One of my real interests is how we use history as a resource to enable people to deepen their discipleship – not just an understanding of the ‘basics’ of church history, but an encounter with the experience of the church in different kinds of contexts, and different strands and traditions of Christian spirituality as a resource to help people deepen their discipleship in the present.
There are a few decent histories of Christianity written for a popular audience. I haven’t yet looked in detail at Miranda Threlfall-Holmes’ Essential History of Christianity (2012) but it looks very promising and includes some very helpful suggested discussion questions at the end each chapter. Otherwise, Lion’s History of Christianity (various edns) is pretty accessible, not least as it’s broken into bite-sized chunks with plenty of illustrations and maps. Stephen Tomkins’ A Short History of Christianity (2006) is quite engagingly written and covers the basics well in a relatively short number of pages. Jean Comby and Diarmuid MacCulloch’s two-volume How to Read Church History (1985 and 1989) is slightly older, and a bit more ‘ecclesiastical’ in tone but does make a rare, genuine attempt to get people reading and engaging with primary sources, rather than just reading a contemporary historian’s narrative. In the early 2000s, Epworth Press published an excellent Exploring Methodism series by various authors, giving an accessible introduction to the Methodist Church in different historical periods, including some of the key traditions and a book by Gordon Wakefield on Methodist spirituality. These were relatively rare examples of books which were deliberately designed to function as resources for the (educated) ordinary churchgoer. For someone who wants more sustained reflection on the meaning of Christian history, and can cope with degree-level reading, Euan Cameron’s Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches’ Past (2005) is one of my favourites.
But there is much less material on learning from Christian history which would be suitable for your ‘average’ church small group – and very little in the way of discussion-based courses which aim to develop discipleship through encounter with the experience of Christian disciples in other historical periods. I’d be more than half interested in trying to write such a thing myself, but in the mean time, what is already available? Lifestreams (a workbook by James Bryan Smith and Linda Graybeal, published by Renovare) takes a thematic approach to Christian spirituality, tracing six key streams of Christian experience over the centuries (the contemplative tradition, the holiness tradition, the evangelical tradition, the social justice tradition, the charismatic tradition and the incarnational tradition) and uses them as a starting point for individual and group spiritual formation. Personally I’m very drawn to Renovare’s approach, which affirms the value of learning from different traditions of Christian spirituality whilst allowing each of them to speak clearly on their own terms, and without reducing everything to a lowest common denominator. People and movements from within the history of Christianity are primarily used as exemplars of each of those traditions, so there is not a lot of engagement with primary sources, although plenty of potential for anyone who wants to follow up for themselves. In similar vein I’ve just taken receipt of Heather Zempel’s Sacred Roads: Exploring the Historic Paths of Christian Discipleship (2009). This also slices the history of Christianity thematically rather than chronologically, and introduces five key types of historic Christian practice: ‘relational discipleship’, ‘experiential discipleship’, ‘intellectual discipleship’, ‘personal discipleship’ and ‘incarnational discipleship’. This could be particularly useful for personal study and reflection, as there’s more text to process than in your average small group study. However, the upside is that the engagement with different historical periods is slightly deeper (albeit that each chapter is about 20 pages).
One of the chief difficulties with helping congregations explore history is that however much you want to prevent things becoming too wordy, there is still a certain amount of content that must be engaged with before it’s possible to begin understanding what is going on, and begin to use it for reflection on our contemporary context. You have a head-start if there’s someone in the room who actually has a working knowledge of Christian history. One strategy I’ve often used, which in her Essential History of Christianity Miranda Threlfall-Holmes has also found to work, is that of stretching out a big roll of lining paper with a 2000 year time line written across it, and asking questions about how we got from the church of the New Testament to the present. As people begin to ask questions (e.g., ‘so where did all the denominations come from?’ or ‘when did the books of the Bible get settled?’) the facilitator can then begin to add details to the time-line. Sometimes people will venture half-remembered people, events or movements for themselves, which can open up new lines of discussion (e.g., ‘I’ve heard of something called the Reformation – what was that, exactly?’). I’ve done this sort of exercise with small groups in quite educated, professional congregations and in areas where ‘non-book’ culture is predominant, and it has worked in both places.
A trickier question is how to encourage engagement with discipleship through the churches’ past when you don’t have a specialist historian in the room. An obvious place to start would be the DVD series of Diarmuid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity (2009), which repays repeated watching. At one stage I seem to think there were some supporting materials for the series on the OU’s ‘Open Learn’ website but last time I looked I could not find anything. Anyone still possessing a VHS player could alternatively turn to Melvin Bragg’s series 2000 years (1999), which sadly hasn’t made it onto DVD. There’s also a good DVD-ROM on The English Parish Church through the Centuries produced by the Christianity and Culture Project and the University of York (2010), to which I was one of a couple of hundred contributors. It’s a great resource on the history of Christianity in England, and the hundreds of articles on the disc provide a very accessible introduction to different events, periods, people and themes. However, it’s best used as a reference resource and isn’t a small group study resource per se. To try and fill this gap I’ve recently started to develop a church history version of the card game ‘Chronology’. Here the aim is to find a relatively fun way of acquainting people with some of the key people, events and movements within the history of Christianity, which may then offer a jumping off point for discussion. Players are read cards from a pack and have to say whether the event on the card happened before, between or after the cards they already hold in their hand. It’s had two real-life trials so far, and it needs a few tweaks, but once I’ve done some more work on it, I may post a bit more about it on this blog.
Meanwhile, if you know of any good resources not covered here – particularly quality small group discussion resources – please let me know and I’m happy to add them to another blog.