Here are ten stories from Church History that I tend to use in my ministry as the pastor of a local church. They are not listed in any particular order:
Monica of Hippo and Her Son Augustine: Augustine was a little hellion. He grew up to be a big hellion. His mother, the pious Monica, despaired of seeing his redemption from a life of squalor and dissipation. She was tempted to throw in the towel until her pastor told her, “Woman, the child of so many tears shall never perish.” I don’t know that this is always true, but it proved to be true in the life of Augustine, who was converted and became…well…Augustine!
I use this story with mothers who are worried about their children. By telling it I try to encourage them to continue to pray for their children and never to abandon the hope that God might turn them around.
William Carey’s Call to Ministry and Early Work: William Carey wasn’t exactly the hottest commodity among Baptist churches in the midland counties. It took a lot of convincing to get a small church to call him as their pastor. But his sheer indefatigability carried him a long way. Of course, the calling of God eventually sent him to India, where he labored seven years without a single convert in spite of severe emotional and physical loss. Unbeknownst to him or to those who supported his ministry, those seven years laid the foundation for one of the most successful missionary stories in the modern age.
I use this story to encourage church members to stay the course in ministry situations that are difficult. I used it extensively as we were preparing to adopt a UUPG in Senegal, wanting our church to understand that we might not see immediate results, but that it is important to persevere even if we do not.
Thomas Helwys’s Decision to Return to England: The early English Baptists weren’t in England at all. They had fled to the environs of Amsterdam to escape persecution in England. Thomas Helwys fell under the conviction that he had abandoned his preaching post—that he owed it to his homeland to declare the true gospel to his countrymen. He did not do so unobtrusively; he penned a missive to King James on the subject of religious liberty entitled “A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity.” As thanks for his effort, James I cast Helwys into Newgate Prison, where he died after a few years of imprisonment.
I use this story to inspire people regarding the debt we owe our neighbors to proclaim the gospel to them. Also, it works in any circumstance in which we need to instill courage in believers.
Hugh & Anne Bromhead’s Letter: In the earliest days of the English Baptist movement, a member of a local Baptist church wrote a letter to a concerned family member trying to explain this strange new sect to which they belonged. The letter contains a full description of a typical Lord’s Day in the life of this congregation, including hours upon hours of preaching and Bible study.
I find this letter to be useful whenever anyone says that my preaching is too long.
Also, whenever I have church members who have come to regard our Sunday schedule as an ancient sacrament, it is helpful to be able to show not only an older form of worship, but an older BAPTIST form of worship (arguments from the Gallican Mass aren’t often persuasive in SBC circles, nor should they be).
John Chrysostom’s Conflict with Empress Eudoxia: The great golden-tongued preacher did not have a good relationship with the Byzantine Empress Eudoxia (perhaps because he had compared her to Herodias?). Although her rage against him was harsh and eventually forced him into exile, he never backed down.
Again, like Thomas Helwys, John Chrysostom is an example of Christian courage. But his is courage of a different kind. Helwys’s is the story of an outsider who courageously proclaimed the truth although it cost him his life. Chrysostom’s is the story of an insider who refused to be seduced by wealth and power. That’s a different kind of courage, but it is courage all the same. I use this story to encourage people to be courageous and to resist corruption when tempted by wealth, fame, or power.
Lottie Moon: Lottie Moon didn’t start out looking like a missionary in the making. Even when she first went to China, she appeared simply to be following her sister there. The sister didn’t make it, but Lottie did. Opportunities for romance, for furlough, or for greater personal comfort did not finally succeed in diverting her attention from her efforts. She is the martyred saint of Southern Baptist missionary work.
I use her story to promote an offering we collect every Christmas for our missionaries.
Francis Asbury during the American Revolution: Early Methodism was, after all, a movement within Anglicanism, and Anglicanism, in turn, was the Church of where? England! When the Americans declared their independence against the British Crown, most Anglican clergy and nearly every Methodist preacher booked passage back to Mother England. Francis Asbury did not. He stayed on and consequently became the most influential man in American Methodist history.
I use this story to illustrate how much ministry credibility can be won by a pastor’s endurance through difficult times. Perseverance and shared suffering forge strong bonds that are useful in later ministry endeavors.
Roger Williams and Obadiah Holmes: Williams and his “Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience” made an important case in both the Americas and Great Britain for religious liberty. The story of Obadiah Holmes’s savage treatment for conducting Baptist ministry in the Massachusetts Bay Colony became Exhibit A in the evidentiary argument against religious persecution.
I use this story to help my church members to remember that religious liberty was not won for us by politicians in a constitutional convention. Also, I point them to Roger Williams’s brilliant rationale for determining which laws are permissible to the state and which ones are violations of religious conscience.
Manz, Grebel, and Blaurock, together with Various Anabaptist Martyrdom Stories: The treatment of Anabaptist reformers was horrific. That so much of it came at the hands not of Catholics but of other so-called “Reformers” made it only that much more perverse. Particularly the role of Zwingli is disturbing. He chased to their deaths his own students, and that for their doing what he had taught them to do—to study the Bible and obey it. The drownings and burnings were not, in the end, able to bring an utter end to the onward march of truth.
I use these stories to help people to understand their relationships with me sometimes. They have the obligation to let me point them to God’s Word. They have the obligation to leave me behind if God’s Word leads them further than I am willing to go.
The Early Beginnings of the Great Western Revival at the Gasper River Church: I love the way that revival came in the midst of a Lord’s Supper service. And this wasn’t just some touchy-feely wide-open Koolaid and Oatmeal Pies communion service like might be popular today. This was a communion service preceded by pastoral visitation and church discipline and good, sound ecclesiology. I love that attentiveness to the doctrine of the church was the precursor to spiritual awakening.
I use this story sometimes to open someone’s eyes to an understanding of the role of the pastor, the role of the ordinances, and the obligations of church membership that may be far different from any understanding of those things that they have ever considered before. To see how those basics—fulfilling the role of spiritual overseer over a flock, calling people to repentance and spiritual preparation for worship—might lead to revival is, I think, an important contribution that this story makes.