Looking back, moving forward


Why the past shapes our mission and our future

By Conrad Stoesz

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 and 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 kingdom 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 people with amnesia. They wouldn’t know what to do or where to go, because they wouldn’t know who they are. 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 is celebrating 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 us to remember his presence in the past, in the present and in the promised future. 

Writer Paul Woodburn points 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 writer of the letter to the Hebrews encourages his 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 Martyrs Mirror had a similar effect. This 1,295 page book, first published in 1660, is filled with stories of men and women, most of whom were Anabaptists, who suffered and died for their devotion to Jesus and his example of love and forgiveness even in difficult circumstances.

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. Our personal and corporate identities are “anchored in a strong historical sense that comes from the ability to experience continuity.  Surely if you have nothing to look backward to, and with pride, you have nothing to look forward to with hope,” states historian Barbara L. Craig. Our libraries, archives, study centers and their staff are vital to providing continuity of memory.

In December 2004, on the way back from a family gathering, I began to hear about the tsunami in Southeast Asia. The earth shook, water moved and then came roaring back, devastating homes, businesses and lives. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives. As reporters were sent out to cover the story of death and destruction, one was different. It was a story from the Island of Simeulue, Indonesia, which was the first place to have the massive 33-foot waves smack and race beyond the shoreline. 

Reporters arrived expecting to find signficant death and destruction. But in a population of 75,000 only seven people died. Why only seven when thousands died in other places? For generations the people of Simeulue have been telling the story of the tsunami of 1907, when the earth shook, the water moved out and rolled back, killing many people. They have been telling their children and grandchildren to head to higher ground when the earth shakes and the water moves out. In 2004, they remembered.

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, friendship, money and food—mercy and forgiveness embodied—flowed from the Amish community toward the Roberts family. Half the people at Roberts’ funeral were Amish. That violence happened was not unique; it was the Amish response that garnered attention.  Within one week, 1,200 news stories around the world covered the event—with forgiveness at the center 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 past informed their actions and helped them move forward.

When life shakes your world, what stories do you hang on to? What stories will guide your children and grandchildren? Will we turn to Scripture, God’s work in our lives, in our community?


Drawing on the full story

While Mennonite Brethren have put energy into retelling personal and congregational histories and learning from them, God’s story among us is much older. Some MB congregations in the United States and Canada are 50, 80 and even 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 in 1860, the rediscovery of adult baptism (1525) and other renewal movements.

Even as God’s action in the world is ongoing, some are increasingly hostile to Christianity. In this context, what has God prepared for the U.S. MB Conference, for your congregation, for you?

“Non-Christians associate Christianity with power, violence, nationalistic agendas and scandal,” writes Kurt Willems in an article published in the December 2011 issue of Christian Leader. “But we Anabaptists have a better story to tell.” Have we done enough learning from our Mennonite roots to tell this story effectively?

Study centers, 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. MB roots are deep in the Mennonite experience. As a large cohort of Mennonite Brethren are moving into retirement homes, now is the time to invest in our libraries and archives, our memory institutions. Now is the time to learn more from our past, allowing it to increasingly become part of our identity and to influence our mission.


Conrad Stoesz is the archivist at the Center for MB Studies in Winnipeg, Man. This article is adapted from an earlier version published in January 2012 by the MB Herald, the Canadian Conference of MB Churches magazine. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here