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A future found in history

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a-future-titleHow the past shapes our mission

What is your mission? The idea of a mission statement is common, not only in the church, but in general society. Businesses spend good money hiring consultants to help define their philosophy, purpose, goals.

As Christians, our mission is ultimately God’s mission. God calls us to use our specific aptitudes, skills, insights, gifts, character, and wisdom for his purposes. At the core of our participation in God’s mission is our identity as his people. In turn, that identity is shaped by our past and our
collective memory.

Imagine a person with amnesia. He wouldn’t know what to do or where to go, because he doesn’t know who he is. Without memories, we have no basis for understanding the present and no vision for the future – no process with which to make choices or actions.

Remembering: a celebration of God’s faithfulness

On an institutional level, the past shapes our understanding, our identity – which points us toward action – and ultimately, our mission. In the Bible, God admonishes his people to remember his presence in the past, in the present, and in the promised future.

In “It’s Sunday: the four Rs of worshippers gathered” (November 2010), Paul Woodburn pointed out that part of worship is the act of remembering. “Communities that forget to remember spend an awful lot of time whining, complaining, and filled with fear,” he writes.

The letter to the Hebrews encourages its readers to remain strong in the midst of suffering and persecution. In chapter 11’s “faith hall of fame,” the mere mention of names like Abraham, Jacob, David, Rahab, and Samuel evokes vivid stories of faithful action in adversity. The hearers knew these stories because they had been told for generations. The author then transitions to present application: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus…. He endured the cross, scorning its shame…so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (12:1–3). In the Anabaptist tradition, the book Martyrs Mirror had a similar effect.

Church anniversaries are natural occasions to look at the past to remember and celebrate God’s faithfulness as seen through the congregation and the lives that made the group what it is today. During these events, people newer to the congregation can get a better sense of the culture and workings of their church family. Recording the formation stories of the church accomplishes a directive found in Psalm 102:18: “Let this be recorded for future generations, so that a people not yet born will praise the Lord” (NLT).

Memories tell us who we are

As humans, our skills and wisdom are developed through key events in our life and our congregation’s life. We aren’t stuck in the past, but what and how we remember does shape our identity, our understanding of reality, and our mission. Though God forgives our errors and sins, these choices and events still shape us. “Don’t let the past bind you,” teaches Canadian conference church health facilitator Dave Jackson, “but make sure you learn from it, because it’s one of the most valuable things you’ve been given.” Looking back, we must acknowledge the spectrum of experiences.

The importance of how we remember the past is not specific to the church. In the coming year, the Canadian government has earmarked $11 million toward commemorating the War of 1812. Peter Shawn Taylor, in an Oct. 17, 2011, Maclean’s article, observes that putting the heroes and storylines of 1812 on a national stage “scratches a great many Conservative itches,” including the importance of the military in everyday life and ties to the British Crown. He goes on to say that this money is part of an attempt to redefine Canadian identity.

Regardless of what we may think about the War of 1812 and its commemoration, the Canadian government’s efforts demonstrate that what we claim as our history shapes who we are today. The events we remember, and how we remember them – if we believe the event was good or bad – shapes our values and affects our actions.

Do you remember October 2, 2006? That was the day Charles Roberts entered an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa., with evil intentions. Ordering all the boys to leave, he bound the hands of the girls behind their backs and shot 10, killing five, then turned the gun on himself. Instead of the expected hate and revenge toward the Roberts family, friendship, money, food – mercy and forgiveness embodied – flowed from the Amish community. Half the people at Roberts’ funeral were Amish. This response was so unique that within one week, 1,200 news stories around the world covered the event – with forgiveness at the centre of the account.

People wondered: how could the Amish forgive so soon? There are many answers, but one woman’s response was striking: they forgave because every Sunday, the Reformation-era martyrs (whose faithful witness is recorded in the Martyrs Mirror) are remembered in Amish worship services. The stories of these men and women – who responded to hate and violence with forgiveness – dwell within today’s Amish, who draw on this memory of their spiritual ancestors to shape everyday life. The Amish community’s history so shaped their identity that they could act in a specific way – offering forgiveness.


The Canadian conference acknowledges the connection between memory, identity, and mission: it promotes the ReFocusing program to individuals and congregations.

ReFocusing facilitator Dwayne Barkman regularly calls upon the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in preparation for leading congregations through the process, asking for the history of a particular church. Barkman has seen a passion for mission reignited when congregants learn about the vision and commitment of early leaders in their church. He’s also seen churches recognize painful past conflict and choose to grow from it.

Former CCMBC executive director, David Wiebe, undertook ReFocusing on a personal level. Looking back on his life, “there were plenty of situations and people that, at the time, seemed very negative and un-constructive for me. But once I put them into sequence, I realized that even in the negatives, God was using all the circumstances of my life to prepare me for service to him. This provided a great element of release and redemption for me.”

Another ReFocusing participant, Crossroads MB Church lay leader Tony Schellenberg, experienced the process with his congregation, where “as a community, we moved from thinking about what we should be doing to a desire and passion to make Christian education a lived-out actual value. With renewed energy,…we’ve improved our Christian education space, and are beginning to see more volunteers and a healthier focus on our mission of teaching people about following Jesus.”

Drawing on the full story

While Mennonite Brethren have put energies into retelling personal and congregational histories and learning from them, God’s story among us is much older. Most MB congregations in Canada are 50, 80, with a select few more than 100 years old. But there’s a much longer history of God’s shaping presence in the world, taking us back to the formation of the MB church (1860), the rediscovery of adult baptism (1525), and earlier renewal movements.

Even as God’s action in the world is ongoing, Canadian society is becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity. In this context, what has God prepared for the Mennonite Brethren conference, for your congregation, for you?

“Non-Christians associate Christianity with power, violence, nationalistic agendas and scandal,” wrote Kurt Willems in the U.S. MB publication Christian Leader, December 2011. “But we Anabaptists have a better story to tell.” Have we done enough learning from our Mennonite roots?

Study centres, new publications, and recognition by other Christian denominations all point to a new interest in the Mennonite-Anabaptist understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Mennonite Brethren roots are deep in the Mennonite experience; could this be the time to learn more from our past, allowing it to increasingly become part of our identity and influence our mission?

–Conrad Stoesz is archivist at the Centre for MB Studies and at the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg.

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