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Perched on the Shoulders of Giants: Building Legacy for the Sake of Mission

by Matt Erickson

Retaining historical awareness of the church’s mission is especially important in moving forward. Some churches are stuck in the past, or at least attempt to move forward while engrossed with what is behind. 

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As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” (Josh. 1:5-6)

I have a baton sitting on my desk in my office with the verses above etched into it. It reminds me daily of the challenge and responsibility to carry forward the legacy of mission at Eastbrook Church, where I serve as senior pastor. Throughout our thirty-five years as a church, a strong sense of mission has been upheld not only by our founding senior pastor, Dr. Marc Erickson, but also by the ownership of our entire congregation. A courageous group of spiritual giants stand within the memories of Eastbrook’s history of mission like a local version of Hebrews 11. 

When I took the helm just over four years ago, we entered a season of leadership transition, weathering it well by God’s grace. In the midst of this transitional time, we have worked at keeping the calling to mission central in this new era of ministry. I want to share four characteristics I have come to believe are essential for building on legacy to strengthen churches to move forward powerfully for mission.

History

The Psalmist encourages his readers with these words, “Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story” (Ps. 107:2). One important aspect of our life in the church is to tell the stories of what God has done in our midst. As time goes on in the life of a church, particularly in leadership transitions, we risk losing our sense of history. 

But retaining historical awareness of the church’s mission is especially important in moving forward. Some churches are stuck in the past, or at least attempt to move forward while engrossed with what is behind. This, of course, is not constructive. Yet neither is it helpful to ignore the past, lurching thoughtlessly for the future without at least considering the value of what has come before. Every church has a story, and that unique story must be understood in order to build for the future.

When I came to Eastbrook, there were many stories of what had come before, but two loomed large. One story arose from a relationship with house church leaders in Asia. When a couple from Eastbrook went to live in that country, it quickly became apparent that there was a huge ministry opportunity for orphan care. Through the orphan care work, our congregation stepped forward to adopt children who otherwise would most likely never find homes because of challenges they faced. A deep heart connection with these children developed as they became part of families within Eastbrook. It certainly changed the children’s lives, but it also changed our church.

One other gripping story within Eastbrook’s history of mission came through relationship with a Somali believer, Ahmed Haile. Haile relates his own story in his book Teatime in Mogadishu, which in itself is well worth the read (2011). Eastbrook had the chance to send a team to develop and sustain a hospital in the Horn of Africa during a very tenuous time there. Stories of courageous ministry continue to echo down the halls of our church from those days, inspiring others to step out with risky faith.

Those stories are more than just dusty anecdotes of bygone glory. They are powerful milestones in the life of our church that have shaped us into who we are today. I do not have time to detail stories from Guatemala, Belarus, Lebanon, and even our own city that have shaped our missional identity. During our leadership transition, a critical need for us was to stop, listen, and reflect upon our history as a church. As we did that, we began to consider where God was leading us into the future. 

When we know our church’s unique history of mission engagement, we can honor the past. Even more, this historical awareness becomes an important piece of discerning the present calling of God upon each church, enabling us to build upon the strengths of our history for a new era of ministry. Without recognizing these foundation stones, we would have missed a huge opportunity for ministry.

Relationship

The stories mentioned above demonstrate that relationships are central to Eastbrook’s approach to mission. This confirmed what I saw during my time working with World Relief—that meaningful relationships not only facilitate effective work, but also form the bedrock of trust by which gateways of ministry that otherwise might remain closed are flung open.

One of the great legacies that Pastor Emeritus Marc Erickson and his wife, Nancy, established at Eastbrook was a wealth of friendships around the world that led into ongoing ministry partnership. I intentionally place the words in that order because I believe that the friendships were primary and the ministry work followed. When I joined Eastbrook’s staff, Marc introduced me to friends in Jordan, Kenya, India, China, and other settings. The relational introduction served as my education in Eastbrook’s missional endeavors. 

Now, those same people are my friends, even as we continue to serve together on mission. The work of mission happens best through relationships. Jesus speaks to this when he tells his disciples, “I have called you friends…I chose you and appointed you that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (John 16:15-16). Where relationships are strong, mission is fruitful.

As church leaders, we should consider the key relationships God has developed between us, our church, and others, both here and around the world. What ministry leaders, partner churches, or field workers has God brought into your path? How might those relationships become pathways for vital ministry in the years ahead?

In recent days, like many urban pastors, I have been wrestling in thought and prayer about how to respond to the racial tensions in the United States. In the midst of this wrestling, I reached out to a local pastor from across town, Bishop Walter Harvey, to talk these matters through and pray for God’s guidance in our own city of Milwaukee. It was this budding friendship that unexpectedly led us into an initiative in Milwaukee aimed at bringing pastors and ministry leaders together to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jer. 29:7). Friendship was the furnace that warmed our hearts to pray and set the blaze of ministry in us together.

God is a relational God, and we too are relational beings. What better way to gain momentum for mission than by strengthening existing relationships, being available, and pursuing new relationships? While I would never say this is my strength, what I have learned to do is to slow down and take time with others, open my home to guests passing through, and intentionally plan my international travel with space to simply be with others.

Vision & Strategy

Our history and relationships are vitally important, but the missional impulse of a church will plateau if the overall vision and strategy for mission is not clear. Based on the history and relationships that God has woven into the life of a church, we should ask the questions that Will Mancini (2008) offers in Church Unique: “What can your church do better than 10,000 others?” and “What does your church uniquely bring to the kingdom?” 

Jesus’ words to the first disciples at the beginning of Acts serve as a helpful guide toward vision and strategy: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Clearly, this outlines our purpose as God’s people. Within the New Testament, however, we see individual churches—whether those in Jerusalem, Antioch, or Corinth—working out this purpose uniquely. The distinctive imprint of each of these churches gives us clues to the vision and strategy they were living out in response to the mission of God. 

The Jerusalem church shared all things in common, later struggling with having enough to get by, perhaps because of social status or ostracism within the Jewish capital. The Antioch church, sitting at a social and economic crossroads of the empire, became a multiethnic community reaching the diverse ethnicities walking its streets. The Corinthian church grappled with the raw issues of devoting the whole of life to Christ, including food, conflict, legal issues, and sexuality. Each church found its unique vision and strategy that matched its calling and setting.

We continue to wrestle with this at Eastbrook. With the increased movement of global diaspora peoples to North America, we ask questions about how we should adjust our ministry models to meet this current scenario. We ask ourselves, “How has God uniquely positioned and gifted us to reach international students, refugees, and immigrants in Milwaukee, and how might we strategically aim toward that end?” We look at the opportunities before us and grapple with the hard questions of which ones God is calling us to say yes to and which he is calling us to say no to. We listen, consider, establish plans, and set clear goals with the aim of reaching people for Jesus. Without a clear sense of vision and strategy, we will fail to build toward effective ministry in years to come.

Responsiveness

In Acts 13:1-3, we read of Paul and Barnabas’ commissioning for ministry by the church in Antioch. While the multiethnic leadership of the church were “worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). In the midst of worship, the Holy Spirit interrupted God’s people, redirecting them for a new mission. The Antioch church’s responsiveness to the Holy Spirit’s interruption is an essential characteristic for churches desiring to move forward into a new season of mission.

If all we do is listen to our history, foster existing relationships, and develop strategies, we may lose our edge for mission because of limited human understanding or the boundaries of our experience. Like the Antioch church, effective missional churches hold all things open to the Holy Spirit’s movement, no matter where that takes us. 

This reminds me of a time when we sensed God was directing us as a church toward renewed engagement in the Horn of Africa. As we explored opportunities based on our history, relationships, and a focused strategy, we hit some apparent dead-ends. During this season, we continued to pray and explore, finding that God was opening a doorway into an unplanned location with an unexpected group of people. Through surprising links with the local government, unforeseen business opportunities, and connections with key people, God has continued to surprise us by doing things we never could have strategized. We responded, haltingly and trippingly, taking one step after another as God led us forward. 

The difficulty of this responsive stance is that it is uncomfortable. We cannot control when or how the Holy Spirit interrupts us. When our hands are open, God may disrupt our strategies. We begin to learn that taking the risks often leads us on long and circuitous routes, like Paul and Barnabas on that first missionary journey. When we stand open and responsive, we struggle to release control, which is never easy for driven, organized, North American Christians. 

Yet control is an illusion, particularly when we are talking about the Kingdom of God and the Holy Spirit’s missional impulse. Jesus himself reminded the religious leader, Nicodemus, that “the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with one born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). We, too, need to recover our spiritual calling within the church to be responsive to the Holy Spirit if we are to unleash a dynamic and risky missional movement.

Conclusion

In 1159, John of Salisbury wrote, 

Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to [puny] dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature. (1955, 167)

Too often, we miss the opportunity to stand taller, see more clearly, or reach further because we miss the chance to build upon the legacy of ministry that has preceded us. Legacy does not have to be something left behind. In truth, it can propel us forward into a more fruitful and dynamic season of ministry if we stand on the shoulders of those giants who have gone before us.

References

Haile, Ahmed Ali, with David W. Shenk. 2011. Teatime in Mogadishu. Harrisonburg, Va.: Herald Press.

John of Salisbury. David D. McGarry, trans. 1955. The Metalogicon of John of Salisbury. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Mancini, Will. 2008. Church Unique. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

….

Matt Erickson is senior pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eastbrook is a multiethnic, urban church seeking to proclaim and embody the love of Jesus Christ in the city and in the world. Matt loves spending time with his wife, Kelly, and their three sons.

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 4 pp. 434-439. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

Questions for Reflection

1. What is the unique story of your church or organization in terms of mission? What are the special stories that have shaped who you are? What does this tell you about the unique calling your church or organization may have?

1. What is the unique story of your church or organization in terms of mission? What are the special stories that have shaped who you are? What does this tell you about the unique calling your church or organization may have?

2. Who has God connected you with personally or organizationally for mission? What might it look like for you to lean into those relationships more deeply for ongoing, enduring mission?

3. What do you think the interplay is between vision/strategy and Holy Spirit flexibility? Is there an inherent contradiction here, or can this tension bring greater fruitfulness for the kingdom?

 

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