Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Things I've Learned at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (#3 - History)

Every pastor should be a historian. More specifically, every pastor should be a Church historian and a historian of the local church over which he is given charge.

History is an incredibly powerful thing. It defines, steers, provokes, unsettles, inspires, enrages, persuades, and sometimes even predicts.

I think most of us are aware of the importance of history when it comes to things we care about... like the church. But perhaps too few of us are skilled at calling on history to lead in a local church. I certainly am among that number. I've maintained an active interest in history--particularly African-American, African, and church history. Yet, I've had to learn how to get that interest out of my head and into the heads and hearts of my people so that we might all benefit in our time from the marvelous works of God in days and eras gone by.

The elders and congregation at CHBC have taught me how to better do this. Beyond the obvious uses of history (sermon illustrations, confessing the creeds, etc.), they've taught me that the history of the faith and the local church is a rich faith-building source.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church was started some 130 years ago as a children's Sunday school by a Mrs. Celestia Ferris. A couple years after the Sunday school started, some of the participating neighborhood children visited a number of the contractors and builders then actively erecting Washington, D.C. to "request" donated bricks for the erection of a church. The builders complied and the first edifice was erected in a couple short years. I only know that because it's taught during one of the new members' classes on church history. But it makes a difference in my ministry because I've witnessed how recalling Mrs. Ferris' faithful ministry today inspires others to serve in children's ministry, consider an expanded outreach to unchurched children on the Hill, and to do the work of evangelism. Most of the members of the church have heard this story a few times in various settings and in various ways and now it's a living story that stimulates service.

A couple generations later, another group of church members invested their meager resources to build a larger facility to accomodate the church's growth. Their investment those many decades ago still serves hundreds of people who call CHBC home. Their faithfulness continues to bless the Kingdom, and I've seen how knowledge of that inheritance encourages acts of faith in the congregation today.

Then there is the history of the men who have pastored the church. It's an awesome testimony of how God has preserved the preaching of His gospel through successive ministries and generations despite the loss of the gospel in so many surrounding churches as theological liberalism and flights to the suburbs stripped the urban church. Though we wouldn't necessarily share every point of belief with some of these men, and some had serious failures, we rejoice to see the unbroken gospel proclamation and concern preserved by our faithful God in that place. And seeing that in the church's history helps to keep us focused on what is primary: faithful proclamation of the good news.

It also helps us to avoid the fads and trends that crop up from time to time. As a local church, we were taught to remember the pastor who wanted to take the church "seeker sensitive." We remember the "resistance" put up by a number of members who were there because, in part, they saw the threat these ideas were to a healthy and high view of the church and the gospel. And we remember the painful split that followed when the pastor lead the younger members away to start another church, a church that soon thereafter closed its doors. And so we learned another lesson illustrated in history, true unity must be built upon eternal truth--not methodological pragmatism.

And we've seen that history is predictive. "There's nothing new under the sun." The heresies that afflict the church today are old. Knowing church history and teaching it to our people helps them to spot the counterfeits and avoid "new" errors. History repeats itself, but not among those who are careful to observe and learn from it. I've learned how to press history into the service of theological orthodoxy and carefulness as we've seen Bunyan's view of baptism surface again; modalism gain prominence in the teaching of popular televangelists like T.D. Jakes; New Age gnosticism capture the popular religious mind; and Pelagian, semi-Pelagian and synergistic views of salvation erode Reformational bulwarks. All of these challenges have been seen before and they've all been responded to by the church inher history. It is a grand hubris that keeps us from learning from those who have gone before and from applying that treasure of knowledge to our present circumstances.

History is a wonderful teacher; it is a powerful teacher. If we would be better servants of God, we should be historians.

1 comment:

Chris Erwin said...

Hi Thabiti,

Hope all is well in North Carolina!

As a history teacher, I never fail to be struck by the fact that the vast majority of the Bible is historical narrative. And, even if we're well-taught in the unity of Scripture, it's still good to remember that God has given us these accounts not to pique some antiquarian interest in us, but rather to instruct us who are alive today about God's character and commands.

1 Cor. 10:1-11 speaks of the history of Israel as a *warning to us* as believers today, and Romans 15:4 tells us that Old Testament history was written (and has been preserved) for *our hope* and encouragement.

Isn't it wonderful how these historical account of God's gracious faithfulness towards His people moves us to a response of loving trust and obedience? And isn't it kind of God to show us how past rebelliousness against His rule has always resulted in wrath and disaster for the sinner? History, in other words, exists for the same reason as eevrything else: to demonstrate God's glory and draw people to Him in true worship.

It is encouraging to know as a Christian that my faith is centered on a person I can learn about by reading accounts of his words and actions, who lived in a particular time and place and whose words and actions were recorded carefully for posterity and preserved by an almighty God, for my good and for His glory. Instead of ahistorical principles dangling out there to be attacked from archaeological, historical and literary perspectives, we as Christians have Jesus Christ, a historical figure whose actions in history will assuredly bring a close to history one day. Praise God!