To Better Serve God with His People: Teaching Church History

by Peter Goertzen

How do you tell the story of our past? What activities and skills do students need to profit from history? Peter explains his approach to church history, and the powerful opportunity to help students find their place in the church—the body of Christ throughout time and eternity.

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To me one of the fascinating things about church history that there is no new thing under the sun.

The church is not just Christ’s body of people living now. But it extends to the past and to the future.

The universal church consists of all God’s people at all times and places. Now and in the future and even in eternity. And it’s exciting to give students a sense of belonging to that body.

I teach a half year of church history to eleventh and twelfth graders once every two years. It’s a course that I’ve essentially developed. It’s a pretty broad overview of church history, not strictly Anabaptist history. Maybe forty percent Anabaptist history and sixty percent about the rest of Christianity.

I lean heavily on Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, which is an excellent text not written on a level very high above high school—maybe slightly but not very much. But I use that largely as a resource for myself. I’ve made a series of outlines essentially. And those outlines are essentially my students text.

There are a number of things that I have my students read we study the Schleitheim Confession. We read some parts of Peter Hoover’s book The Secret of the Strength. I have students read that. Yeah, various other—some bits and pieces here and there.

One of the activities that I have my students do is we have a series of debates about the heresies the early church faced: Gnosticism and some varieties of Gnosticism such as Marcionism. And Arianism, or Arianism I can never remember which is the correct pronunciation! And that’s always a great exercise. I like to give the students the part of defending the truth so I always am the heretic. But it’s fascinating to me how these movements in early Christianity have been repeated. They take different forms. Things like: Montanism is so well reflected in Pentecostalism today.

In a way I’m wary of the concept of learning from history, learning lessons from history, because people tend to learn what they feel like learning from history and, you know, you can find an example from history to support any point of view essentially.

But that’s something that I do try to cautiously encourage: What can we learn from the way that these people tried to follow God? You know, how does this compare to the Scripture and to the example of Christ and the apostles? You know, what good things and what bad things can we see?

It takes a lot of work to teach that skill off seeing what the past has left to us, and drawing conclusions from that instead of imposing conclusions on it.

I want students to be able to think about their own lives as Christians as members of Christ’s body. And seeing how the things that the church has done, the different ways that Christians have thought in the past affect us today. You know, we think that the way things are in my church now is the way it’s always been, and it’s not. And it’s important for students to understand that, and to understand why their church is the way it is. And how that affects their lives. And what’s good about that and what’s unfortunate about that. And what can be done to better serve God with his people into the future.

View and download Peter’s church history outlines from these collections:

Church History 1: Christ and the Apostles
Church History 2: Leaders, Heretics, and Canon
Church History 3: The Middle Ages
Church History 4: The Reformation
Church History 5: Early Anabaptists
Church History 6: Pietists, Methodists, and Mennonites
Church History 7: The Church in Modern Times

How do you help students learn from the past? Leave a comment below.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Peter Goertzen

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