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"That You Always May Remember These Things" - A Personal Perspective on Christian Archives


[At the end of August, 2005, Bob Shuster led a seminar in Singapore, sponsored by the Overseas Missionary Fellowship and Singapore Bible College, on starting an archives. It was attended by Christian workers from seven southeast Asian countries who were interested in preserving the history of their organization. Following are his concluding remarks on August 27, 2005, the last day of the seminar.]

 

I would like to conclude with saying a few words about what seems to me the work of archives as a Christian ministry, a work done by a Christian as a service to all, but in particular to those in the household of faith in Jesus Christ.

I am thinking especially of those of us who are maintaining archives that collects some fragment of the story of the Christian church, whether it be a congregation or a denomination or mission or an archives built around a special theme.

In the first chapter of Second Peter, the Apostle writes, “And so I will always remind you of these matters, even though you already know them and are firmly grounded in the truth you have received. I think it is only right for me to stir up your memory on these matters as long as I am still alive. I know that I shall soon put off this mortal body, as our lord Jesus Christ plainly told me. I will do my best, then, to provide a way for you to remember these matters at all times after my death. We have not depended on made-up stories in making known to you the might coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. With our own eyes we saw his greatness.”

The Apostle was referring, perhaps, to the writing of Mark’s gospel as a written record of his memories of Jesus. But I think his words have especial meaning for all of us that preserve documents of the Christian faith.

We are memory holders, we are record keepers, we are servants to all who want to discover how the faith was planted, how it grew, how Christians live their faith, how, like Peter, fearful as well as bold, they failed as well as triumphed, how they witnessed to the society around them. We must be dedicated to truth in our work, preserving the story of what happened, not only what strikes us as good and edifying. Researchers using our records will not only see Peter boldly leaping out of the boat to walk on the water, but also sinking beneath and the waves. And if they have eyes, they will see that it is only the living presence of our Lord Jesus and his hand upon us that gives Christian history its value, its meaning and its continuity. What Dr Kwame Bediako, director of the Akrofi-Christaller Memorial Centre of Ghana has said about mission studies applies also I think to archival work. It “is neither hagiography nor demonization. It has to do with the recognition of social realities for what they have been, alongside the discovery of transcendence in lives actually lived very differently from what they otherwise would have been.”

Christian archives need to be part of the public record of their country, their region, in private hands but available to all. For they are not only part of the history of that region, but they are a record of the grace of God through Jesus Christ working in region as he works in every region of his world. The story of our faith and work is a testimony that our archives should bear to the world.

But even more important than the archives’ testimony in the public square is our service to our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is our family story. In many cases, it is only through our work in the archives that, on earth at least, the testimony and faith of so many individuals, congregations and movements can be remembered, rightly examined and understood and used to build up the body.

As the Apostle Paul said, the Christian body is made up of many parts, the eyes, the hands, the feet. We archivists are a part of the grey matter that remembers the past and we are a part of synapses that make that memory available to the rest of the body for daily use. The knowledge passed on in the archives can and should be an important part of the foundations for the next generation of Christians’ histories, theologies, and outreach to the world, to its testimony to Christ before the world.

What will the next Christian’s archives’ contain? Well, of course that will partly up to you. But we should plan now that it will contain the documents that show how the churches and denominations and missions and other Christian institutions of today live and work in the world, what kind of stewards we are of the talents the Master has given us, how we relate to each other in the household of faith, what kind of servants we are of Jesus Christ in the spiritual, intellectual, political, economic and social struggles of our time. Our records should show how we ministered, administered, worshiped and cooperated together, where we were channels for God’s grace, where we fell down and why. Our records should show the degree to which His church met His test: “This is how they will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Above all, our archives need to have testimonies, testimonies as searing and truthful as those of Job and Jonah and Paul. These stories of individuals experience of God and of their Christian walk add a much needed element to our archives. What good will a Christian archives be if it has piles of minutes and reports and photos and databits if there are no clear and direct stories of God’s grace, of His presence among His people. The Spirit of God moves over the waters of our world, going where He would, and I think that it is in the stories of people telling what they have seen with their own eyes, heard with their own ears and experienced in their own hearts that we can best give a partial picture of His work.

So let us preserve the story of individuals and let us preserve the story of the community. Let us preserve the story of what happened, not what we wished to happen, so that all the world can know we are sinful, fallen men and women whom God has redeemed and graced, joined together and sent out to the same world as channels of His grace. Let our archives be like an omer of manna that the children of Israel were commanded to keep as a reminder of God’s past work, let our archives be like the stone that Joshua set up as a witness to the past actions of children of Israel, to God’s acts among them, a witness of the past to the present to keep them true. Let our archives be a public witness to the world and a source of nurture, education and warning for the brethren.

And especially now, here, today, in this present time and this place do we need these repositories of the Christian past, today when the leadership and much of the vigor of the church is passing from the northern to the southern hemisphere.

At my institution, we collect information about North American evangelism efforts, including overseas missions. So we have information about the founding of many congregations and denominations in Africa and Asia. Now we are starting to get requests from these churches or institutions in Sri Lanka, in Kenya, in other parts of the world, asking for whatever information we might have on their founding, because so little has been preserved in the church itself. And now they would very much like to have that information, to know more about the struggles of their founders, to understand better the impact their church has had on their community.

A new page is being written and new archives will be required. To quote Dr. Bediako again,

The new configuration of the Christian world recalls the age of Eusebius [of almost seventeen centuries earlier]. The venerable religious traditions out of which the church had emerged were held in Palestine, in Hebrew and Aramaic. But the church was predominantly Gentile and Greek-speaking. From one standpoint, the Gentile church was spiritually and morally handicapped. It is enough to read the New Testament epistles to appreciate their spiritual and moral dilemmas. Yet, in the new divine economy in history, the future lay not with Jewish Christianity, but with Hellenistic Christianity, the people with few resources! The courageous engagement of Christian faith with the new issues of culture, tradition, history, myth, mystery religions, the imperial cults and new ethical questions, generated the variety of responses that would find their way into the great creedal traditions of the church. In a later era, the future would lie with the tribes of northern and western Europe considered barbarian by cultured Roman Christians. So in our time, the future lies not with the Western churches, but with the new Christian communities of the South.

What are the implications for these new centres of Christian vitality? What are the new cultural and religious challenges? Are these being discerned and recorded, so that they can be harnessed for the formulation of lasting Christian responses from the South, to, say, some of the perennial issues in gospel and culture? ...

Archives need to capture the ferment that is happening around the world. How is the Bible being read, heard, taught, interpreted and used? What parts of the Bible are most resorted to in preaching? What are the discernible patterns of application, of the Old and the New Testaments? What are the signs of a new literary culture developing, especially where the translated Bible is the first book in an otherwise and hitherto oral culture?

....What are the implications for archive-building? What are the major realities and questions in inter-religious, inter-faith relationships? What are the challenges for Christian living? Other more general developments to record might be such as: who are the significant persons in the community who might die with their memories, whose stories need to be recorded? Are we recording the prominent role of women and young people in church planting and ministry in Southern Christianity? What are the controversial debates in the interaction of church and society? What are newspapers and other media reporting and discussing? Are newspaper cuttings being collected that capture trends in public debate?

Archive building starts, therefore, in the recognition that history is being made in an everyday sort of way in a whole range of situations and places, involving people sometimes in the most unlikely places and in unlikely ways. What is required is a sense of kairos, a sense of the significance of the Christian movement and the church in history, and a painstaking dedication to the task. A work of collaboration is needed, involving church members, men and women and young people, church leaders, scholars, theologians, historians, archivists, students, all persons and groups who, in one way or another, share this vision to work together to gather and preserve this exciting body of new material that reflects the life, thought and witness of Christian communities around the world, in this the Southern phase of world Christianity.

In 1837, the queen of Madagascar began a persecution of the tiny church in that land. A young Christian woman, Rasalana, refused to renounce her faith and was enslaved. Shortly afterwards, when she refused to work on Sunday, she became the first Christian martyr in the country. When led to her place of execution, she prayed and sang hymns. Then she was speared to death in the village of Ambohipotsy (suburb of Antananarivo) on August 13, 1837 and her body was left for wild dogs to eat. Her fellow believers held her life and martyrdom in their memory. Today a great church of the country is built over her grave site.

Almost eighteen centuries earlier, probably shortly after he wrote the words I quoted, the Apostle Peter, according to ancient Christian tradition and as hinted at in the gospel of John, was martyred. According to the tradition, he was crucified upside down, because he did not think he was worthy to be crucified in the same fashion as Jesus had been. The spot where he was believed to have died on Vatican hill was held in memory by his fellow believers for centuries until, under Constantine, a great church was built there.

The remembrance of God’s grace in the lives and faith of Christians, held in memory by their fellow believers, becoming the foundation stones for the churches of future generation of Christians. That is the work of the Christian archives. And our credo should be Peter’s words, “I will do my best, then, to provide a way for you to remember these matters at all times ”

My the Lord Jesus say of us what he said of the woman who anointed him at Bethany, “She did what she could.” (Mark 14:8)


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Wheaton College 2006