Russ Pulliam and I just completed co-teaching a class at church in which he recounted Jesus’ advance of his kingdom through the service of various Christians in their callings in Indiana history. I focused on church history and associated Christian movements in our state and city.
The question, “Why study church history?” has been answered time and again and again. But why study local church history and Christian influence? The typical reasons given for the study of church history apply locally. Additionally, knowing the history of our “neighborhood” enables us, wherever we live, to know and serve both God and our neighbors better in our locale. How does knowing local church history equip us to better serve our neighbors?
- We better understand our congregation. How did this particular church begin? What kinds of people have joined, and when? What events caused the congregation to grow/decline in various seasons of growth/decline? For example, the congregation I serve was started in 1963-64 through an effort of long-time Reformed Presbyterians in conjunction with a ministry effort of various campus-ministry groups focused on what was called The Indiana Vision. The Indiana Vision was a joint commitment to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to every student (sometime in his four years) at the state’s five major university campuses. Fifty-five years later, a number of members still trace their spiritual roots to Reformed Presbyterian migration and/or the fruit of The Indiana Vision. In each case, people were offered the gospel and a place to serve Jesus Christ with vision for what he would continue to do; with varying degrees of consciousness, they are still carrying that banner forward. When you ask people about themselves, and you’re ready to listen, they are usually happy to talk. When you know the right questions to ask about their past, you’ll hear some great stories about the grace and goodness of God that encourages your heart and theirs.
- We better understand our immediate culture. What people settled this community? What customs, expectations, strengths, and weaknesses did they bring? How have immigrants been treated through the years? What impact has that had on local churches? What has driven the economy and the culture? In our case, it’s important to understand how heavily Indiana was settled from the south and how Indianapolis has grown with migration from the rural areas to this central city in the state. Much of that southern migration came carrying the influence of the Cane Ridge revival of 1801. One must understand the timing of immigration waves from Germany, Southern and Eastern Europe, and more recently, Mexico, and parts of Africa and Asia. In Indiana, one must understand the influence of the KKK in its three forms through history. It also helps to understand the historic economic and educational poverty of the region. Knowing the influences of the Sunday School movement, and other critical educational, social or political movements aids our thinking further. When we understand the ways in which people have sought and are seeking meaning and purpose in life, we are enabled to know how to engage with people most profitably. Reading books about broad cultural influences can be helpful, but what about getting to know the influences in our own neighborhood?
- We better understand other churches in our community. What kinds of people formed them? What theological trajectories shaped them? What other movements influenced them? What colleges did they form, and why? In our context, one must appreciate revivalism, Methodism, the Restoration Movement, key denominational/congregational splits and mergers, the origins and emphases of various denominational colleges, various renewals in different movements, the rise of mega-churches, and the prevalence of specific preaching and worship styles. When we grasp something more of the culture in neighboring churches, we can better understand how the Lord has been at work. Then we understand more of people’s preferences, aversions, expectations, and emotional anchors.
- We get to know our neighbors. John Calvin opens his Institutes of the Christian Religion asserting that knowing God and self is central to the Christian life. We also need to know the other people around us. How do they think? What is their temperament? At a minimum, knowing the background of our neighbors helps us know what to expect in wedding and funeral customs. We learn to appreciate how the Lord has used other Christians in our community and become able to express gratitude appropriately. We may discern what obstacles stand in the way of some people embracing Christ. Whatever the detail, when we study church history at a local level, we are simply enabled to love people more fully because we can appreciate who they really are.
- We must talk to our neighbors. We face a crisis of loneliness and isolation in our communities today. Studying local church history requires face to face communication. You simply cannot understand local church history using the same methods used to study church history in general. You must go meet people. You must ask about their religious background, the origins of their churches, the influences in their lives, the structures and ideologies that have shaped them. The very act of exploring our local past will connect us in the present and for the future.
- We are better equipped to participate in what the Lord is doing next. Aside from the historical reality of God’s creative and saving works, our most important history is our future history. Understanding God’s work in our communities in the past is wonderful and necessary, but we cannot live there and we must not try to live there as some do. The present reign of Christ and his coming again govern our lives such that we must seek to serve him going forward. Why study local church history? So we can most effectively motivate ourselves and summon others to seek the Lord as we step into the future together prayerfully expecting that the Lord will cause his kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.