Church History as Family History (part 1)

As I mentioned here Monday, I spent last weekend presenting a three-part talk on church history to fellow members of Salem Covenant Church during our annual “family camp.” I’ll recap it in two three parts, starting today.

Lakeside Chapel at Covenant Pines
Lakeside Chapel – Covenant Pines

Now, these talks are supposed to be “inspiring,” which is not a mode I normally think of as being a strong suit. And when I was asked to talk about church history, I worried that “boring” was more likely to come to mind. Like so many other fields in our discipline, it’s studied by professors who chiefly write for other professors and aren’t normally that interested in communicating to ordinary church members.

So while I wanted to make the case that it’s imperative that Christians pay attention to their past (I’ve previously wondered here whether most churches took it all that seriously), I didn’t want to beat people over the head with that argument so much as recast church history itself, to reframe it in ways that might be “stickier” for a general audience, and might even inspire them to take a fresh look at some familiar aspects of their lives in Christ.

Given the “family camp” setting, I started by asking why people like me are so fascinated by family history. When my wife was pregnant, why did I spend hours fashioning a family tree for my children? Why last month did I pore over 1940 U.S. Census data and then write posts here about my Nelson, Peterson, and Gehrz forebears? And why did I find myself choking up while doing that research?

As it happened, Christianity Today‘s blog for women writers (her.meneutics) happened to feature a post on this very subject last Thursday. These paragraphs from Caryn Rivadeneira resonated most strongly with my audience over the weekend:

[The power of knowing our roots is one] we tend to downplay—especially in the United States. In this immigrant land, one of fresh starts and reinvention and independence, it’s perhaps more difficult to admit we are who we are because of who came before.

This seems never truer than now—as we continue to become less rooted, more nomadic, as jobs transfer and families divide. And yet, as this happens, we discover that the places we currently live have less to say about who we are than the places we used to live. And that the people we live with may not say as much about us than the people we live without. As we realize more and more that not one of us is “self-made,” but that we are all made from whom and from where we come. It’s what we do with who and what we are that’s up to us.

Connection. Identity. Before I even showed them this post, those were the themes that people pointed to when I asked them why genealogy and family history meant so much to so many of us. Then Rivadeneira began to connect the dots for me, between family history and church history:

Of all people, Christians understand this. Even as we are “born again” and made into “new creations,” we know it’s what was done before us that matters. It’s millennia of church history that shape our current beliefs and traditions. It’s Christ’s death and resurrection before we ever drew a broken breath that defines grace. And it was the promises given to Father Abraham and Mother Sarah and, before that, Father Adam and Mother Eve, that marked—defined—the chosen people, to whom we now belong by the grace of God.

And it’s why the Bible offers us genealogies, even of Jesus. Because it matters that he was both the Son of God and the Son of Mary. It matters that Jesus was descended from David and that David descended from Rahab. It matters that while our Savior was born pure, he descended from people as troubled and complex as they come. Their stories, their faith, their failures all mattered in making Jesus the perfect Messiah.

Matthew 1, Luke 3, and all those genealogies in the Old Testament that make Christians yawn… You might also note that the language of family echoes loudly throughout both testaments of Scripture. “Son” appears in the TNIV over 3000 times, and the plural form of the same word nearly 2000 more. “Father,” “brother,” and “children” are also in the quadruple digits, and “ancestors,” “descendants,” and (remember: TNIV) “sister/s” and “daughter/s” also had more than 500 appearances. (I couldn’t help making a word cloud on the theme for the weekend’s PowerPoint.)Bible Family WordsSo if the church is composed of the “children of God” (John 1, Romans 8, Galatians 3, 1 John 3, etc.) and its members call each other “brothers and sisters” (and in certain traditions’ hierarchies, “father” and “mother”), I pondered aloud whether we might not approach church history with the same degree of passion and democratic zeal with which so many millions of Americans turn to the history of their non-church family?

But how to do this without falling back into the language of scholars? I built the rest of the talks around three tools or models suggested by Scripture that might capture how Christians look to the past. I’ll come to the second and third in the second part of this post. The first is probably the most familiar for the evangelicals and other Protestants who attend churches like Salem…

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb 12:1-3, TNIV)

The “great cloud of witnesses,” or how the past inspires the Christian family.

It’s an ideal that runs through much of what we do in Bethel’s History Department (it’s one of the distinctive emphases — to tell the stories of Christians from history — that narrows our rather broad first objective of providing a broad knowledge of the past) and shows up early in Bethel’s general education curriculum, with Intro to Bible telling of those Old Testament witnesses named in Hebrews 11 (“Therefore…”) plus those introduced in the New Testament, a story continued in classes like our Christianity and Western Culture survey, where students meet (often for the first time) martyrs like Perpetua, Michael Sattler, and Thomas More, leaders like Constantine, Hildegard of Bingen, and Elizabeth I, reformers like Benedict, Erasmus, and the Pietists, devout thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, and Pascal, skeptics like Machiavelli, Bacon, and Locke, and curmudgeons like Tertullian and Luther.

Of course, when I actually asked participants to mentally identify the members of their cloud of witnesses — those who help them throw off what weighs them down and run the race with eyes fixed on Jesus Christ — few turned to the “heroes of the faith.” Praise God, they instead named grandparents, teachers and mentors, and, in one memorable case, complete strangers holding a Bible study in Indonesia. Like John the Baptist, they were not the light, but testified to it (John 1:7). And, just as Jesus had charged his apostles, they served as his witnesses “to the ends of the earth” — and, I dared to suggest, to the ends of time as well as space.

One theme that I hadn’t intended to delve into too deeply but quickly became important for the discussion: the power of memory, which keeps alive experiences and individuals that otherwise would seem impossibly, irretrievably distant. We’ll complicate the virtues of memory in the next post, of course, but for the first day, it was an important realization: even the dead are still with us. (As Christians surely ought to believe, at least of those who died “in Christ.”)

I then tried to suggest ways to expand clouds of witness, by recommending three accessible books presenting church history with an emphasis on biography:

Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water

Foster, Streams of Living WaterI started here because Foster conveniently clusters his witnesses into six traditions: if you can place yourself in the Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical, or Incarnational tradition, Foster will provide you with biblical, historical, and 20th century witnesses to join your cloud. (Then appendices to the book expand it further.) Of course, Foster also points out that all of these “streams” converge in the water of life, that Jesus modeled each of the six traditions, so while I think he’d encourage us to drink from the stream that we find most instantly refreshing, he’d also have us sip at the others as well. (I also recommended using Foster’s Devotional Classics collection, which lets you encounter witnesses in each tradition in their own words.)

Which was an important point for this talk: not only because it’s so deeply Christ-centered, but because it creates a hedge against a “cloud of witnesses” approach to church history that serves solely to reaffirm one’s own experiences and preconceptions. As I’ll explore more in the second post, church history ought not to be purely comfortable and reassuring. Quite the contrary.

Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Clouds of Witnesses

I never did get into the Asian chapters when I started blogging through this book last fall, but I still recommended that our largely Euro-American audience spend some time getting to know Africans, Indians, Koreans, and Chinese who witnessed in their times, places, and cultures to Jesus Christ. I didn’t spend much time on this book last weekend for the simple reason that the first time I gave talks like this at Salem’s family camp, in 2009, I focused on the growth of Christianity in the global south and had already introduced figures like William Wadé Harris.

Chris Armstrong, Patron Saints for Postmoderns

Armstrong, Patron Saints for PostmodernsI was most happy to introduce this book, written by a friend and colleague who teaches church history at Bethel Seminary and (through his editing of Christian History Magazine) has long been devoted to bringing church history to popular audiences. In addition to the compelling mini-biographies of Christians as diverse as Anthony of the Desert and Gregory the Great, Dante Alighieri and Dorothy L. Sayers, and John Comenius and John Newton, Chris provides a fine argument (in the introduction) for something like this “cloud of witnesses” posture towards the past. It makes the case that telling stories of such “saints” (all of whom were both leaders and marginalized in some way) is useful not because it provides “best practices” or other simplistic principles, but because the stories themselves are transformative: “When we live vicariously through these people’s challenges and their responses in the Lord, it touches our hearts. And it transforms us, if we’re willing. Maybe sometimes if we’re unwilling too” (p. 18). Moreover, Chris adapted the language of church history-as-family history:

More than this, we can even begin to get the sense that these patron saints are truly present with us, urging us on…. the support we can gain from getting to know these saints is like the support of a close-knit family. It’s a source of strength like no other. It’s the knowledge that we are a part of the whole communion of saints—through time and space, and across cultures and confessions. (p. 19)

I’ll break my recap here, then come back tomorrow to talk about how the past both governs and disenchants Christians. But let me pose for blog readers two of the questions that I asked the family camp participants to talk about (in their families) during their Saturday afternoon downtime:

  1. Whose “cloud of witnesses” are you in?
  2. How do you equip yourself to witness in this way? Can you intentionally extend your witness throughout time, so that it endures even past your death?

Read the next post in this series>>


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