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Telling the Story

It helps sometimes in telling the story to choose a title as well as a particular outline or agenda.  Generally, the poetic or the dramatic, or the “fancy” title which does not describe the book without several further explanatory sentences should be shunned.  It is better to inform the reader immediately what he or she is about to read.  Now and then, if a non-descriptive title accurately describes the history of a church, it may possibly be used.

In writing the history of the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia we used the title, Facing The Future of Change: The Story Of A City’s Central Church.  This title was carefully chosen and the cover design was made to fit the title.  The title was superimposed on a picture of the church set in the midst of downtown traffic and tall buildings.  Facing change has been the history of this church from its beginning.  The title, therefore, was appropriate.  We chose the subtitle The Story of a City’s Central Church because we believed that to speak of the history of Arch Street United Methodist would have little meaning except for those persons who were acquainted with downtown Philadelphia.  On the other hand, perhaps the subtitle would have appeal for many other churches situated in an urban setting.  The title reflected what we wanted to say and had a universal appeal as well.

However, most of the histories which I have read or seen simply state what they are—namely, the history of such and such a church.  And this may be the wisest kind of title.

Some histories of Annual Conferences have poetical titles, but they need considerable explanation and can be misleading.  Fire on the Prairie is an example of a splendid bit of poetic writing, but it is not very informative and needs to be explained.  On the other hand, The Methodist Excitement In Texas combines what is obviously history with a title that arouses curiosity.  Most editors with whom I have talked prefer the straight forward title that clearly states what the book is about.

As a variation, the term “biography” has appeared on certain histories of rivers, cities, and churches.  One such history is titled, The Biography Of A Church and then contains the name of the church in the subtitle.

What is needed in the beginning is a working title which can always be altered before the book is published.  More important, possibly, than the title is the outline or agenda which will control the way the story is told.

In the booklet titled, Guidelines For Local Church Historian, published by the United Methodist Publishing House, three possible outlines are suggested.  The first is the chronological outline.  This means simply to write the events of the church in their chronological order from the moment when the possibility of a church was conceived in the minds of a few persons down to the present day.  Strictly speaking, this is not a history, but the annals of a particular church.  This method tends to produce a flat-toned picture where every event may take on equal importance.  It does tell the story, but the story tends to become monotonous.  A second method is to divide the history into natural time frames or periods.  By this system each period reaches a climax which then becomes the opening event for a later period.  For example, the general outline could set forth the periods in the following manner:

Part I    The First Fifty Years                        1862-1912

Part II    The War Years                                1912-1945

Part III    Voices For A New Era                    1945-1964

Part IV   Revitalization and Future Thrust     1964-2009

Under each part there could be separate headings and information that would tell the story of that period.

With this style of outlining, it is possible not only to tell the story of the church but to link that story with the events going on in the community, nation and world.

A little less fruitful method would be to divide the periods according to the pastors who served the congregation.  Then each chapter heading might have a pastor’s name: for example, The Smith Years; The Jones Controversy; Building With Pastor Brown, etc.  I have never really liked this method since it tends to evaluate the history of the church in terms of the pastors’ personalities and work.  The history then becomes a series of short biographies rather than the story of a growing church and its relation to the general church and community.  On the other hand, any history must sooner or later evaluate the work of various pastors.  Their work, however, should be judged in relation to the whole picture of the church and community and not set forth as a thumbnail sketch to satisfy their friends or critics in the church.

Third, some historians use a topical method which is rather difficult to handle and may lead to repetition.

The Guidelines booklet referred to earlier suggests that the chapter titles could be:

I. Profile of membership past and present

2. Organization of the congregation

3. Buildings and other property

4. Pastoral and lay leadership

5. Organization and activities

6. Worship and music

7. Special occasions

8. Service and mission

9. Finances

10. Ecumenical and community relations

The clearest advantage in this method is that each of these sections can be parceled out to one or more persons who concentrate on that field.  It would then be the difficult task of the editor-author to rewrite these sections so that the entire book is characterized by one style of writing.  The most obvious disadvantage is that the story tends to become fragmented and, of course, repetitious.  However, under the guiding hand of an able editor this disadvantage may be minimized.

Other methods of outlining will probably occur to members of the Editorial Committee.  Certainly one session of the Committee’s meetings should be devoted to a thorough discussion of what type of outline should be used.  Of course, where the history is simply a gathering of pictures or a rehash of an older history updated by pictures and a chapter or two, the Committee hardly need concern itself with methods of outlining.  However, in cases where the history is to be a permanent contribution to the church and community, a great deal of care and thought should go into the making of the outline since the history will more or less be bound by that choice.

In actually telling the story, make it factual, but with the facts enlivened by anecdotes and portraits of “the movers and shakers” who led the church through good days and less fortunate ones.  Do not be afraid to relate the causes of any splits in the church, although here good judgment is necessary.

Bishop Ernest G. Richardson once told me of a church which was split from top to bottom over the question of whether its front lawn should be seeded or sodded.  If the incident happened early in the church’s history or at mid-point, it certainly should be included and it can add a human quality to the history.  If the split, however, is of more recent vintage it should be handled with great delicacy and absolute fairness.

All of this means that your history, especially the early years, can usually be packed with human interest stories.  Some churches refused to allow musical instruments to be played at worship services; others opposed the use of choirs and organs; and in the matter of architecture, there was a time when Methodist Meeting Houses, as they were called, were built without steeples.

Visual aids came into use in the churches only after severe soul-searching.  In The History Of Methodism in Central Pennsylvania one layperson bluntly stated that if the pastor of the church in his community brought a moving picture projector into the church, the pastor might as well go out and steal chickens for all the influence he would have thereafter.

The relation of the church to the Annual Conference is also an important matter and should not be neglected.  What was the attitude of the church at various times in its history to the overall program of the general church and how successfully were the various social activities and evangelistic emphases mandated by the general church carried out?  The Annual Conference minutes or journal can be of great help here.

Do not forget what has previously been mentioned, namely that no church is built in isolation.  It is part of a community, town or city, state and nation and the world.  What steps did the church take to improve its community?  Did it take part in the demonstrations that have marked the recent history of our nation?  What was its relationship to the Sanctuary Movement, the quest for racial justice, the issues of war and peace, personal morality, and social problems such as drug addiction?  How were the teachings of Jesus and the Gospel offered to the community?  What was done about missions at home and abroad?  It would not be out of place to lay down the future dreams and goals of the church as developed by its current leadership.

At the close of the history there might be an appendix containing charts concerning the rise and fall of membership, finances and other relevant matters.  The pastors of the church with their years of service could be listed as well as the names of the organists and music directors, and possibly the members of the current charge conference.  Charter members might be listed.  If the history is to be a permanent record to serve the church for many years to come, it should be thoroughly indexed.

Some histories begin with a preliminary chapter on the background history of Methodism and the various splits and mergers that finally created The United Methodist Church.  Others place this chapter in an appendix and begin the story of the local church at once.  Either method is satisfactory.  Some feel that a lengthy description of early Methodism itself would be of little interest to the general reader and, therefore, could be safely relegated to the appendix.  Others see it as a necessary lead-in to the main story. In either case, it should be told in an entertaining fashion and with a high degree of accuracy.

It would be well, when the manuscript is nearly complete, to submit it to two or three qualified readers for their criticism.  For example, a history professor, a teacher in a seminary, or a gifted preacher might make some suggestions to improve it.  You may need to pay for this service, but it should be worth the price.  Many readers will offer their services without charge.

Above all, if possible, have the manuscript read by a careful copy editor who will check it for spelling, grammar, possible mistakes in dating or other errors that can undermine the ultimate value of the book.