by Heidi Regier Kreider, WDC Conference Minister

I was surprised last January when I received an invitation to speak in a panel presentation at this year’s SENT conference, an annual church planting consultation sponsored by Mennonite Mission Network.  I do not consider myself a church planter. What would I have to say on the topic?  But I understood better when I heard the theme of the conference – Scattered: From Jerusalem to Antioch, exploring how the  “legacy” church (shaped by rituals, traditions and values of the past) relates to the “missional” church (a church that is thriving, growing, reaching out and planting new churches).  I was asked to speak on “Assets of the Legacy Church,” while another member of the panel spoke on “Perils of the Legacy Church.”   As we conferred with each other in advance, we realized that  assets and perils are often two sides of the same coin.  The legacy church can be missional, but it can just as easily become stuck in maintenance and self-preservation.

Before becoming WDC conference minister, I served as the pastor of a “legacy” church – a congregation over 100 years old with strong historical connections to Mennonite higher education, mission and denominational agencies.  Many of the members of the congregation were in their 70s, 80s, and 90s – legacy members themselves!  But I learned that a Sunday school class with some of the oldest members of the congregation had originally been formed 50 years earlier when young adults wanted to start a new group of their own! – a class that would be relevant to their lives and changing world.  In a congregation that was already a “legacy” church at that time, these young adults had a vision for something new – something “missional!   When I arrived at the church, decades later, this same group had evolved to become a “legacy” Sunday school class, yet they were still learning and growing in their faith.

I offer this illustration to note that “legacy” and “missional” are not mutually exclusive.  I believe legacy often has its roots in a missional initiative, and missional movements can give rise to legacy.   While a legacy church can become stagnant and focused on maintenance, it can also choose to be missional if it is in touch with the movement of the Holy Spirit, participating in God’s mission in the world.  With this in mind, I identified four assets of the legacy church, which I believe can be exercised in missional ways:

  1. The legacy church has strong foundations and has stood the test of time.  It recognizes that its identity is shaped by history and memory, and that it is part of a cloud of witnesses and community of faith larger than itself.   To be missional, the legacy church needs to celebrate its heritage and also to honestly confess and confront the sins of its past, such as abuses of power and privilege, racism, sexual abuse, nationalism and colonialism.  Only then can it truly become a life-giving witness to God’s healing, peace and justice.
  1. The legacy church embodies wisdom within an intergenerational community.  It includes elders who have valuable life experience and faith journeys from which to mentor younger generations and new believers.  The legacy church is missional when it provides opportunity for multiple generations to wrestle together with questions of life and death, change and loss, vocation, faith and discipleship.
  1. The legacy church has developed rituals, traditions and practices that shape community, identity and faith in powerful ways.  A legacy church that is missional will intentionally incorporate children and new believers into the faith community by inviting and teaching them to participate in these practices, and explaining the meaning of the practices.  To be missional, the legacy church will also discern when to refresh or interrupt a tradition, and when to begin a new tradition!
  1. The legacy church has multiple resources: Leadership skills, financial base, staff members, social capital, networks of relationships and knowledge which has developed from many years of experience.  It has the capacity to serve not only its own members, but also the wider community through service, mission, offering its facility for activities, and more.  The legacy church is missional when it uses its resources to further God’s mission and priorities, rather than simply to maintain itself.

Western District Conference has many legacy congregations, and we are a “legacy” conference, richly endowed with historical foundations, wisdom, traditions and resources of many kinds.  We are also a missional conference when we use these gifts to help the church thrive and grow, to encourage young and emerging congregations, and to plant new missional congregations.