Author Philip Pullman said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
The human ability to tell stories to one another in order communicate deep truths is a feature of every human culture and civilization “Once upon a time, our ancestors…” or “In the beginning, God.” It is because of compelling stories we have heard or learned that we choose what to believe or disbelieve. I remember hearing Andrew Root say one time at a conference that parents should be saying to their children at the dinner table, “Tell me a story” not “What did you do today?” or “What did you learn at school, today?” Try it sometime with children of any age. I bet you’ll be surprised. Storytelling is an art, a craft, a gift. It’s the ability to frame reality and distill it into something true for your listener. Storytellers know the difference between truth and fact. Storytellers know which details to emphasize and build up and which ones to tone down or ignore completely. We are endlessly enamored with (or disgusted by!) the stories we tell ourselves everyday, as well as the stories others tell us. Stories can heal and connect.
The Positive Power of Storytelling
Last June I had the opportunity to attend a storytelling workshop/lecture/experience (I don’t even know what to call it!) led by Mark Yaconelli of The Hearth. I showed up to the lecture exhausted and not sure what to expect. Thirty minutes into the lecture and I was completely captivated and energized. The ideas from that one workshop have been marinating in my brain all summer. Mark led us through a few short opportunities to tell stories to one another and to reflect on their power. The prompts were simple, but each one was different, and Mark drew something different out of each one. In just a few minutes, through the power of storytelling, he helped our Presbytery community bond, and laugh, and hold sacred space for one another. It was, hands down, the most powerful use of time at a Presbytery Meeting I’ve ever experienced. (For those who don’t know, a Presbytery meeting is a business meeting for church people). I walked away from that meeting convinced that there was something I would do to begin using stories with my congregation. I am really looking forward to Mark’s future work on this, hopefully including a more in depth “how to” manual or book. If/when such a book comes in to being, I’ll be first in line to buy and read it. For now, though, I’ll be putting in to practice some of the things I learned that day.
Using Storytelling in a Church Setting (aka “Mini Storytelling”)
One of the things Mark suggested was that we have people share stories with each other every week, either as a part of the sermon or a reflection on it. At my church this summer, we’ve not done this every week, but we’ve tried it a few of times, and it’s been great. Here’s how it worked: after the sermon I asked folks to gather around in groups of two or three to answer a question together. The first time the question was about calling “Tell about a time when you felt called by God to do something.” The second time was after a sermon on Deborah and the prompt was “Tell a story about an important woman of faith in your life and what she meant to you.” The third time we tried storytelling in my congregation was yesterday, and the question was “Tell a story about a time you learned something from someone who was different than you in some significant way.”
In each case, folks came up to me afterward and talked about how meaningful the moment had been for them. One of the most valuable parts of the exercise was the fact that it allowed people who didn’t know each other very well to talk about something at a deeper level. I intend to continue with this practice from time to time, mixing up the questions. I think the questions will sometimes flow from the sermon topic, but other times might just be a way of building community and friendship among the congregation. Some of the prompts I’m thinking about:
- Share the story of your name, or something about your name (either first or last)
- Tell about a favorite worship hymn or song and why you like it
- Pick one moment from the past day (or week) for which you are grateful and share
- Share a favorite vacation spot from childhood
Using Storytelling to Build Community in Small Groups
Another time I used the lessons learned in this storytelling workshop was in training some Bible Study leaders who were preparing to teach a year long study on the book of Hebrews. I broke them up into groups and asked them to tell stories to each other. The first was a story about a place from childhood where they felt safe and happy. The second was a story about their first childhood crush. The third was a longer storytelling exercise about their faith journey. The first two came directly from the experience I had at the workshop with Mark Yaconelli. The third was more related to the study we were discussing. After each time of storytelling we reflected a little bit about what the experience of both telling the story and hearing the stories was like. I gave no guidelines for the storytellers other than to try and help the listeners feel very engaged in the story through description and detail. The guidelines for the listeners were also simple: Listen fully. Don’t check your phone or doodle on the page. Don’t ask questions or add to the story or comment in any way. Just accept the story and say “thank you.” The leaders walked away from the experience inspired to do more storytelling with their Bible Study groups and to encourage the groups to tell stories in this very simple way. One person came up to me after the training and said she’d be using the storytelling in her classroom.
Larger Storytelling Events
One of the things that I heard about at the workshop was the idea of holding larger storytelling “events” centered around a theme. This is not something I’ve ever done, but I am very curious about it. If your church has ever done this, or if you’ve been a part of one in your community, I’d love to learn more. The idea is a lot like The Moth podcast, I think, where folks come forward to tell a story related to a theme. The stories, as Mark described, are carefully practiced and rehearsed so they have a strong beginning, middle and end. The stories are designed to impact the listener in a specific way both individually and collectively. I’ve put out some feelers about this in my congregation, and folks seem interested. I think the process of putting the event together as well as the actual event itself would be very powerful. I thought it was interesting that Mark described the process of helping participants craft their stories as being similar to the process of spiritual direction.
Another thing I think would be very powerful would be to incorporate intergenerational elements to this storytelling focus in the congregation. What would it look like to have little conversation starters at the table at fellowship events, or questions that are focused on a particular universal age and stage in life. What about asking children and adults alike to share the story of losing their first tooth or a favorite experience around the Christmas tree? What if we asked older and younger members to talk about their favorite parts of the worship service? The power of storytelling for both younger and older members is invaluable, I think, and learning from those who are in different life stages is a great way to build bridges, understanding and mentorship.