lord and Savior and I know I will someday be in a Heavenly chorus. Thank you so much for your input.

  • Craig Collins Says:

    I think the term “nostalgia” is a bit of a dangerous term. It strongly hints to me of a desire to throw out everything old just for the sake of the new. I believe this issue is at the crux of the “worship wars.” There’s no doubt that some church goers, pastors, musicians, and congregations are too hung up in the past, but by the same token, there are also some who are too quick to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

    I like a comment John Hollan made in his response to your latest article, “Stepford Worship,” :

    “Sadly, it is far too common these days for all kinds of church leaders make whimsical
    decisions to change worship style or to assign blame for church decline to the kinds of
    music we use in our worship, rather than to take an honest look at other variables that
    may be contributing to the issues at hand. Decisions about our worship should be rooted
    in the work of God in the life of a congregation or faith community, not as a means to try to
    “fix” other issues in the church.”

    All too often, radical changes are made in worship practices, musical styles without true consideration of who the congregation is, and what their “voice” is. Sadly, I’ve seen churches blatantly and totally disregard the older generation’s needs, desires and contributions in the name of “being relevant,” bringing in young people, etc.

    There probably has always been generation gaps, but I believe that they have gotten progressively worse. All too often the wisdom of older generations is being ignored, disregarded by younger adults who think they know everything. I’ve also seen younger people driven out of churches by the unloving hard line attitudes and beliefs of the older generation. I think we need music ministries and worship practices that speaks to all of God’s children. We need to find a common ground and language.

    In the Psalms God tells us to “Sing a new song to the Lord” but he doesn’t tell us to throw out all the old songs. There is or can be value in both. Many of the newer songs can focus too much on “self” rather than God. A lot of older Gospel type songs can too, and while they’re fine for individual/private worship, I don’t think they’re appropriate for corporate worship. Many of our great hymns teach us who God is, what it is that we believe, and who God calls us to be. The very reason that hymns were created was as a teaching tool to help believers. Many congregations who have “contemporary” worship services don’t use hymns at all. Many of the newer songs ignore that aspect and focus on feeling alone. I believer that true worship involves the whole believer, mind, body and spirit, and doesn’t focus solely on one aspect to the exclusion of the others.

    I heartily recommend that everyone read, “Discipling Music Ministry” by Calvin M. Johansson. One can pick up a used book from one of Amazon’s used book sellers for only a few dollars. Mr. Johansson challenges the reader to look at the styles of music we use from the perspective of who our congregation is, where they are on their spiritual/faith journey, and how we can better disciple our congregations through music. He says that all too often pastors, worship committees and musicians don’t look at this thoroughly enough and/or aren’t on the same page about how to achieve the same ends. I don’t agree with everything he says by any stretch of the imagination, but he has many, many valid points and provides a lot of food for deep thought and prayerful reflection.

    I’ve also been reading a good bit lately about congregations where the men aren’t singing any more and the worship leaders are wondering why. Another book I’d like to recommend to help answer those questions is, “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns.” One of the best and only ways that our congregations can actively worship is through congregational song. If the music is too complex, sits too high in the vocal range such that it hurts or congregants feel that they can’t reach those notes, or fear embarrassing themselves, then it inhibits congregational song.

    Finally, sometimes valid reasons for not changing something can be labeled as “nostalgia”, when in reality they are something totally different and valid, it’s just that the person labeling them as “nostalgia” doesn’t understand the rationale and reasons. Commercial music is ubiquitous. We hear it everywhere. The style of singing that most employ in “commercial” music is hard on the voice and can limit vocal range. I am also a voice teacher and teach a number of praise team leaders. I am helping them to find a healthy way to get the same stylistic sounds without damaging their God-given voices and enabling them to meet the demands of the songs they are using in worship. Congregations don’t have the benefit of vocal training however. I believe that a lot more prayerful thought needs to be given to this issue, not because of “nostalgia” but for enabling God’s people to freely and joyfully worship God in spirit and truth.

  • Donald Pryor Says:

    Nostalgia is not limited to musical styles. It can hamper the best of intentions for a well-directed worship experience for holidays and special occasions, as well. The particular method of singing or praise or prayer is anointed as sacrosanct and not to be altered under any circumstances. Thus, the whole program is rendered unimaginative and stale simply because it is a complete verbatum repitition of the previous season’s program. As a small church pastor, I have experienced this phenomenon regularly in the area of musical worship.

  • Wendy J @ rockinwhatyagot.com Says:

    My husband is a worship pastor in an SBC. I would have to say this nostalgia epidemic we’ve seen is to the point of being heartbreaking. We pray over the bride as we seek to lead in obedience only to God’s leading and nothing else.

  • Rich Keller Says:

    This is humorous

    The style of music continues to be debated.

    I’ve been in church all my life, but not sure I’ve been in a worship service yet

    I preached in many of those services

    Do we really know what worship God wants , in the modern America church

    Can we learn from those in prosecuted countries?

  • John Hollan Says:

    Spot on, my friend. There is immense value for our present and future worship from the worship experiences of days gone by, but that’s not the place where worship ends.

    I once heard it said, “We don’t sing the old songs because they’re old; we sing them because they’re great.” I loved that statement, but somehow we must carry that charge from the focal point of music to the greater arena of a worship lifestyle. There are timeless practices and expressions of worship that remain relevant and empowering for Jesus followers today. We must avail ourselves of these as we worship the Lord both corporately and privately, but we must be equally committed to searching God’s word and listening to the Holy Spirit for His call to service, justice and humility in fresh, new ways that demonstrate His glory to those who need to know Him.

    Thanks for the reminder.

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