I Love to Tell the Story: Communicating Your Church’s Story
With words and pictures, on paper or video, through drama or in a classroom, the story of your church's heritage can be made vivid and exciting.
The Written Word:
A Church History
When we think of telling a church's story, a printed church history is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Should you undertake this project? Ask yourselves these questions:
When was our last church history written?
If it was more than twenty-five years ago, it is probably time for an update. If you have no written history at all, it is certainly time to think seriously about writing one.
Are there people in the congregation willing to work on this project?
A good history is a collaboration of skilled researchers, writers, and editors. Each person must be enthusiastic, talented, and committed to the project. Even if the history is researched and written by one person, there should still be an editorial committee to support and oversee the project.
Will the church support the project?
There must be money to print and promote a church history. Remember, too, that the project needs the approval and support of the pastors and other church leaders.
If you decide to write a history, an important first step is to select a planning/ editorial committee. The committee will need to make some major decisions early in the process:
Will this history...
be published in hardcover or paperback?
be a narrative history, a picture book, or something in between?
simply update an earlier work or be a brand-new effort?
When will we...
finish the research?
finish the first draft?
make our editorial suggestions?
complete the fact checking?
finish the second draft?
finish the final editorial work?
collect all the photos and illustrations?
choose and hire the printer?
deliver the final manuscript to the printer?
receive delivery of the finished product from the printer? and...
schedule our celebration and autograph party?!
The Budget: Include all applicable...
fees and honoraria
mileage and telephone expenses
photocopying and supplies
publication and printing costs
the book's purchase price.
The most important responsibility of researchers, writers, and editors is to be faithful to the history of your church. This underlies all the necessary concerns about practical details.
What will this project accomplish?
Ideally, it will faithfully record the past. It can also educate, entertain, and inspire. Remember that you want to tell the story of real people's lives, not tabulate dry statistics and lifeless facts. You want to reveal something of the depth, complexity, and texture of church life. Researchers, writers, and editors all need to remember that their goal is to put flesh on the bare bones of history. Remember that you are writing for the future as well as the present: identify all persons, places, and events as accurately as possible. Check, recheck, and re-recheck facts and dates! People will rely on this history for many years to come.
What special touches can enrich the final product?
Photographs enliven the text and provide another window to the past. Brief sketches about people and events can be amusing, touching, and revealing. They add human interest to the story. Consider featuring these vignettes at the beginning of each chapter. Include information about everyday things to help paint a picture of the times (the price of postage stamps, fashion trends, favorite radio programs). This helps the reader relate to the lives of historical figures. An index can be very helpful, and several appendices may be also be useful (financial and membership statistics, lists of pastors, names of church organizations in different eras). You may also want to include a timeline listing various milestones in the church's history.
Short and Sweet
A full-blown history of your church requires a significant commitment of time and resources. Whether or not you decide to undertake such a project, you will certainly want to identify other ways you can tell your church's story in print.
Where can you tell your story?
There are at least four publications that can help you tell your church's story: the local newspaper, the annual conference newspaper, the church newsletter, and the Sunday bulletin.
In addition, if there is an historical society in your annual conference, find out if it publishes a newsletter. The county historical society or local genealogical society may also have a newsletter that will welcome contributions. Check your local library's periodical shelves or local history room.
Contact the editors of newspapers and newsletters to ask about publication policies and guidelines. Do they accept unsolicited copy? Will they print photographs? In what format should the copy be prepared? What are the copy deadlines? Obey the editor's instructions and submit all your copy in a timely and professional manner.
For those publications in your own church, work with the responsible person(s) on ways to highlight church heritage. Perhaps you can write a monthly one-page "Anniversary (or History) Update" for the church newsletter or as a bulletin insert. If something shorter is required, even a brief paragraph can heighten people's awareness of their heritage.
What stories can you tell?
First, use newsletters and newspapers to announce all of your church's history-related celebrations. Advertise well in advance and include all necessary information (places, dates, times, contact persons, cost).
You can also ask for assistance in publications. Ask readers to help locate photographs of the sanctuary, missing church records, or addresses of former members.
When you write about the history of the church, always remember that it is people who engage the reader. Tell the human interest stories that fascinate all of us. Write about those funny, sad, and dramatic moments that punctuate your church's history.
If you are writing for a newspaper, try to include photographs or other illustrations. Your decision about a topic for a feature article may rest on whether you can locate pictures to accompany the text.
You may only be able to get one or two articles published in a conference or town newspaper. In your church newsletter, however, perhaps you can print a series of "Person of the Month" biographical sketches of former pastors and members.
For a briefer format in a newsletter or the Sunday bulletin, consider printing "Did you know?" tidbits, two or three "fun facts" about church personalities and events. A paragraph called "That's The Way It Was" can describe what the church and community were like at various times in history.
Do your research in your church's records, at the conference archives, in the local library, and by interviewing longtime members.
The Spoken Word:
Classes and Groups
Share your knowledge and love of your church's history with the Sunday school.
The Sunday School: Adults
Select topics appropriate to your setting, the classes' interests and the Sunday school schedule. For instance, you may want to talk about the history of your own congregation. This may be done in one or more sessions. Some ideas are:
Give an overview of the church's history. Show as many photographs and artifacts as possible.
Make a presentation (with photographs) on the buildings which have housed your congregation.
Take a class on a walking tour of the sanctuary with a presentation on the stained glass windows and/or other points of interest.
Tell human interest stories about the people in your church's past. Show photographs and read from letters if you have them.
Focus on a particular time period: for example, what your church was like during World War II.
Combine local history and church history in a discussion of your church's role in the life of your community.
Discuss your church's response to various social issues in its history, such as civil rights or Prohibition.
Share some of the especially funny or silly moments in your church's history!
Adult classes may also be very interested in a series of discussions on:
Distinctive beliefs and practices of The United Methodist Church.
The history of one of United Methodism's predecessors (such as the Methodist Protestant Church, the Evangelical Association, or the United Brethren in Christ).
The history of Christianity.
The history of the Bible.
"Great Issues in Church History" (such as the role of women, the separation of church and state, or changing worship practices).
People from the past. Among the many choices are reformers, theologians, preachers, or musicians.
It is no secret that a successful discussion or lecture series requires good leadership. Leaders need to be knowledgable and must be able to communicate in a lively, engaging manner. It is sometimes difficult to locate leaders with both qualities. There should be at least one or two persons in your congregation with the right skills, but don't stop there! Perhaps a college or seminary professor can talk to a class about local history or Methodist theology. A genealogist can link family history with your church's history. Someone from the conference Commission on Archives and History can give a slide show about historic places in the annual conference.
There are also a number of good videos that can be part of a church history-related Sunday school class. Where can you borrow videos? Check your church library, the annual conference office, a local college, and the public library. Also contact Cokesbury, Discipleship Resources, United Methodist Communications, and EcuFilm for information about videos to rent or purchase. (See the Resource Directory for further information.)
The Sunday School: Young People
Classes of young people can be a challenge! How can you make history interesting and engaging for them?
One way is to focus on an historical figure who has dealt with some of the same "real-life" issues as today's teenagers. Perhaps this is someone from your own church's history, or a figure from United Methodist history. You may also wish to focus on a biblical character. The main idea is to show how a knowledge of history can help us face problems today.
As with adult classes, videos can be effective in presenting information in an entertaining way. You may also want to encourage your young people to make their own video, either on the history of the church or as an historical record of today's activities and personalities.
Another option is to discuss an issue relevant to young people (racism, the environment, alcohol abuse) and examine how the church has dealt with similar matters in the past.
Perhaps you prefer to approach things in a more light-hearted way. How about asking the teenagers to write a song for the church anniversary, or to design a special centennial banner? They'll need to learn about church history to do a good job on the project.
The Sunday School: Children
Talk to today's children about their counterparts in the past. What did children wear to church a hundred years ago? How were worship and Sunday school different than they are today? Show photographs of children in your church from decades ago.
Bring older adults into the children's classes and encourage questions about that long-ago time "when you were a kid." Ask the adults to teach the children a Sunday school song remembered from their childhoods. Then return the favor by asking the children teach their elders a song.
The stories of circuit riders on the American frontier can be exciting for children, with tales of horses, storms, revival meetings, and rowdy backwoods life. Perhaps a "circuit rider" in costume can tell the children about some of the dramatic incidents in his life.
There are biographies for children about famous figures in church history. Share those stories and discuss how God worked in their lives. Perhaps the children will want to "adopt" an historical figure and do a special program about him or her. Check your church and public libraries for titles; contact Cokesbury and Discipleship Resources for appropriate books, as well. (See Resource Directory for addresses.)
Children can design banners or posters for a heritage celebration. They can write a heritage prayer or poem, or learn a special song.
Children can also create a timeline of your church's history. Make sure they put themselves in the timeline (either their births or the years they began attending the church). This will reinforce the concept that each child is a very important member of the church family.
Other Groups in the Church
There are other groups in the church who may be very interested in learning about church history, such as...
the youth group
the young adult fellowship
United Methodist Women
United Methodist Men
Mom's Day Out
senior adult groups
Many of the suggestions for a Sunday school program would work very well as a presentation for these groups. However, you may want to work with their officers/leaders to develop a program that will be of special interest to a specific circle of like-minded folks:
For instance, a group of young mothers might be interested to learn how the denomination has dealt in the past with issues related to children's welfare. A program on the history of women in mission would be very appropriate for a United Methodist Women's circle meeting. Young adults could learn about the Epworth League, the influential organization for young adults a century ago.
Presentations take preparation!
Any of these ideas for discussions, presentations, and lectures require research and study on the part of the presenter. Some require a significant commitment of time and energy.
However, don't let that discourage you from sharing the delights of history with your church. Work with your pastor, historians and educators in your congregation and community, local public and college libraries, and the agencies cited in the Resource Directory. Together you can make history come alive through the spoken word!
Another way to share the story of your church's history is through a play or pageant.
The kind of theatrical production you can mount depends on your church's resources. A full-fledged original play or musical may require a cast of twenty or thirty people and a number of people behind the scenes. You will have to have writers, directors, musicians, costumers, and technicians. This can be an exciting project for the whole church, and will require many months of planning.
On a smaller scale, a group of five to ten people can write and perform a series of historical skits, or two people can do dramatic readings. These can be interspersed with congregational hymns and/or special music to create a distinctive evening service. A costumed visitor from the past can talk about his/her life and experiences in the church in a one-person monologue.
What are your sources? Local church records can be very helpful. For example, if your church has supported missionaries, their letter and reports can form the basis of a skit about your church's commitment to mission.
If you are lucky enough to have the diary of a former pastor or a church member, quotations from the journal can be turned into dialogue or monologue.
Town newspapers, conference journals and newspapers, and other published sources can give you both fact and opinion about incidents in your church's past. Use them as research sources, and also be on the lookout for colorful and interesting comments and descriptions that can be used in a dramatic reading or a play. (Also see Voices From Our Past).
When done well, a drama has an exciting "you are there" quality: the viewer is transported to another place and time, and goes away with a deeper understanding about the lives of our parents in the faith.
When done badly, a dramatic presentation is dull. We are embarrassed for the performers, and leave feeling that history is a boring business. Think carefully before embarking on such a project, and remember that, as with any major event, much planning and organization will be needed.
The Visible Word:
When used in a display, documents, photographs, and objects can illustrate and interpret the lives of people in your church's past. You do not have to spend money or be an expert technician to create a good display. The most important thing to remember is that you are telling a story.
Where can you find items to display? Look first in the church archives, but don't stop there. Members of the congregation may have items to share, and the local library or historical society may be willing to lend materials for an exhibit.
Here are some ideas for displays:
Show what church members were reading at a specific period (perhaps at the time of the church's founding). Use Bible translations, hymnals, devotional literature, local newspapers, denominational materials, and popular novels.
Develop a photo gallery of church leaders' portraits with labels that ask intriguing questions about each person (have the answers close at hand). For example, "I organized the first woman's missionary society in our church. Do you know who I am?"
Create a Hall of Fame or a Memory Walk of persons nominated by the congregation, with photographs and biographical information. The "Hall" or "Walk" may be an actual photo gallery, or it may simply be a photo album on display in the fellowship room.
Profile members in full-time church service: diaconal and ordained ministers, educators at United Methodist schools, employees of general church agencies, or delegates to Annual, Jurisdictional, and General Conference. This may be part of a larger exhibit on the history of The United Methodist Church or on the denomination's administrative structure.
Create a timeline that combines personal events from church records (births, marriages, baptisms, etc.) with major events in church and local history. Encourage today's church family to add their own dates to those of their parents and grandparents.
Display "mystery" photographs from the local church archives, those unidentified, undated snapshots in every collection. Ask church members to help identify people and events portrayed. Perhaps people will be willing to make some of their own church-related photographs available for a display.
If you have talented craftspeople in the congregation, perhaps they can create a scale model of the original sanctuary. This could be put on permanent display in an appropriate spot.
Encourage Sunday school classes and the youth group to create posters or banners celebrating your church's heritage. These can be displayed a few at a time so that everyone's creation spends some time in the spotlight.
There are several ways that video can be used to tell your story. Certainly, video can make a permanent record of special events during an anniversary year: a homecoming dinner, an evening speaker, a concert, a performance of your history pageant.
Beyond simply recording events, though, think creatively about video as a communications tool. What about taping a "cook's tour" of your church, past and present, comparing the existing structure to old photographs and drawings? How about a "conversation" with a costumed John Wesley or one of your church's founders?
With video you can invite the viewer to walk through your church's history with you, blending footage of the sanctuary, the community, old photographs, and interviews with church members and local historians.
The results can be used in many settings: in visits with shut-ins and prospective members, in Sunday school class discussions, or as a gift to a former pastor or a new district superintendent. Best of all, video captures sights and sounds that will bring the past to life for many years to come.
The more complicated the video project, the more important it is to have expertise. If there is no one in your congregation with the needed skills, talk to an area college. This may be the perfect student project!
A video project can also be a good way to get the youth involved in celebrating your heritage. Even if the final result is not expertly done, it will give young people a real chance to make a creative contribution to their church.
Visits and Tours
History teaches us that the church is part of a larger community. Emphasize that message by arranging tours to local historical attractions.
For example, organize a visit to a local museum that has exhibits illustrating what everyday life was like a century or more ago. Following the tour, perhaps you can share some items from the church archives that date from the same period as those on display at the museum.
Lead a tour to sites important in your own church's history. Be sure to visit locations that illustrate how the church has been a part of its community. For instance, if your church has an active ministry to a local nursing home, include the home on the tour and talk to the group about the history of your church's involvement there.
Farther afield, visit those places that have been important to your annual conference's history. Some of these places are registered as official Historic Sites of The United Methodist Church.
In addition, there are some places whose importance to the entire United Methodist denomination has been recognized by the General Conference. They have been named Historical Sites and Heritage Landmarks of The United Methodist Church. Your annual conference archives should have information or contact the General Commission on Archives and History.
The most ambitious tours can take you to historic attractions across the country or across the ocean - to Wesley sites in England, for instance. Few local churches have the resources to plan such tours, but someone in your annual conference may be arranging a heritage trip that members of your congregation can join.
It's always nice to have a souvenir of a special event, and a church heritage celebration is no exception.
Perhaps you can design a special heritage logo and/or slogan. This might be a good contest for Sunday school children or the whole congregation. Allow plenty of time to choose a winner and have items imprinted so that they will be ready in time for your heritage event.
There are dozens of possibilities for souvenirs. Some ideas are: mugs, pens, bookmarks, notecards, Christmas tree ornaments, bumper stickers, decorative plates, and framed photographs of the congregation.
Charge enough to for these mementos recover your costs, but don't expect to make a real profit with most souvenirs. Rather, they are take-home memories of a special time for your church.