As good as it is to reconnect with former pastors and see old church photos, there's a lot more you can do to plan a meaningful church anniversary in your congregation or denomination. A feature story exploring the celebration of church anniversaries.
Like any church celebrating an anniversary, Westbury Gardens United Reformed Church had lots to feel good about. They planned an enjoyable weekend to mark 25 years in their current building.
“But we wanted to make it more than a time of pure nostalgia. We wanted to make our 25th church anniversary a starting point for the future, both on an individual basis and as a church,” says Geoff Townsend, pastor of the Blackburn, England, congregation.
The way Westbury Gardens URC chose to focus its anniversary fits well with insights that other congregations and denominations are applying to their anniversaries. They are using the anniversary year or event to celebrate, reclaim identity, and learn new things as they go forward.
Westbury Gardens timed its anniversary weekend to coincide with the United Kingdom’s annual harvest festival. Like farmers who appreciate what their crops have yielded, despite hail and disease, Westbury Gardens has overcome many obstacles.
The congregation began in 1847 as a Sunday school class that met above a blacksmith shop. In 1878 they formed Furthergate Congregational Church, about one kilometer from its current building. In 1972, Furthergate joined with Congregational and Presbyterian churches in England and Wales to form the United Reformed Church. That same year, the congregation learned they might have to move…to make room for a new motorway.
During nine years of limbo, they waited for the government compulsory purchase order, looked for a new site, and planned a new building.
“Houses around Furthergate were demolished, and the church was on an isolated island. If it were not for the faith and commitment of the minister, elders, and members of the congregation, there would have been no congregation to move to the new church,” says church secretary Kathleen Cross.
“But if we thought life would be easier on the new site, we were mistaken,” she continues. Westbury Gardens is in Lancashire, a northwest England county once known for cotton mills and textile factories. As industry declined, the church neighborhood slid to England’s bottom 10 percent for unemployment, crime, poor health, and urban decay.
Townsend says that less than a fifth of church members still live within walking distance. Most drive in from up to eight miles away. “For many, this is their ‘family’ church where they or their parents were brought up,” he explains.
Much as Westbury Gardens people enjoyed the anniversary worship services and photo and video displays, they agreed that the Saturday prayer labyrinth was the highlight.
The church rearranged sanctuary chairs to create a prayer walk with floral displays at each contemplation station. The walk began with an invitation to move out of darkness into God’s light and love. Along the way, prayer walkers could:
“The labyrinth took people on a spiritual journey. Some listened to recorded commentary on headphones. Others walked with a booklet. They reflected on where they were, where they wanted to be, and how they wish to be remembered,” Townsend says.
The prayer walk ended in the sanctuary center, where people could sit, reflect on God’s freely given love, and, if they wanted, write their legacy wish on a card and hang it on branches.
“The combination of music, spoken and written word, and visual imagery was very powerful,” says elder Derek Estill, who’s taken part since Furthergate days. The labyrinth helped him savor past memories and think deeply about what matters.
Much has changed since the church’s first decade at Westbury Gardens, when members moved away and vandals damaged the building.
“Our increasing isolation became apparent during a Bible study. We realized that outreach and connecting with local neighbors is essential to being a Christian church,” Estill recalls.
Townsend adds, “After a lot of discussion within the eldership and the whole congregation, we adopted a new mission statement. It reads: ‘As a church we seek to:
The congregation helped form a community umbrella organization with area churches, tenant groups, and sporting clubs. This partnership has brought soccer, judo, community theatre, computers, internet access, and jobs to the area.
Westbury Gardens members opened their building, hearts, and minds to outside groups. “We recognized the need to make ourselves and the building more vulnerable to risks and increased wear and tear,” Estill says.
He and Townsend joined the town’s interfaith council, which includes Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and Sikhs. “We’ve learned to talk openly—with people of no faith or other faiths—about how faith affects our lives,” Estill says.
Throughout biblical history, the congregational offering has been a way to renew worshipers’ covenant with God. So during its anniversary weekend, Westbury Gardens renewed its commitment to serve neighbors near and far. It set up a stall to sell fair trade goods. And at both anniversary worship services, the church took offerings for Christian Aid, which helps people improve their lives and remove root causes of poverty and injustice.
Being a good neighbor also shaped the anniversaries of two churches in low income areas of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The basilica of St. Adalbert observed its 125th “rather quietly through prayer and a series of concerts,” says pastor Thomas J. De Young. The concerts let thousands of people enjoy the basilica’s restored stained glass windows and wonderful acoustics.
First Christian Reformed Church began in 1857 and has been an integral part of its current neighborhood since 1912. “People around here see the church as an important stabilizing influence and resource. An anniversary is an opportunity to freely share the celebration with the broader community,” says pastor Bill De Vries.
That’s why First CRC’s 150th will culminate with a neighborhood party and why 10 percent of anniversary funds will go to meet community needs for housing, food, or jobs.
“Good history makes us think again about the definition of things we thought we understood pretty well, because it engages not just what is familiar but what is strange. It recognizes that ‘the past is a foreign country’ as well as being our past,” Rowan Williams writes in Why Study the Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church.
This slim book by the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury cautions against writing a “version of the past that is just the present in fancy dress.” He also warns against “dismissing the past as a wholly foreign country whose language we shall never learn.”
That makes sense to Peter Borgdorff, executive director emeritus of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in North America and chair of the CRC 150th anniversary year planning.
“There’s always a temptation to look back and glorify the past. But Wes Granberg-Michaelson, a friend in the Reformed Church in America, likes to kid me, ‘Why would you want to celebrate a church born in sin?’ And the CRC did come out of a split. That’s true of any Protestant church,” Borgdorff says.
So the CRC 150th anniversary year—devoted equally to remembering, rejoicing, and rededicating—begins with “a chance to assess the past. Our history includes good things. There’s also some pain and need for repentance.
“We need to confess our conflicts, our litmus test mindset of orthodoxy that has played out since our origins. We’ve politicized issues, going back and forth, yet always claiming the Holy Spirit’s guidance. And we’ve been a little smug in our relation to the Dutch churches and in refusing to join the National Council of Churches,” Borgdorff says.
A mass worship service and dozens of regional events will celebrate the denomination’s reasons to rejoice, such as all the strong institutions birthed by this faith community.
During the rededication phase, Borgdorff hopes church members recommit to following Christ…and to affirming the CRC’s place in the church worldwide.
He knows many Christians now identify more strongly with a local church than with a denomination. And while diving into local ministry is good, Borgdorff says, “You can become so focused on the immediate environment that you don’t see we live in a global village. We can’t sidestep issues in the Middle East and Africa.
“The 2006 Synod adopted a new ecumenical charter. We’re starting a conversation about whether to adopt the Belhar Confession, which grew out of South Africa and deals more specifically with racism and righteousness in public life than our other confessions do.”
A fall conference, Assessing the Past, Facing the Future, will offer reflection on where the CRC is headed.
Rich Preheim has always worked in Mennonite denominational circles and is now interim director of Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee.
“I have read plenty of anniversary accounts. They leave me wondering if the book’s subject—be it a congregation or area conference or church institution—ever erred. It’s a challenge to deal with mistakes in a redemptive manner. It means being honest, confessing our errors where possible, and using the opportunity to learn and grow,” Preheim says.
He advises Mennonite church anniversary planners to think about how Romans 12:2 (“be not conformed to this world”) has shaped Mennonite and Amish identity. “Ours is a faith rooted in being different. We have long stood apart from the ways of the world, often for good—and sometimes, at first blush, even downright silly—reasons,” Preheim says.
This nonconformity plays out in regulations regarding dress among “Plain Peoples” and the historic peace stance. Along with refusing to take up arms or pay war taxes, Mennonites have pioneered peacemaking and conflict mediation.
“But while some of us embrace, to varying degrees, our distinctives, others try to distance themselves. They’ve become virtually indistinguishable from mainstream Protestant evangelicalism. In accepting lipstick and high school basketball, some Mennonites have also ended up accepting other beliefs, such as the validity of military action.
“Mennonite conscientious objectors have been tremendous examples of faith and commitment. I fear their stories aren’t being told…or heard,” he says.
The Mennonite Church USA is a recent merger of two Mennonite denominations. Preheim wonders whether “our new identity has been hampered by the lack of understanding of our old identities.”
Pastors, buildings, and mortgage burnings make easy ways to trace a church’s timeline.
“But what do you really know when you know that this pastor served from then to there? It’s more vital, more important, and more interesting to retell people’s experience of God with God’s people,” says Lester Ruth, professor of Christian worship at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.
For example, researching older hymnals and written prayers gives anniversary celebrants access to how people worshiped in another era. This method reveals the words and language they used to talk with and about God in worship.
Ruth also recommends interviewing older and former church members, asking for family diaries and journals, checking newspaper archives, and exploring dusty church closets. And it’s good to videotape current worship services for future generations.
“Ravenswood Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago found things they forgot they had, including an eight-millimeter movie and audio tape of the last service in their previous space,” Ruth says.
Conference and denominational archives often have old church records. Academic historians at denominational colleges and seminaries can recommend books about worship and life in specific eras or areas of a denomination.
Ruth’s Early Methodist Life and Spirituality documents that 19th century Methodists in Delaware and Virginia knew John and Charles Wesley condemned slavery. But they worried that “not owning slaves would have cut them out culturally,” Ruth says. So Methodists brought slave purchase details to church, where leaders would decide how long they could work a slave before freeing him or her.
“We look back and wonder, ‘What were they thinking?’ Fifty years from now, maybe someone will watch a video of a worship service done in TV quiz show style and wonder the same thing,” Ruth says.
For the Charles Wesley Tercentennial, Ruth and other Asbury Seminary members are taping testimonies of people touched by Wesley hymns. They’re also running a contest to develop new settings for Wesley texts.
“I hope that Methodists reclaim Wesleyan identity and use this tercentennial to explore the Trinitarian theology in Charles Wesley’s hymns. Good theology has an artistic quality. I’d love to see songwriters become as good as Wesley at theology and lyrics,” Ruth says.
Download Through Every Generation: 150th Anniversary Worship Resources for Christian Reformed pastors and worship planners. Reflect on Banner articles about faith formation and rethinking CRC identity during the 150th anniversary. Read Our Family Album: The Unfinished Story of the Christian Reformed Church by James Schaap.
Check out Charles Wesley 300th Anniversary highlights, such as a choral festival, events in the U.K., and British and North American resources. Download the script for “The Charles Wesley ‘Hymnical.’ ”
Start a church history book club that helps you explore congregational stories, individual spiritual journeys, and more.
Get church history and anniversary planning resources from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church in America, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and Presbyterian Church (USA). Seek out scholarly resources on religious experience in the U.S. and Canada.
Browse the 113th anniversary booklet for Calvary Baptist Church, an African American congregation in Salt Lake City, Utah. Plan a Presbyterian Heritage Sunday or Methodist Property Sunday (U.K. tradition). Follow this model for an annual anniversary service.
Talk about how to observe a church anniversary in your congregation or denomination:
What is the best way you’ve found to address and talk about best practices for planning church anniversaries?