Storytelling has been a staple of human culture since the beginning, but I wonder how many of us today understand the power of these holy conversations for nurturing disciples. As Christian leaders, discipleship is central to our mission, and holy conversations can nurture discipleship growth by creating a bond between persons who share life and faith experiences. Sharing stories encourages personal and spiritual growth.
Consider Aileen and Timmy’s stories as examples of how holy conversations can strengthen a church’s discipling ministry:
Aileen felt shunned. A few days earlier she voted her conscience at a church council meeting, and although she was the only person to vote against the proposal, she didn’t expect the reaction she got. First, the pastor sent her an e-mail accusing Aileen of working with others to have the pastor moved. Aileen explained that she voted against the proposal simply because she believed it was bad policy. Aileen assumed that her emails with the pastor were confidential, but she noticed some people had stopped greeting her at church. Since Aileen had not mentioned the emails to anyone, she figured the pastor had told others. Aileen considered leaving the church.
Many years ago, when Timmy was eight years old, his family got a new puppy named Peppy. They became fast friends, but in only a few months, Peppy got sick. Timmy prayed hard, as any child in crisis might. He asked God to heal Peppy, but while Timmy was praying his father walked down the street to find the local policeman on the beat. Together, they took Peppy into the garage and euthanized him.
Crushed, Timmy cried in anger, “Why didn’t God heal Peppy?”
On Sunday, Timmy announced, “I’m not going to church.” His mother knew why, and she tried to comfort him by saying, “I guess God needed a good dog.” Timmy’s anger exploded, and he shouted: “Let God get his own dog!” (With patient firmness Timmy’s mother reminded him he still had to go to church, which Timmy did.)
These stories are the beginning of holy conversations. They are holy conversations because they reveal faith-challenging and faith-building moments for the people who have them. Aileen and Tim told me their stories years after the fact, when they had gained some distance from which to reflect on the event and were able to give meaning to it.
For Aileen, relationships in the church were strained and she considered leaving, but she chose to stay and intentionally seek out new friendships in the church. We conversed about her life experiences and what they meant for her relationship with God.
For Tim, this childhood experience is a point of reflection as he tries to make sense of later experiences in which he also asks the questions, “Where is God? Does God care for me?” Tim told me his story and answered his own questions: “Yes! God is there. God loves me.” We gained deeper understanding of each other and our life experiences, and we grew in our sense that God is in charge and will help us through life circumstances.
These conversations are holy because in them people seek to make meaning of life in relation to their experiences with God. Holy conversations do that. I invited other congregants to tell me about a time when they considered leaving the church but decided to stay. Our conversations changed me. The members who shared their stories with me grew, in part, because they could talk about their experience. They reflected on it. They considered what meaning the experience had for them. As they reflected on their growth, they told more stories, all in the context of a conversation about growing closer to God. I felt God’s presence in our conversation, and it became holy.
When people can tell their story, they begin to give shape to their own lives in a way that is helpful to themselves and others. Holy conversations—which are held in trust, love, and safety as a person remembers and reflects—offer a powerful opportunity for growth, personally and spiritually.
As I listened to the people tell their stories of considering leaving, one wise woman noticed that even though every person has different life experiences, stories unite us. She said, “All through our lives we each walk a different path and we have stories to tell. Whether they’re good or bad we’ve all got stories, so we’ve got this bond.” Telling one another our stories of life and faith experiences creates bonds—relationships—with other persons and with God. Discipleship is all about relationships.
I encourage people in my church to share their stories any way they can, but that can sometimes be intimidating. Some people may be willing to tell part of their story in writing in a church newsletter or on the church website. Social networking websites are designed for people to tell their stories, albeit in small chunks, and personal blogs allow for sharing in a longer format. Others who are bold enough may stand in front of the congregation and tell a story of a time they struggled to experience God’s grace. For others, telling their story is like wrestling with God, but a blessing is sure to come for both the teller and the listener. For example, when a lay person tells a story of experiencing forgiveness, the listener may bond with the speaker and the story, find inspiration to forgive, and even directly experience God’s liberating and life-giving forgiveness.
Storytelling depends on remembrance. Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me” is carved into most every Communion table I’ve seen. Telling my story requires me to remember. Jesus didn’t just say “Remember.” He said, “Remember me.” When we invite others to tell their stories in holy conversations, we lay our lived experiences on the communion table and let them mingle and interact with our remembrance of Jesus’ experiences of life, death, and resurrection. We can picture the disciples walking down that road to Emmaus, remembering the events of the past week in Jerusalem (Luke 24:13-35). They began to share their stories with a stranger, and they felt shock when they learned the stranger did not know about Jesus and what had happened. So they told him. We remember that they invited the stranger to stay with them. When they sat at their table, bread and wine prepared for the meal, the stranger broke the bread and their eyes were opened to see the true identity of the one who strangely joined their journey: Jesus.
Giving people in our churches permission and opportunity to remember their stories in light of the gospel story will undoubtedly open many eyes, ears, and hearts to God’s truths in Jesus Christ. Holy conversations invite people to tell their stories and remember their life experiences in light of God’s powerful work in human history.
Getting and Staying Involved
An important lesson I’ve learned from all my congregants’ stories is the importance of action and perseverance. They decided to stay and get involved in the same congregation where they had experienced trouble. I suppose this is the old “get back on the horse” trick. Some of the people, however, changed their involvement. For example, when Aileen decided to stay in the church, she resolved to spend more time with certain people and less time with those who had hurt her. For her, it was a helpful strategy that allowed her to stay in the church and form new friendships. In the years that passed, she learned to interact healthily again with those people who had hurt her. That’s another sign of her growth.
More than seventy years ago, Timmy announced that he wasn’t going to church after Peppy died. As part of our conversation, adult Tim made a timeline of life events that affected his relationship with God. His story about Peppy came early in the timeline. Throughout his life, Tim’s experiences raised the same questions that were raised with Peppy: “Where is God? Does God care? Does God love me?” He named those questions on his timeline, and after every question, his timeline showed another experience to answer the question with a resounding, “Yes! God is here. God cares for me. God loves me.”
Had I not been willing to engage members in conversations, I never would have realized their power for helping people grow in discipleship. Holy conversations that disciple allow us to listen earnestly to a person’s life and faith experiences. They open our memories, lead persons to reflect on and grow from the meaning of those memories, and challenge people to act on their new understanding as followers of Jesus Christ. I have a new perspective on holy conversations, and I am ready for God to enter in and transform lives whenever two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name.