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Church history accounts needn’t be ‘dry as dust’

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–History can be “dry as dust,” Pat Brown admitted, but for a church wanting its history to come alive, the stories of people can make the difference.
Brown, media and church history consultant for the Baptist Sunday School Board, told participants in the National Conference for Church History at Glorieta (N.M.) Baptist Conference Center they can help create a sense of history among their church family.
“History is not just facts; it is stories,” Brown said. “And compiling stories is a good way to start a history.”
While the style, size and cost of a printed church history can vary greatly, Brown encourages all churches to reaffirm their roots and tell the story of who they are as a family of faith, if only in duplicated and stapled form.
And she urges churches to publish a history that is “user- friendly, not a scholarly document. Far better to have a collection of stories with a timetable in the back than to have something so detailed that no one wants to read it.”
Church history education, recently assigned to the BSSB as part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Covenant for a New Century” restructuring, is closely related to the work of media library directors in churches, she said.
“Media librarians know how to organize and may have space to accommodate historic collections,” she observed. “The ideal relationship would be for a media library staff member who is not the director to serve also on the church history committee.”
While some churches combine their heritage collection with the library, she said, others have a separate heritage room that also may serve as a conference room. Still others, she said, use displays, furniture and framed wall hangings to tell their history throughout the church facility.
Writing a history, she said, can be a formidable task for the writer, taking as much as a year for research and six months to write. Editing and printing time can make the entire project a two-year effort.
And Brown said a true history “is the story of all the history, including times of struggle. The Bible does not record only the stories of people who did things right.”
She said while a writer from outside the congregation may bring objectivity, a writer from the church may bring a greater sense of the church’s passion for its mission.
“Someone who is not necessarily highly educated, but who loves history and stories, may be able to write a good history,” she said.
Credentials for the writer might include an understanding of the denomination; being a good churchman, researcher, writer and interpreter; being fair-minded, exercising good judgment and being dependable.
Stories worth remembering include how the land for the church was acquired, how preachers were paid in the early days, an explanation of stained-glass windows, church life during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the beginnings of traditions, establishment and care of the church cemetery and recovering from disasters such as fires, storms or floods.
Brown said a history should always include the circumstances surrounding a church’s beginning — the cultural, economic and social setting. Events surrounding the formation can tell the reader not only when, where and how, but by whom and why. To give a history life, include material on the attitudes toward social issues, missions, ecumenical relationships, discipline, ordinances and the histories of significant church organizations or activities.
Researching the history, she said, can be done locally through minutes of business meetings, trustees and deacons meeting minutes, church bulletins and budgets and the microfilmed copies of the local newspaper. The local association office also may house historic records.
A “history search” among members can surface photographs and other artifacts. While not all photographs can be published, others may be copied for archival collections and other uses, Brown said.
State archival collections exist in some state Baptist convention offices or on college and seminary campuses, she noted. Nationally, the Southern Baptist Convention Library and Archives at the SBC Building in Nashville, Tenn., has extensive collections including microfilmed local church documents.
And for those who resolve to preserve today’s records for tomorrow’s history needs, Brown suggested keeping a bound set of bulletins and other documents as well as unfolded copies for files. File copies, properly preserved, can be photocopied as needed more easily than the pages of bound volumes, and unfolded copies do not split along fold lines as they age. As a new church staff member arrives, include in the church history collection a biographical sketch of that person, along with a portrait.
“A history without interpretation is only a listing of facts,” Brown said. “Be objective, but bring meaning and relevance into the story.”
The church history conference was conducted as part of the National Conference for Church Leadership, July 4-11. It was sponsored by the Baptist Sunday School Board’s church leadership services division.

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  • Charles Willis