The church I serve was first started in 2003 by a small group of people committed to beginning a new church. In the early years, we incorporated a time of testimony in our worship service because we believed that in some way we could we could honor God by telling how we became Christian and what brought us to join in this new journey.
We did not understand the power of sharing our stories with one another and we did not anticipate the bond that it would create. Every Sunday one of the members would speak for five to 10 minutes during our worship service. Over a decade later, we still remember what we learned about one another and how we laughed together. That experience created a deep connection.
I was inspired by my first cross-cultural experience which included listening to stories of survival of people from El Salvador and Mexico. After sharing about their struggles, they implored us to remember them and to tell their stories.
The same was true on the many trips church members took to Ethiopia. In Thailand, the stories of young girls rescued from the abuse and degradation of human trafficking helped them heal and reminded them of the goodness of God. On a recent trip to Sicily, we visited refugee camps and met people who had fled war and oppression on unstable boats to cross the sea in hopes of safety and a new life.
We asked if there was anything that we could do to help them. “Come and listen to our stories” was the repeated answer. The power of storytelling is universal!
The greatest percentage of the content of the Bible is narrative. The words that reveal to us the truth of God are most frequently communicated in the form of story. Jesus was a storyteller. Even the word “gospel” is best understood as the written God story. From creation and the history of Israel, to the record of the life of Christ, the birth of the New Testament church, and the missionary journeys of Paul, our faith is understood in the reading and reciting of stories. Matthew wrote that Jesus did not teach anything without a story or parable (13:34). The aged apostle John communicated from an island of exile the power of stories: They overcame the adversary by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony (12:11).
In a book titled “The Story Factor,” the author Annette Simmons wrote that “the telling and hearing of stories is a bonding ritual that breaks through the illusions of separateness and activates a deep sense of our collective interdependence.” The practice of sharing and listening to our own stories can affirm the realities of God’s grace attested in Scripture. We are learning that a central part to building a Christian community is sharing and hearing our stories by connecting us to one another and being reminded of the faithfulness of God. We have been transformed, both individually and corporately.
It was in the telling and retelling of my own story that I discovered my call to pastoral ministry. Sometimes we may hear our own voices and come to understand that God has guided, protected and provided in ways that we had not remembered.
In Sue Monk Kidd’s book “The Secret Life of Bees,” the importance of story is affirmed: “Stories have to be told or they die and we can’t remember who we are or why we are here.” When Jesus — departing in a cloud after his resurrection — instructed his followers that they were to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8), they were charged with telling what they had seen and heard and experienced and — with the power that God promised — they would change the world, beginning with themselves. Whether in formal settings or in everyday conversations, let’s all try to slow down and take time to hear and share our life stories.
The Rev. Virginia Teitt is organizing pastor of Concord Presbyterian Church.