Does history shapes who we are? I want to think so, but my inclination today is that when we want it to, it doesn’t, but (and here’s the kick in the pants) when we don’t want it to affect us, it does. Here’s the history I want to shape me. Not surprisingly, it’s from Paul Revere and the American Revolution. For those who don’t know, on “April 18 in 1775” (“hardly a man is now alive”), Paul Revere set off on his historic ride to my hometown. His goal was to warn the minutemen in Lexington and Concord that the regulars were coming to steal their military supplies and arrest Hancock and Adams (they were busy keeping a low profile in a tavern in Lexington – you know that Sam Adams!). If you know the poem (“Listen my children and you shall hear. . . .”), you get the feeling that Revere was in a mad rush. After all, this was a crisis. History, however, tells us that when Revere reached Lexington, he decided to hang out for an hour or so and enjoy some food and drink with John and Sam. And after an engaging conversation about life, liberty and the Patriot’s chances of ever winning a Super Bowl, Revere was off again to complete his mission to warn Concord. Apparently, he barely had mounted his horse, when he encountered another rider, who he immediately recognized as a true son of liberty, the good doctor Samuel Prescott. Apparently, Dr. Prescott was on his way home to Concord after having a hot date with some woman in Lexington. You would think that dates in 1775 would have a 9 pm curfew, but here was Prescott saying goodnight at nearly one in the morning! That’s way too much pursuit of happiness! In any case, on their way to Concord, Revere and Prescott were arrested by a British patrol. Thankfully, Prescott escaped and brought word to the minutemen in Concord so that we were ready for them and could fire “the shot heard ‘round the world.” In short, forget about July 4. July 4 was paper. THIS was America’s defining moment. This was the birth of liberty. And please, for maximum effect, read this entire paragraph, while listening to fife and drum music.
Now, I want to say that this history somehow has shaped me. I want to say it gave me a desire to fight for noble causes. I want to say it is the reason I hate all forms of injustice and tyranny. And I want to believe that I learned to stand up for the truth regardless of the consequences from this day in my glorious past (well, not my past, but you know what I mean). But more than likely, the only things I picked up from this were (1) always put pleasure before work (thanks, Paul and Sam!), (2) the love of staying out late, and (3) the glory in embracing my rebellious side (which I do quite well!). My point: we forget the things that should shape us and allow other things (the wrong things) to dictate our path.
The year was 2001. We had come home to Maryland for a visit. We were living in Canada after moving there five years earlier to plant Thames Valley Presbyterian Church. And while we had gone to Canada with plans to retire there (after all, the hockey is great!), things had changed and it was clear God was leading us somewhere new. We just didn’t know where. But on a sunny day in March, we met with Joe and Anne Dutra at Centennial Park to dream about the possibility of starting a church here in Catonsville. But it was never intended to be just an ordinary church. It was to be a church that had missions at its very core. It was a church that would have a heart for the nations and for the internationals in our midst. It would be a church that would see itself as a mission outpost committed to reaching the unchurched and those around us who had given up on God. And it would be a church devoted to serving the people God put in our path. In the subsequent months, we prayed more about the creation of such a church. And we began talking to other people who might have a similar desire. At first, there were only a few, but that number began to grow. And when we returned home to Catonsville, in July of 2002, there were forty of us committed to launch a church that would embrace missions as its very core and see it as the lynch pin that held everything in the church together. Even more impressive, 60% of those forty people had been on short-term mission trips. You might get the impression that this wasn’t really a church. You would be right. This was an army. And that is the story of our beginning. That is our history.
But history doesn’t write itself automatically on our DNA. And over time, it can be forgotten. Worse, over time, new ideas can take its place and start to shape our identity. We started with a clear vision to be mission-centered and missional; but of late, in my opinion, other priorities have emerged that have threatened to push both of these critical areas back a bit. And if we are not careful, they could easily end up with a reduced role in our church. Now, I don’t feel anyone or anything is to blame for this potential shift (and if anyone is to blame, it would probably be me!). It’s just that change happens and new concerns emerge. And as a church gets older, it is natural for a church to turn more inward and to become more focused on its own needs and wants. And while it may be natural, I still feel it would be sad. I don’t want us to lose an important piece of who we are.
Years ago, Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, divided its ministry goals into five categories. They specified that they wanted to focus on grace (what we would call missions, outreach and ministries of compassion), growth, groups, gifts (that is, developing people’s spiritual gifts in service) and good stewardship. And they decided that since these five were equally important to the health of their church, they would assign equal amounts of energy, resources and prayer to each category. Their hope was to be a well-balanced New Testament church. But two years into their five-year plan, they noticed that while they were doing well in four of the five categories, they were finding it difficult to make the gains that they had hoped and prayed for in terms of grace (what we would call missions and outreach). They thought by allocating twenty percent of their resources to each of the five categories, they would experience a steady uptick in growth; but then they realized their reasoning was faulty. They had forgotten that inertia for those outside of the church wanes over time; and to address it, you must invest more resources than the other categories that have a more church-centered focus. Now, they make a forty percent investment in their grace ministries and give about fifteen percent to each of their other efforts and find that they are more balanced.
Here’s the point: we have to work extra hard to stay focused on people outside of our doors. It’s much easier simply to focus on our needs and expanding our ministries that serve us in some way. But our history set us on a revolutionary course; and in the weeks and months ahead, I would love for us to regain some of that missional spirit. But it is not just RE’s history that is at stake here. This missional core was at the very heart of the earliest church. In fact, you can’t read Acts without seeing it front and center! And even more to the point: you can’t read the Bible without seeing that God is a missionary God and that missions is its central theme: a desire for all nations, tribes and peoples to come to know God’s redeeming love. David Bosch said it this way: “It is not so much that God has a mission for his church in the world, but that God has a church for his mission in the world.” Or as Brad Brisco and Lance Ford put it: “The church’s call is not simply to send missionaries into the world. The church is God’s missionary to the world.”
Here’s the thing about defining moments in history. They write about it. They wrote a poem about Paul Revere’s ride. They wrote Acts about the early church. Here’s my question: what will future generations write about us: that we stayed the course of our beginning and grew more and more missions-centered and missional with each passing year? Or that we lost our bearings and became more and more inward focused? All I know is that I don’t want to spend eternity explaining why, when the time for action was upon us, when the need for missions and missional-living was at its greatest, I was sitting around talking with Sam and Paul and John in some tavern and chose not to answer the call “to be up and to arms.” After all these years, I don’t want to find out that I am really bad at history after all.