I hope you will find the following ideas helpful, but different things are important to different people. This was written for churches in Malaysia to help encourage local history writing. It can be adapted for other situations.
Important things to have in mind
who you are writing for,
what their interests are
what you need to do to answer their questions
the steps that need to be taken to achieve that result.
Things to include
The story of how your church came to be established
What social and ethnic groups it is involved with,
What have been and are its mission aims
Who were some of the key personalities associated with changes of policy or direction
How it responded to different circumstances through history
What were the factors in growth or decline at different points.
What it was like to be part of this church at different times of its life.
What it meant to its members
If you are writing the history of a whole denomination you will need to select representative individuals and congregations to use as illustrations. It will be necessary for you to know the overall story well so that you can see the things which are common to a number of individual situations. When you come to describe that general factor you can then illustrate it with one or two examples.
It is also important that a good deal is said about the church’s life - what was it like to be a Malaysian Christian when the clergy were mostly expatriate? What did people do as Christians?
Include some personal reminiscences. Describe how people coped at different periods. Small details can bring things to life. How did people travel to church? Where did they sit? Don’t be afraid of referring to conflicts, but take care to avoid personalities and sweeping judgements; it is possible to mention the issues in a matter of fact sort of way if they are important.
Statistical information is valuable, but not always easy to collect or to interpret. Different churches have their own categories of membership and some of us are better at recording this sort of information than others. Try and gather as much information as possible. If you are able to chart the growth of your church from its beginnings that is always helpful.
For tracing growth in membership, if the figures are available you will need to note what definition was used in gathering the figures. However to enable others to compare membership figures between churches we also need a category which is comparable. In common with Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia we suggest this should be the number of `affiliated members.’
'Affiliated members' means those full members who would identify themselves as Christians (not necessarily good ones) together with their families, but not including family members who would not wish to be called Christian. It would normally include children. These `affiliated’ members of your church might also be thought of as `census Christians’ - those who would be recorded as Christian in the national census. It is appreciated that this is not the only statistic that is important and that it says nothing about how active people are; but it is the only sort of figure which can be meaningfully compared between one denomination and another and with other religious groups. It gives a guide to the size of each Christian community even if it does not tell us about the quality of commitment or degree of involvement.
Organization and leadership, ecumenical and international relationships, also need to be outlined. If applicable, involvement in education and health services should be mentioned in terms of what this says about the understanding of the mission of the church. Also discussions of questions of overseas and local funding, the influence of movements in the Church world-wide and the contextualisation of these things into the local situation can be very important for helping shape the future of the church. Relationships between particular congregations and the church `head office’ are often relevant for understanding the direction of different groups.
You do not always need to attempt writing the whole history of your church yourself. Different people may be allocated different periods or different topics. The period covered may be determined by a jubilee or some special occasion you are writing for. The time of origins and other formative periods should receive good attention, but more recent history, especially since World War II and Merdeka, should also receive proper emphasis.
Although not primarily inspirational, the writing should not be dull. The person reading should, if they are a member, feel that they belong to this story and that they want to be part of what God is doing in your church and be committed to carrying it further. If they are not a member they should be able to see what it is that has made your church in Malaysia what it is today, and that they can respect those who exercised faith and responsibility in the face of the opportunities and despite the difficulties.
Your writing should help cultivate a sense of identity and purpose as members of a particular congregation and denomination, as well as part of the wider Christian church in this country.
Where to begin
This will depend on the resources you have available and the work that has already been done. If you are not certain where to begin the following may give you some ideas.
Look for something which gives you an outline story so that you have a framework to build on and correct as you go. Try and work out such an outline as soon as possible.
Consult with your head of Church. Interview as many people as possible and go back and ask more questions after your writing has progressed. Senior church members are likely to be your most important source. One of the reasons for this booklet is that so far very little of their story has been written down.
Check a bibliography of relevant material. Obtain copies of existing writings, especially those that have fulfilled a similar function to what you intend to write. (Also look out for good models of what you are trying to produce - whether they come from your own church or another one.)
Determine what are the specific questions you are trying to answer and what further information is required for each of them.
Where can this information be found and what do you need to do to obtain it? Sometimes you may have a perfectly reasonable question which is impossible to answer because the sources are simply not there.
Can the tasks be divided amongst those willing to help?
Are there events which provide a special occasion for history writing - a centenary or jubilee, the opening of a new building or the planting of a new congregation?
Is there some useful information which could be obtained by a questionnaire? (An interview at the same time can be very helpful.
Should some meetings be scheduled to report progress and share information?
Give what you write to someone else to read. It may stimulate
their memory as well as provide a useful check on your clarity and accuracy.
Don’t be afraid of criticism.