Preserving the History of the Local Church
By Eric K. Thomsen
“Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus. That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed” (Luke 1:1-4).
I love this passage. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke peeled back the curtain of time to reveal his motivations and methods for writing. He acknowledged he was following the example of previous writers who recorded “those things which are most surely believed among us.”
As a physician, Luke’s narratives offer a unique perspective. He emphasized particular details (the virgin birth of Christ, for example) in a manner that clearly reveals a doctor’s heart. However, from these opening verses, we also learn Luke wrote with the heart of a historian. He presented a clearly defined method for research and historical preservation that today’s writers of local church history do well to follow.
He had a plan. Luke identified his quest to record an “orderly declaration” or narration (1:1).
He did good research. Luke explained his narration was based upon commonly held beliefs of eyewitnesses who saw and heard Jesus (1:2) and then shared firsthand accounts with Luke or his associates.
He wrote with a specific objective. Luke stated his intention to take eyewitness accounts and “write unto thee in order,” more literally, to record these things carefully and with method (1:3-4).
Building upon Luke’s method, this article answers six simple questions about recording local church history. By answering the questions who, what, when, where, how, and how much, you can prepare a well-planned, carefully-constructed, and clearly-documented historical account of your local congregation. While the historical record you produce will never be Scripture, it will preserve the ongoing story of Christ at work in His church.
First, however, start with another important question—why. If you don’t know why you are recording the history of your church, you likely will not have the dedication to complete the task. Why record church history?
To teach the story to the next generation. Heritage is quickly and easily forgotten. What seems important, even unforgettable, now may soon become an afterthought. If your church does not preserve its story, it can be lost. Impossible, you say? Think about how difficult it is to explain life without personal computers and smart phones to your children and grandchildren. It is our responsibility to share the story of what God has done through our church family in a way that brings it to life for coming generations. Executive Secretary Keith Burden once wrote, “Future generations will have no appreciation for the rich heritage of your church unless someone chronicles its history. It is easier to have a clear vision of the future when you have a correct understanding of the past.” A good church history helps your congregation understand who they are and motivates them to remain dedicated to that identity rather than drifting from their identity.
To avoid past mistakes. Winston Churchill famously said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Too often, churches cross the same divisive mine fields they have crossed previously. Stop the explosions by knowing your history.
To inspire and challenge the church to be greater. Few things are more motivating than being part of something greater than yourself or even your generation. A good church history gives the congregation a better understanding of how God has used them in the community, state, denomination, and even the world.
To safeguard against legal issues. On one occasion, the courts called upon the Executive Office to testify regarding a situation in which a church had been victimized in a “hostile takeover” involving a minister from another denomination. The original congregation sued to retain possession of church property. Unfortunately, the church had not updated records for years and did not follow the historical constitution and bylaws closely. As a result, the judge ruled in favor of the “new” congregation. As a general rule, courts make decisions based on the historical documents of a church, specifically the constitution and bylaws. Your church either needs to follow or update these organizational documents.
To provide clear testimony to God’s ongoing work in and through your congregation.
With this understanding of why it is important to preserve church history, consider five practical questions to ask when getting started:
Who will take the lead in producing local church history? It might be a lone ranger. Often, history results from the interest and efforts of an individual who becomes both catalyst and conscience for the completion of the project. Preferably, it will be a team, whether a group of casual “history buffs” or an official committee selected and approved by the church.
Why embrace the team approach? Compiling a local church history is not easy and involves a great deal of time and effort. A team has a greater chance of locating, analyzing, and organizing historical resources. The project as a whole will benefit from involving a greater number of people. Excitement rises, word spreads, and a broader audience will, knowingly or unknowingly, help promote and publicize the finished work more effectively than an individual.
What, When, Where, and How?
In Luke 14:28, Jesus said, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” You must know where you are headed, how you are going to get there, and the way you will pay for it. To gather the support of pastors and church leaders, develop a simple proposal that answers four questions:
What will the project include? For some churches, a simple booklet may be enough. Others may include a book, pictorial history, electronic publishing, and more. The scope of the project will vary by church and needs. Decide what fits the congregation best and spell it out in detail.
When and where will the project be published? Often, local church histories are published in conjunction with a major anniversary or landmark achievement such as the dedication of a new building. During the months and years leading up to these occasions, the congregation develops a natural curiosity about its history, and widespread support (and thus funding) is easier to obtain.
Whether the project marks a special occasion or not, it is crucial to set a reasonable expected date and allow sufficient time for completion. A short church history may require six to eight months, while a full-length book may require two or more years to complete. The greatest threat to any local church history project is insufficient time.
How will the project be produced? Every member of the team should have a clear understanding of the editorial process from the outset to avoid hurt feelings. Consider the following issues: Will a single writer produce the content? Or will multiple writers contribute? Who will review and compile the text? Will a historical board or committee have editorial control (or even veto power when necessary)? Who will make decisions regarding potentially divisive stories? Who will establish the look and feel of the design? Which team members will guide and approve layout and packaging?
What historical approach will the project take? Chronological narratives tell the story of the church from beginning to end—a “bird’s eye” view of your history that leaves little room for details, minutia, and the anecdotes many readers crave. In contrast, character studies trace the lives and achievements of significant individuals in the life of the church. These work especially well for churches with limited historical documentation, giving writers an opportunity to develop specific characters, share fascinating details about them, and bring them to life for readers. Autographs are reproductions of church records or significant historical documents, often with annotations or captions that piece together a historical mosaic of the church. Pictorial histories capture the life of the church in images. Marking milestones touches on significant dates and accomplishments in the history of the church.
With these details decided, one important question remains:
Budgets vary based on the length, scope, and complexity of the project, but each must consider the following three areas of expense:
Writing. If your church doesn’t have a capable writer, one must be hired. (And they aren’t cheap.) If you must hire someone—pay close attention here—ask for a full-project bid, not an hourly cost. This will help the church avoid ballooning costs if the book takes longer than expected.
Even if the writer comes from within the church family, you must consider expenses incurred for writing and research: copies, transcript fees, travel, the purchase of historical books and materials, and (depending on the project) photo restoration. Additionally, with the amount of time and effort involved, if the writing falls on a single individual, a healthy honorarium is appropriate.
Design. Once the text is in hand, someone will need to reformat the text and accompanying photos and graphics into book form. Avoid cutting corners in this area. After all the time and effort (and money) invested in research and writing, don’t hand out dog-eared photocopies stapled at the corners. Instead, spend the necessary money to design a book of which the church will be proud.
Printing. Before obtaining a printing bid, you must determine several things about the project. What type of book will it be? Hardback, softcover, spiral-bound, or coffee table quality? What length will it be? Have the following specifications prepared: page count, trim size (dimensions), desired completion date, and binding. This will help the printer return a solid bid for your project.
Randall House offers the following general guideline: when printing 150 soft-cover, 32-page, staple-bound books (a standard church history booklet), the church will pay roughly two dollars per book for printing and binding. However, common “upgrades” increase this price dramatically: color printing, high-end paper, or a complex cover or binding.
Once you have a good idea of expenses, present a realistic budget to church leadership and steel yourself to operate within the financial parameters they determine.
Ready to Write?
As you get ready to start writing, consider three suggestions for making your project a smooth one:
Don’t cheat the planning stage. It is tempting to dive right in. Make sure you know where you are headed
before you start the journey. Ultimately, it will save time on the trip.
Read the following books: Free Will Baptists in History by William Davidson, Michael Pelt’s A History of the Original Free Will Baptists, The Free Will Baptist Handbook by J. Matthew Pinson, and the Free Will Baptist Treatise. These books provide a broad overview and framework of the entire history and doctrine of the denomination.
Brace yourself for what lies ahead. Be willing to accept the accepted narrative about your church may not be true. Historian Phillip Morgan advises, “When that time comes, be brave enough to say it. Some people may not like what you say. And, for that matter, you may not like what the truth leads you to say. But before you go any further, make up your mind that history, especially church history, must be dedicated to the pursuit of truth.”
A Bridge to the Future
On March 9, 1994, as a senior at Welch College, I sat transfixed as Jack Williams shared the story of the 1911 merger between New England Free-will Baptists and Northern Baptists. His presentation, appropriately titled “The Day We Lost 600 Churches,” traced the unfortunate series of events that contributed to this denominational disaster, from the loss of theological “distinctives” and the subtle encroachment of ecumenism to unethical “back-door deals” between denominational officials on both sides of the merger.
However, it was his concluding remarks that impacted me most that day. Williams told spellbound listeners, “There will never be another merger like 1911, if we preach Free Will Baptist distinctives, if we make a conscious effort to preserve and promote our Free Will Baptist name, and if we teach the next generation our history and heritage.”
That was the moment Free Will Baptist history captured my heart. From that day, I made it my goal to do my part to tell the incredible story of what God has done through this denomination and to help others retain, research, and write their own stories about their churches and their part in this denomination we love.
About the Writer: Eric K. Thomsen is managing editor of ONE Magazine PULP1T magazine. He has also served as president of the Evangelical Press Association. An avid student of denominational history, Eric is secretary of the Free Will Baptist Historical Commission. He and his wife Jennifer have one daughter, Victoria, a student at Welch College. For more Free Will Baptist history resources, visit www.fwbhistory.com.
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