Pages 2 and 3 carry stories about two Baptist churches in Missouri that celebrated their 150th anniversaries on the same Sunday a couple of weeks ago. What are the odds of that? It is not so surprising that the First Baptist churches of Nevada and Ironton organized in 1858. But it is unusual that a pair of churches that began 150 years ago are both still alive and going strong.
Each celebrated its heritage with a sesquicentennial observance on June 29. Well-wishers couldn’t very well attend both Sunday celebrations. Nevada First is on the west side of the state; Ironton on the east. They are separated by 250 miles and 10 gallons or so of gasoline.
Both events attracted friends and former members, many of whom traveled from other states. Usually, such events attract members who have been around for awhile and have a history — so to speak — with the congregation. Those most likely to attend are, or have been, longer-term active members in terms of service and support. They have a vested interest because they have made personal investments in the church.
Such celebrations don’t always have the same draw for those who are newer members or those who are less active.
Why would a congregation go through weeks and months of preparation — not to mention the expense — to celebrate significant church anniversaries? Well, some might say that such occasions are gifts:
The gift of heritage. Anniversaries remind members of the contributions of those who had the vision to establish a Christian outpost — specifically a Baptist outpost — where one may not have existed before.
Starting something new like a church almost always involves a measure of hardship and sacrifice. Most of the time, a Baptist congregation begins when a group — perhaps a church — sees an opportunity and a need. People make time commitments and earmark personal finances to launch a new start. Those who come along a generation later stand on the shoulders and benefit from the contributions of the initial few. Then other generations follow, and they stand on the shoulders of all those who preceded them. You get the idea.
The gift of present significance. Heritage celebrations remind members that the church and its work still are significant. Contributions threaded throughout a congregation’s history form a basis for current commitment. The church always is engaged in unfinished work and new challenges. Continuity and hard work in the past help inspire commitment in the present.
No generation wants to be the one that presides over the funeral of a congregation that closes its doors before its mission and purpose are complete.
The gift of future ministry. Rarely does a congregation celebrate its past without considering its future. Some do. These congregations preoccupy themselves with past glory. They define themselves by the big revival of 50 years ago without regard for present and future opportunities and blessings.
Pastors tend to use anniversary celebrations to challenge current members to emulate faithful pioneers in commitment, vision and support of ongoing ministry endeavors. Surely the best years can still lie ahead, they say. They challenge current generations of the church’s membership to discover their niches of service and to assume their responsibility for supporting the church’s ministries, both locally and far away. They challenge newer members to rise up to become individuals of prayer, Bible students and committed stewards.
Churches do not have to reinvent the wheel to celebrate key anniversaries. The Partee Center for Baptist Historical Studies at William Jewell College encourages churches to pay heed to their histories and celebrate significant anniversaries. But the organization also provides materials to help and will even send an anniversary certificate to churches upon request.
The Partee Center distributes a history packet containing pamphlets with anniversary suggestions, guides to church history committees and information on writing church histories. The packet is free upon request. In addition, the Partee Center has historical research material available that might be useful to churches. The staff encourages churches to send materials commemorating their anniversaries for Partee Center archives.