Oral History as a Congregational Practice

Jan 25, 2022 9:00:00 AM / by Nicholas Tangen

Oral history is the practice of recording and transcribing stories told by the people who have direct experience with a historical event, community, or institution. In the West, we often think about history as an objective science consisting of dates, numbers, and accomplishments of remarkable people. But oral history helps us to get at the stories that often don’t make the front page of the news, and almost never fit within this Western idea of “history.” These are the “unofficial” stories of the every-person.

In the gospels, Jesus is always on the lookout for these unofficial stories and highlights their centrality in the vision of God’s Beloved Community. Think of the stories of Bartimaeus, the Syrophoenician woman, or the many stories of healing and exorcism. These are not people who would have been considered remarkable or of having historical worth, but it is their stories that help to construct the identity of the Christian movement. This example can help us as congregations to focus our attention on gathering and sharing the stories of our community, especially the stories of folks who rarely get to share their experience of church.

And the beauty is that over the last couple of years most of our congregations have been amassing tools and skills for recording and sharing media across a variety of platforms. We are primed for a season of oral history that could help us to reflect and honor the experiences of congregants and neighbors before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

What might we learn by intentionally gathering, recording, and sharing the stories of folks in our pews? What would we learn about who we are collectively from their experience over the last handful of years? What might we discern about our values and beliefs, or our growth as a faith community? We learn from our experiences, but more importantly, we learn from the experiences we reflect on, and I think we have a great opportunity to reflect on our experiences using a practice of gathering oral histories.

The how-to of oral history is as easy as it sounds:

  1. Determine what historical event you want to learn about.
  2. Identify storytellers who have direct experience of this event. Focus especially on those people who don’t often have their stories highlighted.
  3. Prepare a handful of guiding questions to get someone talking about their experience; then step back and listen.
  4. Record these interviews—audio and/or visual—and think about where and how you want to share them. Remember, you want these to be accessible for future generations, so it’s always a good idea to transcribe interviews as well.
  5. Revel in the gift of your communities collected stories.

There’s a great resource by an oral historian named Donald A. Ritchie titled Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide, that I strongly recommend if you’d like more details.

Human beings are storied creatures, and we are in the midst of a moment primed for storytelling and sharing. We can all benefit from listening to, collecting, and sharing our community stories, and we may learn something new about ourselves through the process. Stories provide us with opportunities for meaning making and community building, and I know this is something I am eager for at this moment in history. So, grab a camera, or just your cell phone, and revel in the stories of your community.

Topics: Adults Ministry, history

Nicholas Tangen

Written by Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen is the Director of Faith Practices & Neighboring Practices at the Minneapolis Area Synod. He graduated from United Theological Seminary with a Master of Arts in Leadership, focusing on Social Transformation. He writes about the church, community, and social change at nicholastangen.com.


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