The Value of Church History

A Church in Plevna, Ks ca 1920
Many churches are looking at assessment of how well they have done the work of the Gospel.  They have reached a place where they no longer grow and are in decline.  Once vital, active, and focused in their life as a church in their community they have unraveled and questions remain.  A key factor is found in discovering the church history.  When a person goes to a medical doctor they fill out a history form that provides clues to current or future problems.  In the same way, examining the past can provide important information as to what went wrong, when, and what might need to be done in the future to renew, or in some cases, resurrect the church into a vital reproducing centere of spiritual life.

Many denominations have very useful helps for establishing local church archives and keeping the history. The Commission on Archives and History of the UMC published a small booklet just in time for the writing of the 1975 church history.  Significant areas are underscored and the outline of the finished work clearly follows the suggestions of the booklet by Wallace Guy Smeltzer.  

In the introductory remarks he notes: "An accurate, well written history of a local church has real value. It lifts up the achievements, services, and sacrifices of past generations in the church. It inspires pride and loyalty on the part of present church members...It can enhance one's appreciation and love of the church of our Lord which is a "thousand years the same." 

At the time the guide was written the General Conference made the compilation of such a history the responsibility of a local church history committee under the guidance of a local church historian.  The history was to be compiled and then brought up to date each year.

The booklet was divided into subheadings:
First Step
Source Material for the History
Exploring Local Church Sources
Annual Conference and Denominational Sources
Community Sources
Organizing the Material for the History
-Table of contents
-Preface by the author or the committee
-Chapter 1 How United Methodism came to (name of community)
-Chapter 2 Our Connectional Relationships
-Chapter 3 The Story of Our Church Property
-Chapter 4 The Story of Our Church Organizations
-Chapter 5  The Record of Our Spiritual Life and Concern
-Chapter 6 The Growth of Our Church and Its Future
-Chapter 7 Our Present Church Organization
-Chapter 8 Our Current Membership Roll
Origin of the Church
-Connectional Relations of the Church
-Church Property
-The Organized Life of the Congregation
-The Spiritual Life of the Church
-The Progress of the Church
-Current Organization
-Membership roll
-Publishing the History

It is interesting to note that in the "Spiritual Life of the Church", the author says "the spiritual vitality of a church is difficult to measure. Some indication of it is provided, however, by evangelistic activities, such as camp meetings in earlier days, revival services, visitation evangelism campaigns, and preparatory class training.  An important indicator is the number of full time Christian workers produced by the church, such as ministers, missionaries, religious education directors or church music leaders....A social conscience of the church can be set forth by recording participation inactions for the causes of temperance, economic justic, civil rights, benevolent controbutions, and charitable relief..."

History, however, is more than mere names, dates and places.  A history should also clearly express the motivations, attitudes, and beliefs of people in a given time or it will be nothing but dry data.  It is the spiritual legacy a church history carries...from generation to generation...telling the marvelous works of God among a people.

For those interested in developing a church archive here are some useful links:
Brunner, Mark.  "Ten Steps in Building a Church Archive." Wisconsin Lutheran Churches.
Gardner, Robert. "How to Start and Maintain a Church Archives".  Southern Baptist.
Bergeron, Jeannette. "Manual for South Carolina Religious Archives and Record Keeping."
Texarkana Museum System. "Guide to Collecting Your Church History". 
United Methodist Archives Center
Insuring the Future of Our Past (some good practical consideration points)


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