Leader to Leader

Your Missional History

July 14, 2017 | Posted by Art Scherer

Not long ago, my wife and I drove past a small town in rural Virginia where there once existed a small, but vital congregation of our denomination. The congregation closed many years ago after dwindling population and a military base closure.

At the closing service—a true celebration of ministry—the church was packed with former members and people of the community who gave witness to the impact of the church in their lives. We all rejoiced as it was announced that the congregation’s assets would go to Hispanic ministry, seminary scholarships and District mission projects.

Today, all the leaders of that congregation are gone. There is no church building. There are few who have a memory that it existed.

Within a generation, what is known about your congregation, your people, your hopes, and your accomplishments will be mostly forgotten unless they are recorded. The DNA of your congregation, that which gave it birth and a sense of mission, the driving purpose that runs like a thread behind all your actions, will largely be lost.

Without history, one is tempted to think that nothing of significance ever happened before one was born. It is declared that this is the time of greatest turmoil and change our culture has ever experienced. But those who lived through the Sixties or through the Great Depression know that history gives a different perspective.

Each age has its challenge. Each age results in new directions. And to those who have faith, the presence of God is seen in each age and generation. History gives a perspective of faith and mission.

Now is the time to put your fingers to the keyboard to start saving the story of your congregation.

Start with the who, what, where, when, how and why.

Get together a representative group, come up with a plan, and get started on those basic questions. These are the dates, events, places and people that constitute the benchmarks of your history. Concordia Historical Institute gives a fine resource paper for this phase of the history.

Go beyond congregational records to local newspaper archives, a walk through the church cemetery, etc. The church’s history exists within the context of the culture around it.

Involve people in the process.

Capture the memories of people. Do video interviews with older members to find what they feel has been the ongoing glue that holds the congregation together and the mission God has given over the years.

In a large group setting, create a timeline with sheets of paper representing periods of the congregation’s history. On the top of the sheet, list the time period, pastor’s name, location, and perhaps significant world events. Ask people to write on each sheet the joys and the challenges of each period. Encourage discussion.

Seek to capture your congregation’s missional personality.

History not only tells where you have been and where you are, but also where you may be headed. It is research into the congregation’s DNA, its personality. Too many church histories stop with a recitation of dates and events. It is the job of the historian to weave the threads together into a missional perspective.

I remember a meeting in a church where ministry to Hispanic immigrants was being discussed. At one point I was able to point to the German inscriptions in the stained glass windows and remind them that this congregation was founded by immigrants who themselves were new to this land. Some could also remember a ministry to European refugees following WWII. Immigrant ministry was part of the DNA of the congregation. History can inform the missional perspective of the present.

Publish it.

Make known and widely distribute your congregational history. That may take many forms: a video, a written document, a PowerPoint slideshow, an audio recording. Each contributes to the impact. Above all, make a written, printed copy. Electronic media formats change all the time. Printed copies will last. And don’t forget to send a copy to Concordia Historical Institute. They are a storehouse of valuable history for the LCMS.

Art Scherer
Art Scherer is President Emeritus of the Southeastern District, LCMS, and a consultant in stewardship and capital funding for LCEF. Dr. Scherer is developer of LCEF’s popular Consecrated Stewards series and author of the Living as Children of a Generous God Bible studies.