Growing up, one of my favorite activities was to sit back and listen to my dad and my grandfather (on my mom’s side) tell stories. Each man was animated as they would paint vivid pictures with their words. Each injected the right amount of humor. Each captivated their listeners. Now the stories that my dad and my grandfather told, were not just mere fishing stories (although they always had a good story about the “one that got away…”). No, these stories were about the family, my dad’s side and my mom’s side respectively. Growing up, I found out what it meant to be a Dorn and a Wilcox through the stories that I heard. These were stories like: how grandfather became an orphan, how he lost his hair at 18 on Guadalcanal in WWII, or how my Pop became the first chief of police of the town I grew up in after a short stint at being a bootlegger, or how each of my parents narrowly survived Hurricane Camille, or how my mom and dad after several miscarriages finally had me.
These were the stories I listened to growing up; these are the stories (and many more) we recount to each other at family gathers such as weddings, funerals and graduations. These stories make up who we are, because in my family we have embodied and internalized our collective past. Through hearing these stories, we have extracted the moral lessons and the identity that is formed from them. We wear these stories like badges of honor because they make our family what it is. My family had to make little effort to sit down and spell out to us kids how we were supposed to act. They didn’t need to. The stories that they told sufficed. We embodied the stories that they told.
In seminary, the professors taught us the mechanics of church on Sunday morning. They taught us how to lead a call to worship, how to theologically lay out a service, how to prepare and technically give a “good” (non-heretical) sermon. Yet there was an important piece that was left out. That “piece” I had to discover from mentors and from personal experience; that “piece” is the undeniable effect stories have in shaping the identity of a group of people. In fact, people become the stories that you tell.
Over the years, I have sat through countless sermons meant to convince me of being a better Christian. Many of those homilies were theologically sound, doctrinally on point, and possessed a reasonably coherent flow. Yet when I left that church, I probably couldn’t recount to you any of the main points of the sermon after I had eaten lunch.
I had been preached at, instead of being told a story.
One can eloquently preach about the necessity for sanctification in a person’s life, yet until you tell me a story of a person who has been or who is being sanctified, you’re only relating information, not identity.
Yet on Sunday morning when I tell the story about how I was amazed to discover how God is at work in the person’s life that I had coffee with last week, not only do people bring up those stories to me later in the week through conversation, I get at least 3 more invitations from other people to have coffee in order “talk” about what God is doing in them.
Through this process of becoming well caffeinated, I have witnessed that the same principle which I experienced growing up in my family is at work in my congregation. Telling the story of God’s grace at work in people lives through the power of the Resurrection via the Holy Spirit is collectively shaping who these people are. While I certainly include Biblical, theological and doctrinal principles in my sermons, I try as hard as I can to explain those points through stories. In American culture, advertisements tell us who we should be at a rate of over 5,000+ times a day. I don’t need to sell you on Jesus. Instead my desire is to connect you to what God is doing because of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Family of God. (Besides, people will remember the stories you tell long after they forget the 3 points of your sermon.)
Do you want to see your church become the epicenter of life in your community again? Then every Sunday when you gather for worship, connect people to the stories that shape the Body of Christ. Tell them the stories from Scripture of redemption and forgiveness; tell them stories of how Jesus healed the sick and the lame; tell them the stories of the Kingdom of God breaking into the world around them; and tell them stories of how Jesus is doing all of this today in the lives of people they know. In doing this, you will join with the Holy Spirit in awakening a new life, energy and vitality in your people, as your people become the stories that you tell. They will long for it….