An Appeal to Church Historians

BWA General Secretary Dr. Neville Callum published this challenging editorial in May 2012.

Recently, I read the book, New Century/New Directions edited by James and Carole Spickelmier. The volume helpfully brings together insights from a number of carefully chosen persons who are committed to the effectiveness of Converge Worldwide, the organization under review. The result is a very useful product! We commend the authors and the Baptist organization they serve for supporting a publication of this kind. They reflect the maturity and openness that are required of all church leaders who affirm their role as servants of Christ.

While reading New Century/New Directions, I remembered something that Socrates said many years ago. Not everything that Socrates said is worth repeating, but perhaps few persons would challenge one of the sayings attributed to him at his trial for heresy – An unexamined life is not worth living.

This maxim is as applicable to the life of individuals as it is to that of organizations. However much we try to dodge the language of institutions, substituting for it the language of movements, as Hugo Heclo has so expertly explained in his book, Thinking Institutionally, there is no escaping the significant role that institutions play in our lives. We may seriously distrust institutions, but institutions fulfill community-building and community-supporting roles that connect us to purposes that are larger than ourselves.

To retain vitality in an organization – which, of course, is not identical with an institution, but which is closely related to it – one indispensable requirement is the periodic subjection of the organization’s aims and modus operandi to rigorous evaluation. If done fairly and thoroughly, this is likely to help governors, managers and all “stake holders” associated with a particular organization to be aware of the tendency to depart from the lofty, and still reasonable, goals espoused when the organization was born. It will also alert those concerned of the inclination to resort to strategies, methods and approaches that are no longer effective.

The analysis of what an ecclesial organization does may be undertaken by persons from several fields of study. From the work they do, much can be learned and needed changes may result. In many cases, however, those who are called upon to undertake the task are handicapped by many personal factors that impinge upon their work. Sometimes, personal agendas mar clear vision. Especially when dealing with worldwide organizations, too often, evaluators work with templates from their own residential geographical sphere, believing that these offer great clues that enable them to provide answers to the peculiar challenges that face multi- and cross-cultural organizations with a global reach.

Competent historians, and especially gifted church historians, are among those on whom we depend as we seek clarity on how our church-related organizations are pursuing their mission. These men and women have an important vocation to assist the church and its related organizations in the critical evaluation of their life. Part of the reason for this is the penchant for good historians to take context seriously. The capacity to understand the relationship between context and process enables historians to interpret trends and offer insights that can help advance positive developments and reverse negative trends.

Ecclesial organizations need church historians who focus on happenings of yesteryear; this is a function the church needs them to perform. We also need historians who are willing to risk analysis of more recent, and also contemporary, situations and to make available to the church community the benefit of their carefully honed research and analytical skills. This is part of the responsible stewardship of church historians.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined life of organizations may cause them to be banished to the scrap heap of history. This may be prevented if those whom God has gifted for the task put their hands to the plough and produce material that can help guide those who must make decisions that affect the future of vital organizations. The findings of gifted church historians may not cause accolades to be heaped on their heads. Nevertheless, their contribution could potentially help church organizations, like the Baptist World Alliance, to be more faithful in the way they fulfill the mandate the triune God has given them. 

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