The novelist Henry James once said, “Stories happen to people who can tell them.” In other words, learning stories helps us give shape and meaning to experience; without them, we are victims of circumstance. The kinds of stories we learn shape how we experience the world. Is your congregation’s narrative a “thin story” or a “thick story”? Are the stories your children, youth, and leaders tell stories of despair and doubt, or of hope and anticipation? In this article I will describe three approaches to narrative theology and their importance. Then I will explore the marks of good narrative ministry and learning in churches, which grew out of an Alban Institute study of narrative leadership that I directed.
Three kinds of narrative theology
Theology and biblical studies have returned to the power of narrative and stories in recent years. By narrative I mean a focus on the forms that shape the kinds of storytelling we use. Narrative, writes the educator Jerome Brunner,
is not just plot structure or dramatism [or] “historicity”…. It is also a way of using language. To a striking degree, it relies upon the power of tropes—upon metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, [etc.] to explore the full range of connections between the exceptional and the ordinary (Acts of Meaning, Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 59-60).
Bruner describes how a rich narrative navigates between conventional understandings of reality (a cultural canon) and its breach by novel situations. In short, narratives are plot-lines of character and action designed to “organize experience” and in turn be reinterpreted around new experiences of the readers.
The first approach to narrative theology focuses on the Bible as God’s story. This school of thought, inspired by Hans Frei, reads the entire Scripture as a narrative of God’s identity and interaction with God’s people (Theology and Narrative, Oxford Press, 1993). While the Bible has a variety of literatures and authors, it is united by intention and agency of God as a Triune encounter with Israel and the church over time. The Bible culminates in the Gospels, which narrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the very identity and presence of God. The goal is to encounter this God anew in the story of Jesus, and to have our conventional, worldly narratives disrupted by its power.
The second kind of narrative theology seeks a renewal of human stories in relation to the biblical story. Inspired by interpretation theory, especially by Paul Ricoeur, this approach reads the Bible as a narrative of the people’s interaction with God over time, which in turn invites modern readers to enter that story as their own (see George Stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology: Recovering the Gospel in the Church. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997). The biblical narrative opens a horizon of meaning and time that shapes readers with a new sense of purpose and identity in relation to God. We begin to identify with biblical characters like the prodigal son or Mary and Martha as sources of meaning and direction for our own lives. The goal is to disrupt conventional readings of the Bible by bringing its stories into a new encounter with our own lives, so that both are transformed.
The final school of narrative theology focuses on the sacred power of human stories in struggles against injustice. Thanks to liberation, feminist, Black and Hispanic theologies, the people’s narratives of suffering and freedom are keys to reading the Bible anew as God’s history of liberation. We find our stories of struggle and hope supported and inspired by biblical stories of God’s preference for the poor or Jesus’ identification with the marginalized. The goal here is to disrupt the “normal” structures of injustice around us by seeing the people’s struggles for freedom as God’s own struggle for their liberation (Dwight Hopkins, Heart and Head: Black Theology—Past, Present and Future. Palgrave, 2002);
Just as each kind of narrative approach has its place in theology, each one has a role to play in renewing congregations. Congregations that are tied to inherited patterns of worship, ministry or social witness may need to explore again the Bible as God’s story, to renew those traditions with a new sense of God’s presence. Congregations that know the biblical story rather well may have forgotten how to connect their own lives to that story, so they may need to find their stories in the biblical story. Congregations that live on the brink of injustice or social marginalization may need first to celebrate the people’s stories of struggle and quest or freedom, and then re-read the Bible to have those stories confirmed and lifted up with God’s plan for liberation.
Whatever approach to narrative theology a church may choose, there are some powerful indicators of good narrative ministry. In this second part, I want to examine some of the marks of effective narrative ministry and learning that we discovered in the Alban project.
Marks of narrative ministry and learning
In the Alban study, we discovered a number of characteristics of good narrative ministry and learning. Here, I lift up those strategies that shape congregations as communities of learning, especially through storytelling and narrative reflection.
Living and sharing God’s story as leaders
Story-rich congregations have leaders that regularly tell personal stories in relation to the biblical story. Pastors, educators, officers and lay leaders find times to tell human stories of discovery and change that relate to biblical stories—from Jesus parables to accounts of Israel in the wilderness. They also relate the congregation’s stories of struggle and discovery in ways that open up the biblical story for new readings. Pastors who use personal stories in preaching as a means to point back to the biblical narratives model how people can “enter” the latter on their own. In particular, do we learn to tell personal narratives as “redemptive stories” that, according to cultural psychologist Dan McAdams, lift up overcoming hardship toward a new discovery or identity (Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By. Oxford Press, 2005)?
Listening to people’s stories and linking them with God’s story
Narrative congregations cultivate storytelling among members to link personal lives to each other and the biblical narrative. Leaders cultivate the practice of deep listening that helps leaders ask just the right question and stay attentive to how God is moving in a person’s life. Shaping small group study and learning that invites people regularly to describe personal narratives of despair, repentance, or new life helps members learn how to tell and listen to stories of spiritual struggle and growth. Some churches use “Godly Play” curricula to help children and adults learn to “wonder” about biblical narratives, and enter into their drama. Other churches use the “story-linking” method of Anne Streaty Wimberly, which links personal stories with those of the community and the larger biblical narrative (Soul Stories: African American Christian Education. Abingdon, 2005).
Creating a community of storytellers and actors
As leaders tell personal stories and educators cultivate story-listening among the people, congregations become storytelling communities over time. Some old-mainline churches are revitalized by creating moments of personal testimony in worship, where people relate openly how God is at work in their lives. One community-oriented church in Indianapolis raised a team of story-gatherers that would enter the hair salons, community meetings, and basketball courts of the neighborhood to ask people a basic question: “What do you feel called to do?” This equipped the church to know its neighbors in new ways, and to host small groups to celebrate their passions in the wider community. Crucial to community storytelling is genres that foster the spirit of discernment you hope for: is the church or community story an heroic romance, a fateful tragedy, or a comedy of errors, and so on, as James Hopewell wrote (James Hopewell, Congregations: Stories and Structures. Fortress, 1987)?
Engaging the world’s stories with stories of faith
Congregations shaped by the biblical narrative learn to engage the stories of the surrounding culture with discernment. Sometimes the narratives—from artful films to local community videos or news—lift up redemptive stories that can be engaged as signs of God’s work in the wider culture. Other times, poisonous narratives—from Hollywood violence and sex to political grandstanding—need to be countered with richer, deeper narratives of human meaning and the social good. One African American church in D.C. relates how the cultural narratives of “black men” must be countered with biblical and church stories of men who are strong, loyal, and wise as they serve and mentor others. Prophetic narrative churches seek to model a new story to the world around them while they expose the dangerous stories.
Embodying the congregation’s story in renewed practices
While narratives do shape imagination and insight, in the end they must be embodied. Narrative-rich congregations live out key narratives in congregational practices of hospitality, forgiveness, social witness and more. Diana Butler Bass writes: “Imagination is the stage on which narrative, tradition, and practice form their dance” (The Practicing Congregation, Alban, p. 98). Churches that celebrate stories of healing often celebrate healing services or recovery ministries with deep intention and care. Churches that acknowledge stories of grief or violent loss often develop pastoral listening and forgiveness as a primary practice. Congregations that tell stories of neighborhood renewal or racial uplift and pride often develop practices of mentoring, guiding and teaching community youth. The stories we tell as a community of faith have deep seeds of our calling to the world.
In the end, the power of story lies in relating human stories more directly to God’s story, in a way that reorients church communities to remember the One who came and died for us and the world, that we might tell and live this story anew. God only knows how much our world needs deep stories of meaning, mystery and hope.
Larry Golemon is a Presbyterian minister, theological educator, and researcher. He has studied theological schools with the Carnegie Foundation, congregational leadership with the Alban Institute, and taught at seminaries and colleges in California and the DC area. He has served in congregational ministry in Minnesota, Atlanta, and San Francisco, and as an educator and missionary in the Philippines. Currently, Larry is the executive director of the Washington Theological Consortium, which works with Catholic, old-mainline, Evangelical, and African American seminaries.