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!
8 thoughts on “Does Your Church Value Church History?”
Chris, thank you for an excellent post that also happens to promote my favorite magazine :).
Chris, you raise a very interesting question. Frankly one I’d not considered at all in recent years. In our church here in SW Virginia there is NO history of any kind at all. The closest we get is explainations of the Greek meaning of words in Scripture. There is even a huge gap in the history of our own 55+ year-old congregation, much less our denomination. This denomination doesn’t have confirmation programs either, so even that opportunity is lost.
[ I may add that we belong to this church only because our own preferred denomination (Ev Covenant) doesn’t exist here.]
I believe there may be a feeling that the congregation isn’t interested and/or the pastor isn’t prepared to present such material. Or maybe there is so much emphasis on preaching the gospel (very outreach oriented), other topics are considered lost time. I agree this is a shame, for understanding even fairly recent history would encourage the members to persevere in hard times. The cloud of witnesses is forgotten and even though we don’t act to please them, that awareness would help us stay focused.
By the way, I am enjoying the best national anthem series very much. Eager to see who #1 is!
I value Church History — I got to your site from Christian History’s current issue [I do subscribe]. I do not think it is valued today, even as History itself is not valued in our schools and culture. I grew up hearing my grandmother tell stories of her grandfathers and great grandfather who were preachers so history has always been part of my life. I have tried to encourage the teaching of Church history in classes at my church, even basic topics as how we got the English Bible but so far not much luck. Wish I had a suggestion on how to change that attitude.
As to resources that may interest you, Dr. Ray VanDer Laan — I may not be spelling that right — has a series of videos on Biblical History and topics that you can buy at Christian Book Distributors “That the World May Know”. There are teaching guides and learner guides for each set. I have seen several of the series, and really enjoyed the one on the Early Church. He teaches scripture to groups of people while they are in the cities such as Antioch or Ephesus. Perhaps something like that would be a good start to get more people interested in learning Church History. And there is a radio program on the air here in the Dallas Fort Worth area that you should check out. It used to be called “Coffee with Creamer” hosted by Dr. Barry Creamer, a professor at Chriswell College. Now called For Christ and Culture. He has guests on and they talk about a wide variety of topics. You can also listen to prior recordings online I think. try: http://barrycreamer.com/blog1.php There are also articles posted by different professors at the college.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Carol!
Not one in a thousand churches in America today values history. They do not value church history, denominational history, or their own congregational history.
I am a pastor in a Southern Baptist church. Most SBC churches, like many others, do not even know the Christian faith existed before we invented it! Of course, I speak in jest, but there is way too much truth to the statement. Too many view church history as “Catholic history” and so they are not interested.
Most of the church is a mile wide and an inch deep. Its chief concern is getting people in the pew (rather than making disciples), and history lessons simply do not accomplish crowd gathering in a “me” centered and “now” focused society.
When God gave instruction to the Israelites, He was always careful to build-in reminders of history. He must have had a reason!
Thanks, Randy. I’m afraid your description of the ahistorical church is spot on.
Hi, I spotted this on the Christian History magazine website. I live in Northern Ireland and unfortunately I would have to agree with you that history is not valued in the Church although it is probably valued slightly more than in the US. Many individual’s like myself love and read loads on Church History but I have never heard it taught in Churches unless it is a special seminar or at Bible Colleges and even here it is seen as more as something of interest rather than of importance to your development.
On a side note my main problem with Church history is it’s Euro and US scentric approach to it in the west. Yes it is important to know about the history in Europe and the US but there is much more than that. We must remember the Global South coined by Philip Jenkins and learn their history of the Church from their perspective as well.