The Tyranny of Nostalgia
Every generation tends to have a favorite music genre. Even as time passes, they stay forever connected to that one particular era—for my parents it was the 60s and 70s, for me it was the late 90s, for my kids it’s something more recent. This music isn’t special to us because we objectively think it’s the best quality, it’s attached to memories of certain seasons in our lives. It’s able to take us back to meaningful moments.
I can hear a song from twenty years ago and instantly be flooded with the feelings I had in college. I might say “I love this song!” and my kids look at me like I’m crazy. To them, it’s just a song. But it goes both ways. A 2021 hit may play on the radio and they’re ecstatic, but to me it’s just a song.
This happened a lot when I was a worship pastor. I would get people coming up to me after service asking why we hadn’t sung a certain hymn in a while or why we didn’t sing it in the “right” key. They would then give a lengthy explanation of why that song was uniquely important and how necessary it was for the church at large.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are songs, especially in the church world, that have objective significance. But often, the significance we think a song holds isn’t the song itself, but the memory it holds for us—a connection to a moment in our personal life that carried a lot of emotion. That’s what nostalgia is. Our ability to savor and reflect on memories prompted by an object or situation.
Now being nostalgic is not bad. We all do this. But as leaders, we have to be careful about how our nostalgia factors into the way we lead our organizations. Our feelings are personal, not corporate. They’re not always shareable. Which means something that you’re nostalgic about is not easily transferable to another person.
What Bad Nostalgia Looks Like in Church
A few years ago I visited a church on the West Coast that I had been to several times before. In the past when I had been there, they had always had this gigantic bulletin. I mean, it was huge—it had a summary of almost every ministry in the church, how to get involved, giving updates, and all the members in attendance. It would have taken the entire service to read through the whole thing.
To my surprise, when I walked through the door this time, they handed me something else. Now, I’m around a lot of church communication, so I’m not surprised very often. But this surprised me. It was a simple one-page bulletin—literally 1/10 of the size it had been before!
The endless page-after-page overflow was replaced by a simple 30-60 second read. I loved it! But I was surprised that such a large church who had done their bulletin the same way for so long decided to make this type of change.
After the service, I walked over to a church member I knew. Holding up the bulletin I said “I love the new format! This is great!”…the look I got told me there was a whole lot more to the piece of paper in my hand than I had realized.
I found out later that the church had actually stopped printing bulletins altogether and gone digital. The congregation was in an uproar over the change—even though the leadership was seeking to be financially responsible. It made no sense to weekly print mass volumes of paper that ended up in the trash by the end of service. The natural choice was to create an electronic alternative.
This also made sense from a cultural standpoint, as the surrounding businesses and establishments had already transitioned to paperless modes of communication. The leadership assumed the congregation would understand the wisdom of moving away from an expensive printed piece and of instead leveraging the digital technology that so many were already using.
Unfortunately, that assumption was wrong. People weren’t ready for this change because for them the bulletin had nothing to do with the information on the page. It was far more of a security blanket than anything else. It represented something comfortable and safe…nostalgic to some degree. They had emotion associated with the bulletin, even though the content inside it was irrelevant.
Guard Your Leadership From Nostalgic Tyranny
While it’s pretty easy to see the folly in this example—where i the people’s nostalgia gets in the way of the leaders’ wise direction—it goes both ways. We as leaders can make decisions that are just as clouded by emotion that hurt our organizations and people, no matter the type of ministry. It’s important for us to be aware of the danger this type of thinking poses to growth and health in an organization.
Here are four things to think through to help evaluate whether something nostalgic is preventing you from taking steps you need in order to grow.
You feel a great sense of loss when considering a simple change that in reality is not that big a deal. It might be a routine, a habit, something you do before you speak. It might be a tradition you have within the organization. It really could be anything. Your disproportionate sense of loss may mean your nostalgia is holding you back.
You fear the reactions of people at unrealistic levels. This may mean you are allowing the nostalgia of others to hold back your organization from making healthy steps.
Remember that someone else’s preferences, nostalgia, and memories, even your own, should not dictate your vision. As you walk through changes, encourage yourself that it’s okay to make a healthy decision that is uncomfortable for some people, including yourself.
Don’t forget that most people can handle change if they are properly guided through it. If the transition to something new is hard, remember seasons of change are not permanent.
There are some things we can’t help but feel a nostalgic connection to, like a song. But make sure your ministry’s practices aren’t staying put for the sake of tradition and comfort. Make changes when necessary and keep practices for the right reasons.