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Church History Rhymes

By Derek Tronsgard There’s well-known saying by Edmund Burke that says “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it”. How well do you know your congregation’s history?  Earlier this month my congregation started a visioning process for our youth ministry to map out the next 3-4 years, and one of the most helpful things we did was to
by Faith+Lead | March 7, 2013

By Derek Tronsgard

There’s well-known saying by Edmund Burke that says “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it”.

How well do you know your congregation’s history? 

Earlier this month my congregation started a visioning process for our youth ministry to map out the next 3-4 years, and one of the most helpful things we did was to write a complete, exhaustive history of the youth ministry in our congregation, stretching all the way back to our church’s beginning in 1956.

We poured over dusty, type-written pages of old annual reports – finding everything we could about high school ministry over the last 60 years.

And do you know what we found?  Rhymes.  Lots and lots of rhymes.

Mark Twain had a great quote about history, too – maybe even better than Burke’s.  He said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

I went into this visioning process with a mission to confront the sheer amount of busyness I saw in the life of an average high schooler.  Kids were missing our teaching sessions because of sports, band, choir, dance – you name it.  I saw kids starting their weekdays at 7am and going until 9pm at night.

And I thought that this was a unique challenge to this generation.   Surely kids in the 1970s & 80s – the golden age of classic youth ministry – had more leisure time which led to bigger youth groups, confirmation classes, and worship attendance.

But history said otherwise.  Pastors and leaders in our congregation in the 70s and 80s were lamenting the busyness of kids’ lives, too.  They were dealing with sports and activities and other conflicts – even on the supposed-sacred Wednesday nights.  We found a rhyme – and learned that many of the same challenges we face today in youth ministry were the same 30 and even 40 years ago.

I went into this visioning process with another mission, too – getting parents more involved in youth ministry.  Some of the big thinkers out there today will tell you that it shouldn’t be just youth ministry, it should be youth AND FAMILY ministry.  The parents need to be there, we concluded.  They are the missing link that will solve everything! 

But history showed us another rhyme.  In our congregation, a huge initiative was launched in the early 1970s to get the parents involved on a deeper level in the faith development of their kids.  The pastor at the time lamented the silo youth ministry model and said that in order to fully develop faith in kids, the parents MUST be involved.  It read very much like a 21st century blog post that might come across my Twitter feed.  It was another rhyme.

This exercise in history taught us a lot about our congregation.  It gave us insights into why some of the weird cultural things particular to this church developed.  It gave us insights into why some things that work at other congregations don’t work here.

But the most amazing thing about the history?  The most amazing things were the rhymes.

Those big challenges that we’re trying to tackle?  They rhymed.  We learned that those have been the big issues here since the beginning.  

How well do you know your congregation’s history?

I bet that your church has rhymes, too.  I bet that the biggest struggles, frustrations, challenges, and road-blocks you’re facing in your ministry today are, in fact, rooted deep into your congregation’s history.  And I bet that you aren’t the first minister in your context to wrestle with it.

Get to know your congregation’s history.  Go to the attic or the file cabinet or the archive and start pouring over the dusty, old annual reports.  Talk to the elders who can remember the 50s & 60s.  Reach out to former staff members.

History won’t give us the answers.  It won’t solve the challenges we face or tell us what to do.  But it will show us the rhymes.  And the rhymes are always a good place to start.

Join the conversation on Facebook.com/FirstThird!

Derek Tronsgard is the Pastor of Youth and Family Ministry at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Mound, MN where he lives with his wife and Golden Retriever.  He is also a semi-pro nerd who loves fantasy sports and comic books.  You can follow him on Twitter (@derektronsgard).

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