The Way We Were:
Documenting Church Life Through Oral History
How do we document the history of our church? Usually, church historians
utilize church minutes, newsletters, scrapbooks, and associational annuals
to craft the history of a congregation. Sources for historical study are
usually conflicting, incomplete representations of history "as it actually
happened." Newspapers, personal letters, official church records and other
historical sources all have strengths and weaknesses as tools for reconstructing
the past. Writers of congregational history often rely on tape-recorded
recollections which contain information not found in the written record.
Before undertaking an oral history interview, the church archivist/historian
should ask, "What information can this person's recollection add to the
Before you begin an oral history project for your church, consider
Select the best candidates for interviews. Choose members who communicate
well and have an interest in the project. Good storytellers are usually
excellent choices for oral history interviews. The interviews need
to capture the history of the church as viewed through the lives of
its members. The interviews need to gather impressions about leaders,
events, programs, styles of worship, music, church procedures, and
in general the life of the church during the lifetime of the interviewees.
How has their faith changed their life? What people and events have
shaped their faith? Why are they Baptists? Let them tell of their
salvation experience and other spiritual landmarks.
- How complete will the project be and how will the interviews
- Will transcripts will be made to the interviews? If so, how
will the tapes and transcripts will be maintained?
- What will be the format for the interviews? Will you use audiocassette
tapes only, or will you both audio and video tape the interviews?
- Have you developed a release form for each participant to sign
that donates the interviews to the library, historical collection
Be sure you have the right equipment for the interviews. If your
church has an audiovisual technician or someone responsible for
the sound system, they may be able to assist you in this area. You
need a good quality audiocassette tape recorder with an external
microphone. Use sixty or ninety minute tapes. This will allow either
thirty to forty-five minutes on each side. Do not depend on batteries,
but plug into an outlet. If you have a more sophisticated system
you may want to use lapel microphones. Whatever system you use be
sure to test the equipment prior to the interview for sound quality.
It has been my experience that equipment failure can be the greatest
hazard in conducting oral histories.
Listed below are some guidelines and steps for the interviewer
conducting the oral history.
Develop questions for each interview based on the background of the
interviewee. Specific questions are always better than general questions.
Listed below are some sample questions for an interview.
- Conduct research on the church's history and make notes on pastors
and other staff members, significant leaders, special events and
programs, building projects, etc. This information will be valuable
in prompting the thinking of the interviewee. Learn something
about the individual you are interviewing. Know what positions
they held in the church, how long they have been a member of the
church, etc. Be prepared.
- Make an outline of the interview, and share this with the interviewee
at least several days prior to the interview. This will give them
some time to reflect on the people and events in the history of
- At the beginning of the tape, state the name of the interviewer
and interviewee, the date and place of the interview. Begin the
oral history by asking some autobiographical questions about the
- Plan your interview around the physical need of the interviewee.
Do not plan to interview more than two hours. Take a break when
you need to change the tapes. Most interviews will be much less
than two hours.
- Choose a place for the taping that is quiet, away from the telephone
and other distractions. Make certain that all the equipment is
ready and working. Check on sound levels prior to the interview.
- Have the interviewee sign a release form that donates the contents
of the interview to the church or historical collection.
- Remember that a good interview is more a monologue than a dialogue.
- Cassette tapes come in a case. Keep the case. It protects the
tape from dust.
- Punch out the "tabs" on the cassette immediately after you finish
the interview, but not before. This ensures that what you recorded
cannot be erased.
- Label the tapes. Write the names of both parties in the interview
and the date on each side of the tape.
- If the interview will not be transcribed, the interviewer needs
to prepare a concise summary of the interview, including events,
times, people, and places discussed. Be specific in the description.
- Determine the location for the placement of the recordings and
the summary information or transcripts. Either the church history
room or the church library are probably the best places. Do not
handle the recordings as you would other library tapes that can
be checked out by members. These are archival materials that should
be preserved and made available to tell the history of the church.
Tell me about your family background. Where did your family come
What are your first memories of church life? Describe a typical
Sunday at church when you were young.
When did you come to our church? How old were you?
What were some memorable events in the life of the church in your
early years here: revivals, baptisms, singings, dinners on the ground,
Sunday School, BYPU, etc.?
Describe the church buildings when you first attended this church.
How have they changed?
When and where did you make your public decision to accept Christ?
Describe your feelings and the event.
Where were you baptized? Describe the baptism.
What positions have you held in the church? In what organizations
and ministries of the church have you been involved?
Ask for responses to various pastors and church leaders, including
memorable characteristics of each. Do not forget lay leaders.
Why are you Southern Baptist? What makes Southern Baptists different
from other denominations?
What have been the significant events – good and bad – in the
life and history of the church?
How do you feel the church has changed in the years you have been
The information in this article will hopefully provide some useful
guidelines to church history committees and others who wish to document
the life of their church with the stories and impressions of its
members. It is not perfect history, but it is a view of history
not found in minute books and newspaper clippings.
Oral history can be a fun and meaningful project for the church history
committee or church historian. It can be a useful method for preserving
and remembering the history of the church. Such a project can not only
assist the history writer but also can prove valuable for audiovisual
presentations on the congregation's heritage. Begin now an effort to use
oral history in documenting the story of your church.
© 2016, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives
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