By Jim McAnally
A truly great way for members to get to know their church is through studying its history. Depending upon the age of your church, many people may not know how it came to be, what it has accomplished and how it got to where it is today. If your church is relatively new, you’ll want to begin documenting your story for future generations. If your church has a long history, it’s important to put that history into an informative, organized and entertaining story that congregants and others will want to read.
In the past, only large churches had the resources to organize and publish this information. Today, with the advent of digital printing, online do-it-yourself book publishing and eBooks, you don’t need a huge budget to attain this goal. Broaden your thinking when it comes to organizing and sharing your church’s history. One possibility is to create an infographic for use in handouts, presentation slides and bulletin board displays and on your church website.
Whether you publish a physical book or an eBook, consider using your church’s history as a tool in practicing hospitality by making it available to new and potential members. Send interested visitors a link to your eBook as part of your welcoming package. Help visitors grow closer to your church by learning about the paths your church took to become the church it is today.
Writing your church’s history can be a daunting task, which is why it is important to break it down into defined, manageable stages. In his book, “How to Write a Local Church History,” author Frederick E. Maser divides the process into manageable segments.
Writing a local church history is not and should not be a one-person job. In stage one, gather people with the talents and skills that fit this endeavor such as writers, editors, reporters, graphic designers, longtime and former members and church staff.
Of all the stages Maser lists, one of the most difficult is gathering the material. Unless you are fortunate to be part of a church that has a professional curator or the most meticulous administrative assistant imaginable, it is unlikely you will find all the source materials you need neatly filed together. You are more likely to have to approach church staff and longtime members, even to know what to look for.
Be prepared to comb through dusty file cabinets and closets, interview eyewitnesses of events and visit your local newspaper and library to locate third-party accounts. You may need to investigate events and details, pursue leads and identify the threads of the past that lead to today. However, most information you need exists, and you probably will find everything you need within your congregation. Third-party sources are good because they show your church’s roots with the community.
Will Steinsiek, archivist for the New Mexico Annual Conference, is using a “memory booth” as a way of capturing oral histories from church leaders and individual members. “Oral history is the oldest form of transmitting what has happened in the past and up to the future. When we don’t collect that history, it is often lost,” said Steinsiek. “Some people will never commit to write their story, but are very willing to tell their story.”
During the past two annual conferences, he has curtained off a small area to create some privacy and invited people in one at a time to tell stories in their own way, through a one-sided, open-ended, uninterrupted conversation. To get people started, he asks them to talk about everything from favorite pastors to memorable personal milestones (weddings, baptisms, the loss of loved ones). One of his main goals is to have them talk about the impact the church has made in their lives. “Tell me about someone you remember,” he often asks.
Selecting recordings from choir services and sermons can be a great way to bring history to life. With video recording becoming so commonplace in the '80s and today’s smartphones, some of your best historical records may not even be written down. Rather they may exist on old VHS cassettes somewhere in your church or in members’ private video collections.
Tell your congregation that you are looking for audio and video related to the church such as mission trips, special worship services, groundbreaking ceremonies and so forth. Designate someone such as an intern to record video of current activities, including anything from community projects to choir practice to youth group social activities. Often, youth interns can bolster your marketing efforts because they have technical skills and interests that make them ideal for recording video, editing and packaging videos into excellent vignettes of local church life.
By writing your history, you offer your congregation the opportunity to grow more emotionally and spiritually connected with the church. You also invite visitors and others to learn more about how your church plays an important role in the community.