Six months into our church plant, a visiting friend asked if we had someone playing the role of church historian. At the time, I had to fight the urge to roll my eyes or laugh. First of all, I didn’t know what a church historian even did. I honestly thought it reminded me of middle school projects where someone was chosen to be the recorder to give everyone a role to play. Second of all, we were struggling to find leaders to help set up and break down chairs in a backyard. There were a hundred needs at our burgeoning little church. As such, the need for a church historian—someone who keeps track of important dates and significant moments in the life of a local congregation—seemed almost laughable.
Eighteen months later, I am changing my views. I no longer think of a church historian (whether formal or informal) as a vestigial organ that once had a purpose in bygone centuries but now is just along for the ride. Instead, I am growing to see the need for congregational collective memory as an essential organ in the life of a local church.
Collective memory describes a shared representation of a group’s past based on shared identity and experience. The term collective memory is attributed to Maurice Halbwachs, an early French sociologist and student of Emile Durkheim (known as one of the fathers of modern sociology); however, the concept long predated the term. For before even currency hit the scene of civilization, people traded and treasured story. The stories we tell matter, often far more than we know.
Even if the term is not on the forefront of most people’s minds, the concept of collective memory is the background of many of the most significant topics and conversations of the present day. Behind the call to more rightly remember American history is a deep understanding of the power of collective memory. A people who are not allowed to have recorded heroes in written history (though they have many in actual history) live out of a negative collective memory. On the flip side, a people who have a disproportionate place in written history and steal the stages of the stories that are told and celebrated tend to have an arrogance in their collective memory.
Long before sociology began to make an art and science of studying collective memory, God commanded his inchoate people to be incredibly intentional about their collective memory. The book of Genesis, delivered to Moses by God during his short stint on Mount Sinai, is the collective memory of God’s people. It told (initially, through oral tradition) a recently freed people group who they were (or more correctly whose they were). In fact, even before God’s people were freed from Egyptian enslavement, he secured their collective memory through the institution of the Passover (Exod. 12:25–27). In practicing elaborate rituals every year, God’s people were to actively pass on the collective memory of the God who saves (Deut. 11:12–22).
Similarly, when Moses was preparing God’s people for their travels into the Promised Land (a date long delayed by their own disobedience), he showed deep concern for their continued collective memory. He knew his flock by then. He knew their tendency to forget. Thus, he commanded physical memorials be built to ensure a collective identity that showed off the centrality of a saving God. Plastered rocks with the words of God’s law written on them were to help buttress the collective memory of a fearfully forgetful people (Deut. 27:1–8).
The first exodus was always meant to point to the better exodus, and Jesus is the better Moses. As such, we should not be surprised that on the eve of that eternal exodus, Christ left his followers with instructions regarding the breaking of bread and drinking of wine, an act to fortify the collective memory of the church (Mark 14:22–25; Matt. 26:26–29; Luke 22:14–23).
Congregational Collective Memory
While we tend to understand the call for collective memory from an ethnic, cultural, and broadly ecclesiastical perspective, I wonder if we truly understand its significance on a local, congregational level.
The meta-narrative of our salvation matters; however, we experience this massive story arc through the myriad minor stories of our daily lives. At the congregational level, the Scriptures move from being cosmic truths to the lived-in and lived-out truths of a family of God. In writing the book of Acts, Luke took great pains to do research and journalistic work to record what Jesus continued to do through the early church. His honest inclusion of divisions, tensions, and failures along with stories of miracles, rescue, and revival reminds me of Moses’s command to God’s earlier people, “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you” (Deut. 8:2). The present-day church owes much gratitude to Luke’s commitment to collective congregational memory.
As a two-year-old church, we have much to learn about recording and rehearsing our own collective memory as a congregation. We are quick to record numbers of attendance, but are we as quick to record the stories of God’s timely provision and protection for our flock? I tend to think we will simply remember them; however, as God’s word clearly shows us, memory takes intentional and even institutional work.
If I could rewind to my prior conversation with my wise friend, I would linger longer over her suggestion of assigning someone as church historian. Collective congregational memory matters deeply in the life of a healthy church. And all worthy work takes effort and leadership.
Remembering God’s faithfulness in our own crises, conundrums, and campaigns strengthens our flocks to remember that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb. 13:8). Our people have algorithms committed to reminding them of what they did personally last year. Facebook gladly flashes memories on our newsfeeds. As local churches, we might do well to learn from the insistent marketing gurus who clearly understand the power of memory.
Aimee Joseph has spent many years directing women’s discipleship and ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church and in Campus Outreach San Diego. She is the wife to G’Joe who has recently planted Center City Church, and mother to three growing boys. Her first book, Demystifying Decision Making released with Crossway in January 2022. You can read more of her writing at aimeejoseph.blog.