In 2012 the popular website ancestry.com sold for a whopping $1.6 billion. A mere four years later it is estimated that the worth of this site is around $2.6 billion. It appears a lot of people want to know who their ancestors were. Something in many of us longs to know where we came from, who our people are, what makes us uniquely us, and to know the story of those to whom we are genetically connected. In our fragmented world, many people are very interested in their ancestry.
Of course, everyone wants to be related to someone famous, great, and wonderful. How exciting to be able to tell your friends that you are a direct descendant of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. However, discovering your lineage can work the other way when you find Joseph Stalin or Attila the Hun in your family tree.
As everyone knows, it is easy to forget where you came from and with each passing generation it becomes more difficult to reconstruct one’s family history. This is especially true in our highly mobile culture where people are constantly moving long distances, or even to different continents, to start a new life. In my own family I am now sorry that I didn’t do more research and have more discussions with my grandparents before they died. Many questions could have been asked and mysteries solved. They would have remembered family backgrounds with more clarity than some of the foggy recollections my parents now have.
Knowing where we came from can be fun, humbling, and instructive, and it certainly gives us a bigger picture of ourselves and of our world. Our family tree can bring a modicum of rootedness to the larger narrative of our life. On a recent vacation to England, I mentioned to several owners of bed and breakfasts where we lodged that my ancestors came from England. They wanted to know what name I had. When I told them that my mother’s maiden name was Farley, I invariably got a nod of approval with one proprietor grunting in barely decipherable English, Now that is a proper English name. I felt like a local. I was back with my people.
For the Christian, awareness of our spiritual ancestry is not only interesting, but of tremendous importance. It connects us to saints from many traditions, tribes, and theological persuasions that have followed Jesus before us. The history of the Christian church is broad and deep with roots drawing nourishment from many sources that all find their commonality in the cross.
SBCC represents just one small slice of the much larger Christian pie. Our brief thirty-seven year history as a church rests upon over two millennia of believers from the different parts of the world, who represent a wide variety of beliefs, cultural traditions, and expressions of faith. We have a lot of ancestors. And while we may not know all of our spiritual predecessors very well, or even agree with them much of the time, our spiritual lives will be richer when we humbly acknowledge the vast labyrinth of roots that nourish the church at large and SBCC in particular.
Were we able to have one large church picnic, where all the family members from the last two thousand years got together, the variety of saints would be breathtaking. Of course, we would meet our relatives from the three major branches of Christianity. There would be some Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant believers. But we would also meet ancestors who were Chaldean believers and flourished in Mesopotamia for a thousand years. Our North African ancestors would, with appropriate pride, remind us that at one time their homeland was a hotbed of Christian thinking and spiritual vibrancy. These Coptic brothers and sisters helped to form our family. At this hypothetical church picnic we eat, laugh, and pray with hundreds of language groups that came from every part of the globe. This picnic would be something like heaven where we will worship with every tribe and tongue. While things might get a bit tense in deciding what worship songs to sing at the picnic, I suspect that as we talked of the cross of Christ, some of the things that may have divided us would seem trivial. We would probably decide to just sing because our sins were paid for on the cross!
Let me give just one example of the breadth and beauty of the family of God. Recently I had the privilege to spend an evening with Daniel Bourdanne, the IFES General Secretary (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students). Currently living in Oxford, England, Daniel oversees the IFES worldwide ministry that currently includes 560,000 students in 174 countries around the world. Now here is the fun part. Daniel was born in a small village in the impoverished central African nation of Chad. Daniel’s father found faith in Christ through the efforts of a small mission-minded group from the Brethren Lutheran denomination – dear saints who many decades ago took the gospel to Chad. Daniel’s father heard the gospel from these missionaries, trusted in the cross of Christ, and became a new man. Daniel learned of Jesus from his born-again father. As near as I could tell, Daniel speaks about six or seven languages. He and his wife were born in different tribes, so they do not share a common birth language. I asked what language they used between the two of them and with a huge white-toothed smile he said, French. So here we are in Santa Barbara– a Southern California pastor who speaks one language, talking to an African from Chad who speaks six or seven languages (and who has a PhD in animal ecology). And we find ourselves conversing about the worldwide Christian movement that is flourishing, sometimes in countries I have never even heard of! This church picnic is going to be BIG! The variety and richness of believers will cause humble thankfulness for how God has fashioned his Church.
So I am humbled and thankful. I am not a Roman Catholic, but I am thankful for the apologetic wit and insight of G.K. Chesterton. I have never been to North Africa, but I am forever indebted to the great pastor-theologian from Hippo, Augustine. What would I do without the Eastern Orthodox writings of Irenaeus and Athanasius and the Nicene Creed? I am not an Anglican, but I love to read the Book of Common Prayer, and my life would be impoverished without the encouragement I have loved from the Anglican CS Lewis. The small group structure of the homegroups that we enjoy at SBCC is a result of what we have learned from our Methodist family members. And how thankful I am for the Moravian Brethren who spearheaded the modern missionary movement that helped to make our family so much richer and larger. I am indebted to Presbyterians, Lutherans, Pietiests, Congregationalists, Assembly of God, Nazarenes, and then the Baptists! You have to love Baptists. After all, John was one. Jesus, too, was a Baptist, and so was Paul.
If you are newer to SBCC and trying to figure out your ancestry, you need to know that you will hear the Bible taught from a Reformed Baptist perspective. But our perspective also appreciates and draws from the contributions of the greater Christian family. This means that SBCC believes in water baptism for adults who have faith in Christ. We find our theological roots in the great themes of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Your teachers find instruction and affinity from the branch of the larger Christian family known as Calvinism (Reformed and Calvinism are often used as synonyms). But as esteemed Old Testament scholar and SBCC member Tremper Longman likes to say, we are California Calvinists. This is a Calvinism that is hopefully without anger, arrogance, or narrow-minded stridency. In other words, we reflect our own West Coast beach city cultural context in how we hold to the tenets of a generous and grace-infused Reformed faith.
So, SBCC, know your family history as best you can. And, be thankful that as confusing as this ancestry may be, you are a part of a rich and varied family that finds its ultimate identity in the cross. At our hypothetical church picnic there may be various banners, a myriad of foods and cultural expressions, certainly many languages, even some conflicting theological opinions. What unites this family, though, is the wonderful cross of Christ.