Tell us about your spiritual journey.” The simple request hung in the air. I anxiously scanned the new members around the table. I had not been at the church long, and the congregation set in place the new member ritual long before they called me to serve there. I worried, Will they know what to say? Some of them have never been to church before a few months ago. How will they articulate their response? What a scary question. Is this too intimidating?
The pastors and a deacon started out, modeling the responses, and the new members took over after our long stories. The narratives poured out with beauty, humor, and depth. I realized how rare the opportunity was. Outside of 12-step meetings, people didn’t always have a chance to tell how God moved in their lives, and the simple process became powerful. As the years went on, hearing those accounts became one of the most important aspects of my own spiritual life. It reminded of the circuitous route that we travelled as God weaved our community together. It also brought to mind how important stories have become in this particular moment in history.
Some things about a story never change. The beauty of the landscape and textured details evoke our senses. A rough friction develops between or within the characters. A yearning awakens within the protagonist that sets off an alarm in everyone participating in the narrative—the writers, readers and hearers—until we all long for something. The tension mounts throughout the plot until we ache for relief. The narrative allows us to feel things in a way that naked facts do not. A well-crafted story sticks to our memory, so 20 years later, we may never remember specific data that we learned in a classroom, but we carry a story around with us. It is no wonder why Jesus so often spoke in those time-tested parables.
Though many aspects of a story have not changed, the importance of the narrative has heightened in our culture. We notice it in small ways. If we go to Trader Joe’s grocery store, we no longer glance at the price tag next to a piece of food. Instead, the store entices us in with information about the field where fruit grew, or the stream where the fish once swam. Particularly with the rise of the Internet, we see a heightened importance of narrative in our culture. Why would stories be more significant in this digital age?
First, with the rise of technology, we have easy access to facts. Many universities publish academic studies on the Internet. We can download research firm reports. The news of the world is practically at our fingertips. As Daniel Pink writes in his book, A Whole New Mind, “Facts are cheap.” So the things that stay with us stories, presented in context, with emotional depth.
Second, with the decline of television viewing, we have a cognitive surplus. In the United States, television watching had become a part-time job, with many people watching four to six hours a day. It seemed like the medium had an endless growth. But now, in a new generation, people have begun to turn off the television, and plug into their computers. This has generated what Clay Shirky calls a “cognitive surplus.” People have more time to engage their brains in hobbies and activities, and the Internet allows people with like interests to connect with one another. In response, great public projects like Wikipedia have been built with our extra brainpower. There is also the rise in people telling their stories. Through blogs, YouTube and self-published books, people are taking back their stories from the television screen.
Third, with the increase of social media, we have people who tell their story throughout the day. Since we moved from having our computers on a desk and visiting them for a few hours a week, to carrying them around in our pockets, we have learned to tap out short, quick stories that reflect what we are up to. Through our Facebook status or our Twitter updates, we construct stories about our day and about our families. Through reviews, we tell people what we think about where we ate or what we have read.
What do these cultural changes mean for our church? These evolutions in media mean that we have great opportunities. We have always been people who proclaim our shared and personal stories, but new technologies can be an invitation for us to renew our vibrant testimonies. We can learn to tell our stories anew, to verbalize our community’s faith, and describe our spiritual journeys. Churches do this in a variety of ways, often through reflections during holy seasons, new member class introductions, or stewardship stories.
After we have had the chance to reflect, can we learn to use new tools of communication? Can we begin to blog interesting testimonies? Can we podcast our sermons? Can we post YouTube videos about the history of our church? Can we use Facebook to discuss books and stories of the Scripture? Can we learn to livestream certain events?
Now when I gather with our new member classes, I have less anxiety. When each person details his or her journey, I realize how vital the spiritual discipline has become. I begin to construct the stories of the gathered community in my mind. And we all imagine how we can keep reaching out, using the tools of a new generation, to keep telling the narratives of our faith.
Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Carol wrote the books Tribal Church and Reframing Hope, and she blogs for Christian Century and the Huffington Post. She cohosts the God Complex Radio podcast with Derrick Weston, and she speaks regularly about the cultural changes and church in a new generation.