I don’t think anyone would really disagree that one of the ways humans communicate most commonly and effectively is through stories. Through stories we encounter new ideas, new cultures, even new worlds. We tell stories to our friends to make them laugh, or to help them sympathise with us. We teach children through stories, helping them to understand our society, language and morality. Stories are everywhere. We can’t escape them – why would we want to? – and as Christians, I think we can use them far better than we do.
That’s not to say that Christians don’t use stories already; of course we do. Most sermons will contain one or two anecdotes to get a few laughs from the congregation, or to explain an otherwise difficult point. Children in Sunday school are often taught through stories, reading them from the Bible, acting them out, turning them into craft activities, or even singing them. Stories are already, as in every other area of society, an important part of Christian church life.
What I think we can get better at, and, hopefully, gain a lot from in the future, is telling our own stories. On a bigger scale, this could be your personal testimony – why did you become a Christian? This is an important thing to be able to talk about. Testimonies on this scale are a great way to explain faith to non-believers, and to give them something practical and personal to latch on to, and they’re a great way to encourage other Christians. A testimony doesn’t have to be wild and unusual to be encouraging (though those kinds of stories are fantastic as well); it can be encouraging for us as Christians to hear all sorts of life stories. In fact, the simple testimony of being raised a Christian, staying faithful to God and remaining in church can still be a powerful encouragement for people to engage with young people in the church and to help them to mature as a Christian.
To some extent, we’re okay at sharing our larger testimonies. At baptism services there’s normally the opportunity for people to share their stories, and it may come up in smaller group settings from time to time. Certainly among your closer friends, you’re likely to know each other’s stories, though I do think that entire congregations could benefit from hearing individual testimonies more often. Remember, Christianity is about real life. Being a Christian involves daily challenges and a continual commitment. Hearing about how other people have made that journey can really encourage all of us.
The area I think we could most improve in, however, is in sharing the smaller scale stories. That little prayer that God answered last week. That encounter you had with the Holy Spirit. That time you were struggling and God pulled you through. And while I sometimes see space for these kinds of stories to be shared, I don’t think there’s nearly enough of it. These are the stories that show us what God is doing day to day, and help us to realise that he is far more active than we could imagine if we only had our own experiences to go on.
So how do we do this? I think that a great place for it to start is in the small groups of your church (or life/cell/home/etc groups). These are some of the best places for forming and maintaining relationships, whatever the size of your church. At uni I go to a large church, with a membership of over 1000, and at home I go to a much smaller church, with a membership of under 100. But what they both have in common is that small group environments are some of the best for actually building relationships with the other church members.
It was at my home church that I first heard my home group leader at the time encourage us to share stories more often, and it was at my uni church that I’ve now really started seeing why that’s important. I lead a small group there, and from the start we said that we wanted to make an environment where people are happy to share what God’s been doing in their lives and to expect to see God do amazing things. The group seem to have warmed to this very quickly, and in one of our first sessions this year, we’ve had stories of a healing and of housemates visiting church for the first time. These are really encouraging stories that can help us all to expect more from God, but if the space isn’t made for them the vast majority of us will never hear them. We need more of this throughout our Christian lives!
To close, I just want to encourage you to maximise the space that you make to hear people’s stories. If you’re in a leadership position, then I’d urge you to think about how you can get more of this in whatever setting you lead in, but even if you don’t lead within church, think about how you can encourage the people that are around you to be more open and to share with one another. Even just asking the question of what you’ve seen God doing recently can be a door into a powerful conversation that you might never have otherwise.