The sad truth is very few of us know very much at all about the history of God’s great creation, The Church. I would venture to guess that more people who sit in churches across America each Sunday know more about the founding fathers than they do about the church fathers. We know more local and national history than we know about church history. Some have even questioned why church history is important.
I would like to offer a few reasons why I think this study is important, and I’d like to begin with what should be the most obvious reason of all. We will never understand where we are unless we look back to see how we get here. Odds are there are things about the way churches do things that you really like or really hate. Have you ever stopped to wonder why we do these things in these ways? Why do some churches insist on Sunday evening services? What about adult Sunday School? Why does communion contain a tiny thimble full of grape juice? Why is a fish symbol connected to Christianity?
All of those questions have answers in the study of our history. There were probably perfectly good reasons. Some of those reasons were certainly embedded in a particular time and place and should probably be done away with. But it behooves us to investigate the reasons of those who came before us.
Speaking of that, the study of church history will introduce you to people you really should know. There are tons of celebrities in the contemporary Christian megachurch conference speaker world today. Andy Stanley. Max Lucado. Francis Chan. I see your Facebook feeds, and I hear all the man-crushes going on.
But you really should know about Augustine and St. John of the Cross and Irenaeus. You should be familiar with Martin Luther and John Wesley. Yes, Scot McKnight is great, but what about Anselm or Kierkegaard or Karl Barth? Study church history, and you might develop a man-crush on someone who has been dead for several centuries! No one is truly dead as long as someone keeps telling their story. Through a good study of church history, the dead continue to speak.
It’s been said that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat past mistakes. Studying the roots of our movement should allow us to learn from the past — to discover how to adapt traditions when necessary — to see how to constructively discern between tradition and truth.