There are several ways to organize and interpret your material. If the book is short, a chronological approach is best. Often a church’s history is clearly divisible into three or four periods of time, such as founding years, middle years, and recent years. Or, the periods can also be tied to logical divisions in our recent national history. By using periods of time, the historian can discuss small chunks of history and evaluate different phases of the church’s life.
A different way to organize the material is by topic. Potential topics include the founding years, the church building, worship, community impact, membership, and youth and missionary societies. A section on membership should not be a list of names but an analysis of the membership’s characteristics as a group at given times. Where did members live in relation to the church? Was this a neighborhood church or a commuting church, or did it shift from one to the other? How did members earn their livings? What size were their families? When did major membership shifts occur?
The subject of worship informs the reader about the types of meetings conducted in the past and what occurred in them. How was communion served? Did the church ever hold street meetings? Discuss revivals and testimony services. Tell about changes in hymnals, instruments, and music programs. How was the altar used?
No matter how you organize your history—by chronology or topic—you need a theme that threads together the different elements of the story. The theme can be expressed in a single statement that reflects the book’s central idea. It may center on a mission to proclaim holiness or on a concern for people and the community. Whatever direction is taken, the central theme gives a point of reference and focus to the book. It should flow naturally from the data assembled.
Congregational history can take directions that are not productive for a church. One example would be to worship the past and idealize the church’s leaders. This builds idols and breeds discontent with the present. Insisting that change did not take place is unrealistic and unhealthy. An emphasis on continuity with the past amid social and religious change is more true and less mischievous. Church history should steer away from idolatry and toward a meaningful understanding of congregational growth and development.