Church history isn’t just for theology geeks like me. A working knowledge of Church history teaches us to be humble. Our footprints aren’t the first tracks on this road. The trend today is to stay as relevant and current as possible. I take no issue with relevancy. Jesus spoke the language of His day to real people living real life. But a lot of churches today live and worship as though they invented the concepts.
No pin pops the balloon of ecclesiastical pride more effectively than the knowledge that you didn’t invent your successes and your mistakes aren’t original. The Church today is generally ignorant of the cycles, tensions and rhythms of our own history. But Church history isn’t just the pursuit of the obscurantist nerd or the disinterested seminarian squeaking out a passing grade.
C.S. Lewis quipped, “History is a story written by the finger of God.” Church history is a worshipful affair that teaches us what God has done, guiding us to know what God is doing and pointing to what He will do!
If the past matters, how do you teach it? Here are two ways to incorporate the lessons of the past into your preaching today.
1. Incorporate biographical sketches into preaching. People love stories about other people. We love to relate. We are debtors to the saints of the past. Pay back some of that debt by telling the stories of people like Francis Turettin. He defended basic core truths of the Bible in the 1600s. Today isn’t the first period of Church history when Christians had to defend the Bible.
Preach a biographical sermon and hook the major theme of the biography to a directly related passage of Scripture. Use the biography as a platform for real life relevance. Passionately demonstrate how that person lived out the Gospel and elevate the Scripture while doing it. Defend the Scripture like this person. Live in faith like this person. Always use the biography as a platform for elevating Scripture. In biographical sketches it’s easy to elevate the person too much. The biography is a way to point to the power of God.
2. Use snippets of Church history for introductions and conclusion. This may be the most accomplishable way to incorporate Church history into your ministry. Open a sermon on a passage of Scripture about the Great Commission with the account of David Brainerd, who persevered to evangelize Native Americans. He was not terribly successful in terms of numbers of converts but was very influential through the account of his life published by Jonathan Edwards.
Go out of your way to track down stories, accounts and information about church history. While I was pastor of a very old church in Virginia I visited the local library to track down records from the 1700s that mentioned the church. I incorporated local history into sermon introductions and conclusions occasionally. I found that, especially for long-time church members from that region, it made the entire content of the sermon more memorable and more personally meaningful.
Don’t neglect the past for the sake of the present. The past has something to teach us for the future. I like the way Emerson put it, “The name of Jesus is not so much written as plowed into the history of the world."
Incorporating Church history into our preaching is a way to plow the truths of the Bible into the minds of people with the plow of how God has been and is revealing His ultimate plan and will for the ages through His Church.