July 2020 Feature
In her book The God-Hungry Imagination, Sarah Arthur writes,
If we want the next generation to know where they came from and thus who they are, we tell them stories so they won’t forget. Then they pass the stories on to the generation after them, and so it goes. Story expresses the beliefs and values of a people by incarnating those values in unforgettable images rather than abstract statements. It preserves cultural memory and gives the hearer a sense of his or her identity within a community…Story shapes worldview, which in turn shapes self-understanding or identity (Arthur 2007, 84)
What Sarah Arthur captures in these words is a profound understanding of how stories work and how they shape values, worldview, and identity. In their persuasive way, stories communicate to individuals as well as communities the beginnings, backdrop, endgames, challenges, winners, and losers in life’s journey.
Recognizing the transformational power of story, influencers and change leaders in governments, MNCs, branding agencies, leadership circles, people helping industries, educational institutions, etc. have incorporated the use of story into their respective practices.
Not left behind, churches and mission organizations too have adopted the use of story in ministry practices. This, however, is where I feel a brief commentary on the state of story usage, practice, and advocacy in the church is in order.
Proclamation and declaration are central pillars in Christian life and witness. The church has had a long history of declaring words on behalf of the Almighty and a strong emphasis on pulpit proclamation. This emphasis on proclamation and declaration inevitably has shaped church leaders’ thinking about how story should be used in ministry. Not only are preachers taught to make biblical stories alive, they are also coached to incorporate rousing, relatable, and rallying stories into their sermons. “No same, lame, and tame sermons please!” they are told!
Youth leaders are mentored not just to share from the bible, but to infuse their talks with believable and authentic stories mined from the realities of contemporary everyday life. Sunday school teachers are encouraged to tell bible stories with PowerPoint, props, and panache! Missionaries are exhorted to live their lives incarnationally so that doors can be opened for them to share the gospel story with the individuals and communities they interact with.
When I reflect on this tendency to focus storying efforts on proclamation, it seems to me that so much emphasis in Christian ministry has been placed on crafting story for delivery, execution, and performance. As agents of communication, we ready ourselves well to unidirectionally aerosol-spray audiences with the stories from our minds, our experiences, our Scriptures, and our world.
It was at the 2018 Lausanne Southeast Asia Gathering for younger leaders in Petaling Jaya that the counterpoint to this tendency was strongly impressed on me. I had gone as mentor to these younger leaders and hence had a certain amount of airtime at the meeting. But it was at one of the main training sessions that the Lord left me a most profound challenge which I will recall below.
The participants were all seated at round tables to listen to a trainer who was particularly impressive. At one point, he found himself in an awkward position of holding two microphones in his hands. With one he was giving instructions as well as feedback to the participants. With the other, he was moving from table to table soliciting responses from participants.
Sensing the awkwardness, I offered to take the second mike off him and move from table to table on his behalf. It was while I was looking out for raised hands and walking toward a non-native-speaker-of-English participant when the questions flooded my mind, “Which direction do you hold your mike? Do you hold the mike to your own mouth most often or do you hold the mike to other people’s mouths most often?”
The incident was a timely reminder to me that while most of us leaders aspire to be effective communicators, we too often forget that opening our mouths to tell the stories on our hearts and minds represents only one half of any communications act. Equally important is the deliberate act of making room for others to speak and of opening our ears to listen attentively to the heart stories of the people we serve.
Then it occurred to me that what I experienced in community arts spaces had demonstrated a very different communicative culture. At multiple events, a culture of listening was celebrated. The voice of the Other was affirmed and seriously regarded.
At the clay modelling session, participants were invited to sculpt clay objects which represented their aspirations, life experiences, and even emotional states. As each person revealed the story behind their clay creations, each telling was met with much attention and appreciation.
At the writers’ circle gathering, participant read fellow participants’ manuscripts, critiqued each other’s scripts, and raised questions about content and style. All this was done with the goal of helping others craft their stories better than they could ever do on their own.
At the forum theatre community drama event, the audience was introduced to a community issue through a short skit. Those present were then invited to react and respond with questions, pushbacks, and even alternative points of view. Through active participation from the floor as well as on stage, audience members were able to understanding the complex nature of the issues, connect emotionally with them, explore different stakeholder perspectives, and even propose viable solutions to challenges faced in the community.
Collectively, these examples from the arts community show a different way of storying and communicating that is less familiar amongst church leaders. They illustrate different roles of leaders in storying and story-featured events.
Church leaders often lead by telling to from a distance. Friends involved in community arts demonstrated for me a different way. What they did differently was to cease hogging the mike. They invited group participation which brought out the stories of the community. They situated themselves in the group not to tell stories they had prepared to share. Instead, they offered mechanisms to mine stories which otherwise would remain untold. They gave voice to those present and challenged them toward higher goals. They gave courage to individuals to share their joys and pains and to find healing and hope.
How do we most often hold our mikes? Toward our own lips or toward other’s lips? Perhaps it is time to expand our repertoire of ways we think about storying. Perhaps it is time to broaden our understanding of communication events and to deeply appreciate that they are necessarily bi- and multi-directional. Perhaps it is time to relearn roles and retrain instincts to practice storying differently in the church.
If we did so, we would learn a lot more about the world we serve and live in, which in turn, would help us to be more informed and strategic in our use story.
Dr Calvin Chong is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Singapore Bible College. His teaching and research interests include orality studies, hermeneutics, new educational technologies, designing learning experiences, the impact of narratives on worldview and values, conflict resolution/reconciliation, and contemporary urban missions and youth issues.