Last year I told the history of Westminster Church as we celebrated 50 years in our current location. The church where my long term members grew up burned to the ground in 1963 just as we were planning to move locations. We planned a great Sunday to tell the story of the church. We also kicked off a capital campaign for some much needed improvements around the church. It was a great and exciting Sunday the likes of which my church has not had in a long time.
The best part for me was that I was able to dive into the history of the church. In the process of my research I found the combination to a safe in the church basement that no one had opened. I also found records that had been sent to the Presbyterian Historical Society and forgotten about. This was history that was almost lost and that even my most senior members knew little to nothing about.
The work on that history was very rewarding for me. In fact, I wish I had studies my church history earlier in my ministry at Westminster. Why? Here are 3 big reasons for studying your church history.
Think of the Church history as a book. If you read the previous chapters it can give context and motive for what is happening in the current chapter. You can see the obvious decisions related to the location, the name of the church, the ministries, and the finances. But more than that, you get a glimpse of the spiritual DNA of the congregation. We have always been a caring church that was primarily middle class and hard working. We like to do things ourselves and have always had some financial challenges, step up at certain times. It was interesting to me to see how much the personalities and values of the people that have more recently come to this church fit neatly into the mold of its history. They don’t have important last names, but they still fit. Do we attract people that fit us, or is that marinated into new people. I don’t know? But what I have really learned is that the future of an established church is often through their past
2. The Church’s history helps reveal the mission and purpose that God has for this church.
Every church was started and was developed for a purpose or a mission. I don’t mean the general purpose of the church. I mean that a church has a distinct and specific purpose for that congregation in that location. In my experience, this mission or purpose does not change much over the years. What changes is how much the church is in touch with its purpose. Churches drift and come back to their reason for being. In my own church’s history, I found that this church has always had a priority for education and missions. We had an elaborate Sabbath school as well as a missionary school. We are working to find these centers again.
In many churches the road to the future is through the past. They need to find their purpose again. They need to rediscover their traditions as a strength moving forward. They need a bigger sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Further, I think that churches don’t get stuck in the past generally but instead tend to get stuck at a particular point in the past. By looking at the full history of the church, the pastor can help people realize that “the way we have always done things” is not the way we have always done things. A grand telling of the history can be like WD-40 and free up a stuck church.
I would suggest this historical research as an important early step for any pastor in a new place. If you haven’t told the story of the church then do it. You won’t regret it.