The amazing power of our stories
Let's reclaim the art of storytelling in our churches, writes Steve Morris
I first became aware of the beauty of life stories when I was a boy. My family was from London’s East End. They got bombed-out during the war and relocated to West London. But although we’d moved, we still had the way-of-life of EastEnders.
That meant we put a high value on family, we stuck together and worked hard and we loved telling and hearing stories. Stories about the family and the war and what happened to whom and when were the tapestry from which we got our identity. The stories of suffering, heroism and our ups-and-downs helped us to know who we were.
There was a time, when I was a businessman that I lost touch with the stories of struggle and the everyday. But as a vicar I have had my love of hearing the stories of those around me rekindled. What’s more, I’ve come to think that the church can be the centre of storytelling and that if we can become this, we will start to see major revival.
We are surrounded by people who are lonely and feel unloveable and unloved. Part of this is that they have no one to listen their stories. This has to stop.
As I was writing my book on this, a minister told me the following story. He was new in post and was struggling. The church was low in morale and seemed stuck. He tried harder and harder with his sermons – pouring hours into research and prayer. But the church was only going in one direction and he was feeling demoralised. One Sunday a wise elder took him aside and gave him some advice. Go and spend time listening to the congregation’s stories. When you have heard them you will be their pastor as well as their preacher.
He did just this. Over the weeks the rumour went around that the minister was a good listener. People began to ask to come and tell him their story. In the end he heard the stories of every single person in the church. He heard stories of everyday heroism. He heard how just coming to church on a Sunday for some was a major act of courage. He heard about the joys of life and the sadness of it. He heard about marriages hanging on by a thread and the perseverance of couples who wanted to make things work. He heard about children and school and the love of sport and pets. In short, he heard about life.
And as he heard about the lives of others, he began to see his own life in context and began to shape a new ministry. Yes, he was a preacher, but he was also a pastor – a shepherd and friend, able to be vulnerable himself. (His own story was not without its ups-and-downs.)
His preaching changed. His church grew in love and in acceptance. Storytelling telling and listening wasn’t a nice-to-have. It was, and is, at the core of being Christians and being church.
When you begin to look, it seems amazing that we haven’t been big on this for years. Jesus spent time listening to people. He let them be themselves and tell him their greatest fears and regrets and hopes. These people who were listened to, had their lives transformed.
If we believe in the incarnation, then we need to take life stories more seriously. Jesus led a life like us and this means that everyday life is holy and important.
In our atomised and lonely world, we, like Jesus, can be a people of stories. Frederick Buekner speaks of the ‘witchy power’ of narrative. He is on to something. As a species we need stories to give us a sense of a beginning, middle and end. Fiction is popular because it helps us to see our lives as a story too. So we ignore the power of storytelling at our peril.
And of course, the Christian faith is an offer to join the greatest story of all and be a part of it.
My book is a hymn to the powers of stories and plea for church to stop talking and start listening. Alister McGrath has called it the best book he has seen written on the subject. We live in a post-truth age and there is a suspicion on propositional truth. We tend to trust personal experience and stories as a source of authenticity. I tell the stories of some of the people who have shared something of their lives with me. They inspired me. They still do.
One day perhaps you will tell me your life story. I would count it an honour to hear it. Perhaps you will find time to listen to a lonely person’s story. It is what Jesus would do.
The Revd Steve Morris is Vicar of St Cuthbert's, North Wembley
His book Our Precious Lives: Why telling and hearing stories can save the Church is published by Authentic Media on 14 February
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