A large percentage of church planters are newcomers to the places where they start churches. They arrive as protagonists, with a goal of transforming the spiritual climate of their adopted communities. This is admirable, yet often short sighted. While many communities are new, and have no past tense, other places where churches are needed are older, for example, old cities. Neglecting a place’s history is analogous to a physician treating a patient without first gathering a history that helps inform the diagnosis.
History can help uncover unique strengths and reveal the work God has already placed in motion. To be fair, planters are immersed in the tasks of engaging mission and addressing the future. Some choose to plant churches partially because it helps them bypass what they consider the baggage of old church organizations, old buildings, and even old people. Many define the new church’s mission, values, and goals before they even move to their new cities. In new suburbs, this may matter less, however, cities have unique histories, and each carries with it distinct gifts, and challenges.
Followers of Christ are instructed to remember together. Community is strengthened through outward expressions such as rituals, celebrating, feasting, or abstaining that are regularly and relationally observed. They are called to eat the bread and drink the cup together in remembrance of him (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24). In Christian liturgical circles, this is called anamnesis, from the Greek word ἀνάμνησιν, which means memory. Remembering the Sabbath is to keep it holy (Exod 20:8). As priest and leader of the Israelites, Samuel created a monument he called an Ebenezer as a visual reminder of God’s miraculous saving work on the people’s behalf (1 Sam 7:12). When they crossed into the Promised Land, Joshua obeyed God and constructed a memorial in Gilgal out of twelve stones the Israelites had carried across the Jordan (Josh 4: 21-24).
My home, San Francisco is an old city with a past worth knowing. Its history profoundly shapes its present tense reality. Some of San Francisco’s stories are devastating: fires that all but destroyed it, the Chinese Exclusion Act and accompanying prejudice, and two significant earthquakes. In 1978, it experienced the horror of its People’s Temple mass suicide in Guyana, led by an evangelical from San Francisco. Just nine days later it was jarred again by the assassination of mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk by a man also claimed to be a Christian. There are still people living here who refuse to participate in any church as a result of these events.
After the slaying of Moscone and Milk, the San Francisco Examiner described San Francisco as “a city with more sadness and despair in its heart than any city should have to bear.” How can churches help hurting communities, find a way to hope again? Church planters who take the time to reflect and care about a place’s history will discover that emotional empathy often precedes understanding, initiates restoration, and helps them reach indigenous residents.
“A Mourning City Asks Why,” The San Francisco Examiner, November 28, 1978.