The Tyranny of Nostalgia

Every generation tends to have a favorite music genre. Even as time passes, they stay forever connected to that one 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. 

When I was a worship pastor. I often would get people coming up to me after service asking why we hadn’t sung their favorite hymn in a while. They would proceed to give a lengthy explanation of why that song was so special 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 through the ages. But often, the significance a song holds isn’t the song itself, but the memory it holds for us—a connection to a moment in our life that carried emotions with it.

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 and we all enjoy the good memories. But as leaders, we must 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.

Bulletin Nostalgia?

A few years ago, I visited a church on the West Coast that I had been to several times before. In the past, they had always had a 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 take the entire service to read through the whole thing, except I never did. To my surprise, when I walked through the doors this time, they handed me something new. 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 they had decided to make this type of change. After the service, I had to ask a friend about it and the look I got told me there was a whole lot more to the new one page bulletin.

Change Can Be Hard, Even Small Change

I found out later that the church had 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 instead leveraging the digital technology that many were already using. What they failed to realize was, nostalgia. People weren’t ready for this change because for them the bulletin wasn't about the information it provided. It represented something comfortable and safe…nostalgic.

Guard Your Leadership from Nostalgic Tyranny

While it’s easy to see the folly in this example—where 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. It can hurt our organizations and people. It’s important for us to be aware of the danger this kind of thinking presents to growth and health in an organization. Here are four things to think through to help evaluate whether nostalgia is preventing you from taking the steps you need to grow:


You feel a great sense of loss when considering a simple change that is not that big of a deal. It might be a routine, a habit, something you do before you speak or 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 healthy decisions that are 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 that change can be the catalyst for growth. 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.