The risk of history is the temptation to maintain things exactly ‘as they were,’ while failing to acknowledge that time and culture have shifted. For the church, this only leads to increasing disconnection from the prevailing culture, eventual irrelevance and demise. But we must risk doing history, because how we approach and understand the past will influence our present and future.
Recorded history shapes community identity and is often recorded by those within the community itself. What is preserved is guided by the author’s sense of what is important. Likewise, whenever we approach historical records we bring our current questions and biases, scouring history for its present relevance and lessons.
We revisit the past to look for clues to the present – why repeat the past if a previous outcome was unfavourable? Conversely, if something is already proven valuable, we may follow the same path. Of course, we must remember our new context and not simply seek to recreate the past.
As well as shaping group identity and passing on learned wisdom, history promotes a sense of belonging as our own stories intertwine with greater, collective stories. And we feel even more strongly connected when these collective histories involve our loved ones and family. In a church context, this translates into a high sense of ownership and involvement by those who have a family history within the community.
These connections and sense of belonging can be a strength within a community. But what does this mean for a new arrival? Or the outsider? Intrinsic bonds carried within history and relationships may become a barrier to community cohesion, blocking newcomers from grafting into collective identity. For a church congregation this is pertinent for two reasons: the church is the gathering of all of God’s people, and numerical growth of the congregation depends upon the integration of newcomers.
History is our story of how we arrived at our present location. It can narrate our values and colour our identity in the present context. But history is only ever the story of the journey thus far: we have never finally arrived. Will we stop on the side of the road and gaze fondly backwards as the world moves on without us, or will we set off to explore what lies ahead, secure enough in our identity to embrace the changing scenery as we go?
Belinda Waterhouse is Director of Operations at Stirling Theological College.