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Christian history ‘made easy’: seeing ‘what draws us together’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — Professor Timothy Paul Jones acknowledges that plenty of people view the study of history as boring — full of drab facts and dates they’d rather forget.

But Jones says it shouldn’t be that way, and he’s written a book about Christian history — now in the form of a small-group DVD curriculum — that recounts 2,000 years of Christian faith with fascinating stories he believes are as entertaining as a good fiction book. Sure, the facts and dates are there, but they’re not the focus.

Jones’ goal is to help Christians understand and appreciate their faith more by filling in that huge two millennia gap between the apostles and, say, Billy Graham.

The book and curriculum are titled, perhaps appropriately, “Christian History Made Easy” (Rose Publishing). It’s a 12-week session that has been used by churches, homeschoolers and Christians schools. The curriculum intersperses a Jones lecture with animation, intended to make it more entertaining.

Christians, Jones says, need to know more about the history of their faith.

“What draws us together as believers is not only a shared Spirit and a common faith but also the shared story of how God has worked through past believers,” said Jones, professor of leadership and church ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “If we aren’t aware how God worked in their lives, we are less likely to recognize the rhythms of God’s work in our lives; we are unable to distinguish which truths are vital to the faith; and, we are less able to articulate why we believe what we believe.

“The challenges that Christians face today are not that different from ones that Christians have faced before. Even if previous generations of Christians failed to face these challenges well, understanding how and why they responded as they did can help us to consider the challenges of our own generation with deeper humility and wisdom.”

Baptist Press talked to Jones about the importance of learning Christian history and his philosophy of teaching it. Following is a transcript:

BAPTIST PRESS: Why should the average Christian care about church history, particularly those Christians who believe the Bible is sufficient and church history has no authority?

TIMOTHY PAUL JONES: It’s true that Christian history itself has no authority, but what we see in church history is how the Bible has been used in the life of the church, and by looking at how the Scriptures have been used in the life of the church and how the Spirit has worked through the Scriptures, that helps us to be wiser in how we respond today to issues that we face.

Even as we recognize Scripture is our sole authority, church history is still really important because of the way we can see, in church history, how the Spirit has worked through the Scriptures, among our brothers and sisters who came before us. We learn how they used it wisely and how they used it poorly. Both of those can help us to make wiser choices in how we use the Scriptures, how we proclaim the Scriptures today.

BP: Do you think learning church history can impact our faith?

JONES: It helps us distinguish what is essential, what is non-essential, what matters. For example, in the Great Awakening, I think it would help us to recognize at this juncture in Baptist history how John Wesley, an Arminian, and George Whitefield, a Calvinist, worked together and were able to work in partnership with one another. That’s helpful and instructive for us today.

BP: Why is the average person in the pew largely uninformed about church history?

JONES: I think there are at least a couple of reasons: 1) Particularly among American evangelicals, there has long been a tendency to seek and to value whatever is newest and trendiest, and to separate ourselves from the wisdom of the past. If there’s any reference to church history at all, it typically takes the form of decontextualized illustrations and quotations from those in the past. 2) In school, most church members have experienced history poorly taught — history that centers on isolated facts instead of focusing first on the stories that link us with people long-past. The result of poorly taught history is that people perceive history — all history, even church history — as boring, dry, irrelevant. History isn’t boring, of course, but it’s difficult to change people’s minds when they’ve experienced years of boring history in school.

BP: So you probably believe history is as exciting as a popular fiction book.

JONES: I think it should be, but if often isn’t presented that way.

BP: There are a lot of people who will say, “I had a history class back in high school, and it wasn’t as exciting as a fiction book.”

JONES: I think the reason that church history is not as exciting for many people as a good fiction book is because we don’t tell it the right way. We don’t tell it as a story; we tell it as isolated facts. And I think one of the things that we can do in teaching and telling church history is to tell the stories first and make the stories primary. Because that is where we are able to connect with earlier believers in our common humanness, in our common experiences as believers in Jesus Christ — the stories of how God works through them. And I think if we tell the stories first, we help people connect the stories to the names, the dates, the facts.

BP: How did the way you view history and how you want it taught affect how you wrote the book Christian History Made Easy?

JONES: It completely shaped it, because when I wrote the book, the way I structured it was I laid out the framework of all the names, dates, facts that had to be mentioned. I made that the skeleton, and then I thought, “What stories do I fit in to all of this?” So I could lead into the stories, so that the stories were primary in it.

BP: Why did you write the book, and how did you get interested in church history?

JONES: I thought church history was boring all the way until I was in my master’s degree, and I took some church history courses and I realized, “This really matters.” This was in the mid-1990s, and I was a pastor, and I wanted my people in the church to understand some of these really important things. I started looking for a church history textbook to use in a study, and I couldn’t find one that covered church history that wasn’t boring. And so I started writing it myself. I wrote it for my people at Green Ridge Baptist Church in Green Ridge, Mo. It started off as a course at this rural church in central Missouri. Rose Publishing, in 1999, published it as a black and white book. And even then, I envisioned a full-color version of this book, but Rose Publishing, budget-wise, couldn’t do it. And so finally, in 2009, they were able to go back to the drawing board of the book, and I was able to re-write significant portions of it and bring it up to date as a full-color book.

BP: How did it get into a DVD curriculum?

JONES: Rose Publishing has begun doing DVD curriculum, and I had always wanted to be able to teach this in a much broader format — in essence, do what I did back in that little church in the 1990s and do make it available to a broader audience.

BP: What’s the audience for the curriculum?

JONES: I and two Ph.D. students wrote the curriculum. We really wrote it with laypeople in mind, and we really tried to aim at an eighth-grade reading level. I want it to be used by high schoolers and adults, and laypeople with no theological education. Everything was written with a strong focus on: How can we make it interesting, enjoyable, spiritually deepening for people?

BP: Rose Publishing took great strides in making the curriculum more than just a lecture. They incorporated animation. It’s not just you standing at a podium talking for 30 minutes.

JONES: One of the things I wanted was animation. They did a great job. They went all out and did everything I wanted. The animations tell different episodes of church history in about three minutes in a really funny and fun way. Interspersed throughout the lectures are complicated subjects reduced in a fun animation that has a good sense of humor but is always historically accurate.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Michael Foust