On January 23, 2021, I preached the funeral of a dear woman from my town at a tiny country cemetery in the woods of Bibb County, Alabama. I was excited to go to that cemetery in the woods because near where we remembered the life of this lady lay the graves of my great-great-great-grandparents who were born in the 1840s and passed within months of each other in 1923. My own history lay in that rural cemetery. I’d never been to their graves before, but on that day 98 years after they last breathed, I knelt beside them, and I was thankful for them.
One of the most exciting and unexplored territories of Christianity for your students is church history. I’m not talking about the dull dates-and-places type history but the lived history of our brothers and sisters in Christ, now members of the Church Triumphant in glory and their chronicles of faithful lives devoted to Christ in contexts often more challenging than ours.
The graves of our family in Christ may not always be accessible, but the stories about our faith family are easily within reach.
I have regularly used the stories of men and women throughout church history as illustrations in sermons and lessons. My whole church knows of my love for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and now many of my students can quote him since I quote him routinely. And because of my zeal for church history, I’ve seen some of my students and fellow church members develop an interest in a person or an aspect of church history they didn’t know existed before.
So why is teaching middle and high school students church history important, and how do we do it? Let’s look at both.
1. I teach my students church history so that they know they are part of a kingdom much larger than themselves and their context. One of the great failures of modern evangelicalism is to ignore church history and thus center all of the faith on the present and the local. Not that we should ignore the present or what’s going on immediately around us, but we should be rooted in the history of our family, the church. Studying church history with students or even referencing someone like Athanasius of Alexandria in a message reminds students that their faith family is both global and timeless. The Church is bigger than the SBC, America or even those who have lived recently. The Church stretches through all denominations, to all nations, and all times. Having that in view, students can better relate to their world and see the bigger picture of what God is doing here and now because of how he has moved and worked in the past both here and across the globe.
2. I teach my students church history so that they have a better understanding of orthodox Christian doctrine and theology. Orthodox theology and doctrine did not arise in a vacuum. The doctrines of the Trinity, Christ’s divinity and humanity, salvation, and so many others have been debated and carefully defined by faithful councils, bishops and pastors over the past 2,000 years. When we talk about church history with our students, it gives us the opportunity to locate the beliefs we have in time, space and circumstance so that our students know why we believe what we believe and how those beliefs came to be. I think it is important that our students not only know what we believe but how our beliefs came about.
There are some in the world who would seek to destroy faith by feeding misinformation and doubt to young Christians about the motives and realities surrounding the beginning of doctrines like the Trinity. Knowing church history can help strengthen students’ commitment to the key doctrines of our faith.
3. I teach my students church history so that they have faithful examples to look to in the midst of their own struggles as well as having people to model their own lives after. Sometimes we just don’t have a great personal example to help counsel a student going through hardship. Sometimes we don’t have anywhere to hang our hat on a passion that one of our students has for an issue. But there are plenty of brothers and sisters throughout the centuries who can speak to hardship and ignite passion.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an excellent person to learn from as we navigate the difficult political and ethical decisions of a modern Christian. Charles Spurgeon can give us insight into how to battle depression as a follower of Christ. Basil of Caesarea and Macrina are wonderful exemplars of how to care for the poor and social outcasts while preaching Christ crucified. Teresa of Ávila’s work on prayer is excellent for any Christian to learn from. The missionary zeal of George Liele, William Carey, Rebecca Protten and Lottie Moon can invigorate students today as they share the Gospel both at home and abroad. Church history is full of the stories of our faith family for us to learn from and imitate as we seek to serve Jesus well in our own lives.
So how do we teach our students church history in a way that is engaging and helpful for them? Let me tell you three ways I’ve taught it to my students.
1. Sprinkle stories from church history into your lessons/sermons. Teaching on the Trinity? Bring in the Athanasian Creed and discuss who Athanasius was and why he is so critical to the way we understand the doctrine of the Trinity today. Preaching on justification by faith in Romans 1? Quote Martin Luther and give some context about how he taught justification by faith as he led the Reformation in Germany. Leading a study on religious liberty? Tell the story of Anne Hutchinson and why we as Baptists and Americans so highly value religious liberty for all. There are so many ways to pique the interest of our students to figures and events from church history by simply using them as illustrations in our teaching and sermons.
2. Teach a study on a period of church history or an overview of all of church history. In seminary, I took four classes on historical theology that provided me with so many class notes I’ve been able to teach a church history overview class at both churches I’ve served. If you don’t have access to something like that, I would highly recommend Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity (two volumes). It’s incredibly readable, yet offers a deep history of the faith from the time of Christ to the present. You can also focus on a specific timeframe of church history, such as the Reformation, the early Church or even a history of the Baptists. There are plenty of resources available for any of these topics. I’ve taught church history studies to both students and adults, and I would love to help you if you’d like to as well.
3. Use works from historical authors in discipleship. One of the most refreshing ways I’ve injected church history into ministry has been to use books from authors long dead when discipling students. I have walked high schoolers through Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word of God as we discussed what Christ’s incarnation has done for us and how his death and resurrection have reconciled us to the Father. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship have been integral with students as we think together what Christian life ought to look like. I’m currently reading On God and Christ by Gregory of Nazianzus with my intern as we study the doctrine of God and the doctrine of the Trinity. Almost every evangelical has probably at some point been in a book study of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. There are so many really good works from church history to use in discipleship that the options are almost endless.
You can incorporate church history into your ministry in a meaningful way that deepens your students’ faith and encourages them in their walk with Christ. It is a joyous thing for me to see how the Lord is using the faithfulness of our past brothers and sisters to transform a new generation of believers to look more and more like himself.
As you introduce past believers to present ones, don’t be surprised to see your students engage in their faith in more thoughtful ways as they begin to own their history and get excited about sitting at the feet for their forebears to hear their stories and model their lives for the glory of Christ today.
Tyler Gresham serves as student pastor at Fairhaven Baptist Church, Demopolis.