There haven’t been a lot of reader comments in the last couple of weeks, probably because I’ve been bloviating so much about disparate topics. So this afternoon I’ll (mostly) keep my opinions to myself and invite responses to questions relating to this big one: Does your church value church history?
This question occurs to me off and on, but came to mind recently when I saw this link from my colleague Chris Armstrong on the “In Other News” section of this blog’s front page. Besides making me grateful that Bethel seminarians and (through the revived Christian History magazine) the general public can learn from one as skilled as Chris, his update on the forthcoming CH issue about Christians and the history of health care made me wonder how many churches subscribe to Christian History (here’s how to do it, if you’re interested), or otherwise invest in teaching church history to their members and attendees?
Granted, I’m a historian, so I might be a bit biased. But it seems like it’s an important thing for churches to do, for a wide variety of reasons. Most of all, teaching history seems vital to discipleship. When Jesus gave the Great Commission, he was telling members of perhaps the least ahistorical people in history (the Jews) to go and make disciples of “nations” that had been enormously influenced by the people who invented history as we know it (the Greeks). There’s a reason why the Gospel of Matthew starts by rooting Jesus in a kind of history (genealogy, at least), and why the Gospel of Luke begins with a few verses of historical methodology that echo Thucydides. In that context, Jesus could not possibly have meant that disciple-making could happen absent some awareness of history.
The first question for discussion: Do you agree that churches ought to value church history, and make it an important element of Christian formation?
If so, I’m very curious to know how much or little you see that happening in the church(es) you’ve known. No doubt one reason I like my church is that it does pretty well on this count: we have a three-year Confirmation program that focuses on the biblical narrative for two years and then turns to a blend of church history and theology in the third; the first two adult Sunday School courses this year are about church history (the first on martyrdom, the second on revivalism; I’ve taught courses myself on the Reformations and the history of human rights, plus a twelve-week condensation of our Western Civ/church history survey at Bethel); we have a historical commission that maintains a church archive and display and published a congregational history that sits in the church library with a small collection of church history books; and our current pastor is even a former History major who often includes historical anecdotes in his sermons.
What about your church? Do historical topics show up in Christian education courses, or in sermons? Are there historical resources (books, magazine subscriptions, videos) available for individuals and small groups? (I’m particularly curious if you’re aware of any video series on church history. Someone at our church asked me for a recommendation for their small group, and I’ve yet to come up with an answer.) Are there intentional efforts to preserve and communicate the congregation’s own history?
My gut instinct is that few churches do this sort of thing well, based primarily on the preparedness of students in our 1st year Christianity and Western Culture survey, and secondarily on the two responses we most often get from parents of prospective students when they hear about that course: “Can we take it?” or “Would you like to come teach at our church?”
So as a final discussion starter: If this is true, why do you think contemporary American churches not value church history? Are they reflecting the ahistorical character of the larger culture? Do they fear that history might be off-putting to seekers and other newcomers? Do they simply not have the resources?
I have to admit that my interest is not only personal, but institutional. As the chair of a History department at a Christian college, I’ve often wondered if we couldn’t be doing more to partner with area churches to help them teach church history…
So, if you’re in the Twin Cities—or perhaps even beyond… I’m always interested in taking advantage of tools like podcasting, blogging, and social media—and looking to develop such a connection, please e-mail me or suggest that your pastors or lay leaders do so!