Planning Your Church's Birthday

Written by Roscoe M. Pierson. Revised and edited by Dudley Seale

Anniversaries are regularly occurring treads on the stair-steps of time where we can pause and look over what has gone before us in order to gain strength and make plans for that which lies ahead. Therefore, in the life of every congregation of Christians, there should be occasions when we can survey our accomplishments, take inventory of ourselves, and make plans so that we can face the future with the confidence of knowing that we have laid our plans carefully. The birthday, or anniversary,of the congregation is an excellent occasion that can be the focal point for this survey and planning.

Congregations, like people, have anniversaries, and like people these anniversaries either become blurred in the grey mists of yesteryears, or they are clearly discernible landmarks that blaze the trail of accomplishments. The congregation that has done things for the Lord is usually happy to take the time and trouble necessary to review its deed. The individual may reflect at private times on past accomplishments, but the congregation--a social body--must reflect publicly.

In this document are suggested ways in which the congregation may publicly look back over its previous years and make them apart of the experience of those of its members who have had no personal memory of them, so that they can become sure foundations for the building blocks of the endless tomorrows.

When Should the Congregation Observe Anniversaries?

Right Side Caption Except for the first few years of a congregation's existence, an annual observance of each anniversary would tend to become tedious. Perhaps the minister could mention the anniversary in his sermon on the anniversary Sunday each year, and the congregation make plans to give special notice to those anniversaries which we celebrate in our married lives: every fifth year through the fortieth anniversary, then perhaps every ten or twenty-five years.

The congregation may give some emphasis to its anniversaries every five years, and reserve those which form multiples of twenty-five for gala public occasions. Therefore, the congregation might have some definite program each year of its first five years; thereafter, it might publicly observe its tenth, fifteenth, twentieth, and twenty-fifth anniversaries. Thetwenty-fifth anniversary should be made an important event in the life of the congregation. Simple observations should continue to be given to the subsequent five-year anniversaries, but the fiftieth, seventy-fifth, and hundredth anniversaries should be major events in the life of the congregation There are many congregations now over one-hundred years old (the centennialanniversary); a few have already observed their sesquicentennial (the one-hundredth fiftieth anniversary); and many now living will be present when congregations notice their bicentennials (the two-hundredth anniversary). Of course, there may be reasons why the congregation should designate other periods for major recognition: to agree with anniversaries of local, national, or regional importance, because of interest on the part of the minister or of other persons in a congregation. The congregation should not hesitate to observe those anniversaries which best highlight its program.

When to Start Planning for an Anniversary

Much thought and careful planning must be given to the important anniversaries if they are to be rewarding experiencesfor the congregation. When a congregation looks forward to the observance of a centennial, five years of advance planning may not be too much. Three years is the minimum time that should be set aside for preparation for a hundredth birthday. A few months might suffice to prepare a very simple observance of a second,fifth, or thirty-ninth anniversary, but the really important celebrations must be given much time and care.
The Anniversary Committee

After the official board of the congregation has decided that the congregation will give special recognition to a forthcoming anniversary, an Anniversary Committee, whose responsibility will be to formulate the plans for the event, should be selected and appointed in accordance with the regular policy of the congregation for the appointment of special committees.

The chairperson of the Anniversary Committee should be chosen because of his or her ability and not merely because he or she happens to be the oldest living member of the congregation, or for other reasons related to sentiment. The chairperson not only should have an interest in historical matters, but should bea person able to work with people and able to organize for action. The Anniversary Committee should not be so large as to become unwieldy: five to ten persons should be a large enough general committee, and this committee should be authorized to establish and appoint subcommittees to develop the total program.

Define and Develop the Theme of the Anniversary

Small Featured Image The first thing that the Anniversary Committee should do is decide upon the main emphasis of the anniversary period. What does the congregation hope to accomplish through this special observance? What ends may be promoted within and without the congregation during the period? The anniversary should not be simply a memorial to an historic event; it can be vibrantly that, and accomplish many other things as well.

The special anniversary may be used (1) to teach the young people and new members of the church the traditions of the congregation and the heritage; (2) to develop pride in the heritage of the Stone-Campbell heritage, and to promote the cause for which they have historically witnessed; (3) to challenge the church's membership to perform deeds comparable to those of the congregation's founders--for example, the remodeling of the church building, the addition of a new section to the building, are location project; (4) to create a stimulus toward a vigorous program of evangelism, new church sponsorship, or missionary and benevolence support.

Once the committee has decided upon the theme for theperiod--the suggestions given above are only a few examples--a slogan, or motto, may be chosen as one means of creating interestamong the congregation. Some mottoes which have been used include: "Fifty Years of Christian Witness in (Our Town)";"Building for Tomorrow Upon Yesterday's Heritage"; and others of similar nature.

Following the selection of the emphasis of the anniversary the period of time to be devoted to the program should be determined. Shall it be only one Sunday, one other day, one week, a period of eight days beginning and ending on Sunday, or still another period of time? As soon as the theme and the period of time to be utilized have been determined, a good start has been made toward the realization of a successful anniversary celebration. These should be brought to the attention of the congregation immediately, and both the time and the emphasis should be well publicized.

Practical Things To Do

Write Your History

Every congregation should have a fairly up-to-date history. A copy needs to be put in the hands of each member of the congregation. Nothing is of greater interest to a new adult member of your congregation than a personal copy of its history.Such a history offers a perspective in which the members can see themselves and in the light of which they can view their own Christian witness.The distribution of a congregation history is a promotional act, not a money-raising device, and should be considered as such from the very beginning.

The actual mechanics of writing the history of a congregation have been discussed in an excellent booklet, Writing the History of Your Church, by Henry K. Shaw, which should serve as a guide for the sub-committee appointed to prepare the history. If your congregation has been in existence for as many as fifty years and does not have an easily available history, this should be one of the prime objectives of celebrating the anniversary!

Stage A Pageant

If there is a dramatic group in your congregation, its members could present a pageant or historical vignettes which would bring the past of the congregation dramatically into living existence. A successful pageant is a major undertaking, and should not be attempted by the general Anniversary Committee. If one is considered, there must be a nucleus of interest and talent in the congregation, and this should be captured through an appropriate committee.

Create Fellowship Experiences

Nothing is more conducive to good Christian fellowship than a congregational banquet, or its counterpart, dinner on the grounds. When good food and good fellowship are combined with reminiscences and thoughtful looks at the future, success is assured. A banquet or similar festive gathering can be good fun, but for our purpose, there should be a close connection with the anniversary.

There are several items to which you should attend:

  • A speaker who will discuss the theme. Considerable care must be given to the selection of the main speaker. If the anniversary is a centennial or a sesquicentennial, one of the heritage's outstanding speakers should be considered. The selection should be made far enough in advance to assure the presence of such a person; six months is hardly adequate time, a year to eighteen months is better.

  • A homecoming. Homecoming is still very popular with many rural and small town congregations and this can be enjoyably and profitably related to an anniversary occasion. All former members of the congregation, especially the young people who have gone to other communities, should be invited back to their "home"congregation for the event. Many of these will avail themselves of the opportunity to revisit their families and friends. Those who have entered the ministry of the church should be invited to attend and special recognition should be given to them. Former pastors, living link missionaries, and state and national workers who have had important relations with the congregation, should also be invited. A homecoming can be a most important event; if it is to be an all-week affair, its planning should be entrusted to a special committee.

A Special Sunday Worship Service

Certainly the congregation will want to have a special Sunday morning worship service to highlight the week when the anniversary is recognized. We all need to turn to God in worshipto give Him thanks for His goodness, through all the years before. True, we should do this regularly--and we do--but the congregation's anniversary can be a time of special thanksgiving.

Small Featured Image If the anniversary is a major one, the minister of the congregation will have been busy with all the details that fall upon the minister at such a time, and may not be the person to bring the historic address. At any rate, serious thought should be given to inviting a special speaker for the grand occasion. The speaker for the Sunday morning service may be the same person who has spoken at the banquet; or, if an all-congregation banquetis not held, he or she may be the same type of speaker. The speaker may be an active historian from one of the theological seminaries or colleges, a national leader; or one of the writers who are especially interested either in the historic event or thetheme that is being emphasized. It could also be one of the past ministers--possibly the founding minister, if the congregation is young enough that the original pastor is still living.

Every member of the congregation should be zealous in promoting and attending this event, for it truly can be a memorable one. A special Sunday bulletin can be prepared listing prominent visitors, past ministers and Christian workers who have gone forth from the congregation--and even a brief synopsis of the history of the church, if one has been written. The history in the special bulletin should not replace the "official" history which should be compiled for the anniversary, but should be brief and of "keepsake" value to the visitors who attend the celebration. These anniversary bulletins may be widely distributed in the community; they can serve to bring the different congregations--and even different communions--of the area into better acquaintance with one another. Nothing should be overlooked that might promote better fellowship and the cause of Christian unity.

Other Practical Ideas

In addition to the major events that have been described, there are numerous other things which may be done at the time of the anniversary to enhance it and make it vital in the lives of the members. Some things may need to be done simply to break out of old molds and bring new life to the congregation.

  • Church Stationery. A major anniversary offers a fine opportunity to take a fresh look at your letterheads, offering envelopes, and any other printed matter that the congregation uses. Are they attractive, efficient, and tasteful? If not, have them redesigned, using a sketch of the church building or some other design--a stained glass window, a Christian symbol, et cetera. Its stationery is the only part of a congregation that some people will ever see. Let your new stationery proclaim your anniversary.

  • Advertising the Congregation. If yourcongregation has been running the same ad in the local newspapers for years, this might be the time to review it and bring it into agreement with your newly-designed stationery. The advertisement should carry some running head during the anniversary period. If you have chosen a motto, it may be appropriately used for this purpose. If your congregation has not been advertising, this policy might be reviewed, especially for the anniversary period.

  • A Stained Glass Window. The American church is growing up, and is proclaiming its heritage in stained glass. Some excellent stained glass windows are appearing in buildings proclaiming our American heritage and paying tribute to the heroes of our faith. In the windows of the Thomas W. Phillips Memorial Archives of Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville appear fine stained glass medallions honoring our pioneer men and institutions. At the Cane Ridge Meeting House, near Paris, Kentucky, specially-designed windows show scenes in the early history of our church. A series of panels in your windows showing your history might serve as inspiration to the congregation.

  • Remodeling, New Furniture, New Additions. Your anniversary may not only proclaim the age of your congregation but also bring to your attention that the organ is worn out; the church needs remodelling to meet today's needs; you are pressed for space, and need to expand; or because of the changing patterns of our cities, towns, and rural areas, you will be forced to relocate. If these improvements or changes can be made in connection with the observance of your anniversary, much can be accomplished. You should not decide to observe your birthday so that you can get a new addition, but you might decide, after seriously studying your future in the light of your previous anniversaries, that you need a new addition.

  • Citations. In conjunction with your festivities, it may be well to pay tribute to some of your living members by presenting them with tastefully printed or engraved citations which they can cherish during their lifetime. Brass plaques commemorating the stalwarts of the past might also be installed in the floors or on the walls of the church.

  • Souvenirs. A large number of congregations have found it helpful to have a special anniversary china plate designed and sold during the anniversary period. Many persons and institutions collect these plates, and they may create much interest. You should not expect to raise large sums of money in this way, and you should not go into debt beyond your means; however, if you can have plates manufactured and sold so that you come reasonably close to breaking even, you will be glad that you did. Other souvenirs--models of your building, crosses from old timbers, et cetera--may be considered in the same light.

  • Exhibits. Last on this list, but certainly not least in importance, is the matter of an exhibit to be arranged and displayed during the anniversary week. There are many fine things that may be brought out of closets, or brought together for the first time, to make an interesting exhibit. Included among these are:a collection of the photographs of all the ministers who have served the congregation; photographs of the elders, deacons, leaders of the women's work; photographs of the buildings that have housed the congregation through the years or pictures of the same building in different eras. If the congregation does not have good photographs of its many ministers, a collection should certainly be undertaken. Many older congregations will have beautiful silver communion services going back to the period when a single communion cup was used. These may be brought back into use or appropriately displayed. There are the old record books of the church, hymn books, Sunday School awards and pins of different times, quilts, and many other items that will awaken long-slumbering memories, or create new ones for the church's membership.

    Exhibits will be very effective and should be arranged properly. The committee selected to make the public display should include people who have had experience in dressing windows, or museum experience. A visit to a good museum or art gallery will be essential for those working on the exhibit. Many museums and historical agencies would be willing to give suggestions.


"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven." (Matt.5:16) The words of Christ apply to the observance of a congregational anniversary. The congregation has an excellent opportunity to publicize itself before the community and to make both its history and its witness known to its neighbors. Much thought, time and effort should be given to publicizing your anniversary. Your local newspapers, the national papers- The Christian Standard, Look-out, Gospel Advocate--your regional paper, will all be interested in your celebration. Some consideration should be given to radio or TV "spots." If your town has a cable TV system there is usually "public access" and community bulletin board" channels which will advertise church functions without charge.

The congregational paper, or weekly bulletin, should publicize carefully worked out details of the anniversary so that everyone will have all advance information. If the congregation does not have a newsletter this is a project worth considering. This project should not be just another task laid upon the minister's shoulders; it should really be a congregational effort.


As you think about your forthcoming anniversary, you will want to see examples of what other churches have done. To secure sample copies of such materials write to Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1101 Nineteenth Avenue, South, Nashville,Tennessee 37212, and the Society will gladly send you several church programs, bulletins, histories, and other anniversary materials that have been produced by congregations. These will show you how other congregations have observed similar occasions, and will give you many ideas. After you have produced your anniversary brochures, booklets, and histories, please send copies of them to the Historical Society, so that they will become a part of your historical materials at the Society and maybe of help to others who are planning such programs. (Congregations of other denominations will be asked to pay a minimal fee.)

The congregation's birthday provides an opportunity for strengthening the loyalty of each member to the church, to the heritage of which the church is a part, and to Christ, who is the Head of the Church. Wise, thorough and imaginative planning will assure a successful birthday observance.