Remember Show and Tell?
Back in a simpler America, elementary school teachers would give the class an assignment once or twice a year – bring something from home, tell us about it and explain what it means to you. Apparently, this idea was originally created by educators in an effort to develop our public speaking skills and build our self-esteem.
Of course, that only worked if you were popular, had spectacular confidence or brought something you knew would impress everybody. Otherwise there was panic. You felt dread. When your name was called, your ears started ringing. You stood up and ‘dead-man-walking’d’ your way up to the front of the class, facing the charges held against you … boring, lame, unacceptable.
I sometimes feel like we put people in a similar position when it comes to storytelling in the church. There’s an unspoken pressure that our stories should be impressive. They should wow us with their deep spiritual insight and significance for the Kingdom. If we’re not careful, it becomes show and tell all over again, creating a barrier that most people aren’t willing to cross. And who could blame them?
I never thought much about this until a few years ago. When our team used to look for stories, we found the ones that would capture your interest and hopefully make you clap at the end. They were stories of families who fostered at-risk kids, people who ministered to homeless teenagers, missionaries, leaders and visionaries. In other words, they were big ... people doing big things for a big God, people with big insights about the Kingdom and how it worked. We kept it big. And that fit our culture.
When we started our Story Team, I began hearing from team members with a very different perspective. Yes, our stories were resonating with the vision of the church and people were responding. But what about someone who doesn’t have a story with the necessary wow-factor? What about someone who's still wrestling with doubt or faithfully waiting for an answer to their prayer? What about normal people? Do they make the cut? Do we have a place to share their stories?
It reminded me of something I had read a few years back by writer Sarah Bessey. In a brilliant article about what she called her Evangelical Hero Complex, she shared how she was raised with the idea (from childhood) that bigger is always better as a Christian. If she wasn’t doing big things for God, there was a problem. She went on to say this:
"Here is the funny thing I learned when I began to dis-entangle from my Evangelical Hero Complex: I’m pretty sure that there aren’t actually any big things for God. There are only small things being done, over and over, with great love, as Mother Theresa said. With great faith. With great obedience. With great joy or suffering or wrestling or forgiving on a daily completely non-sexy basis. And grace covers all of it and God makes something beautiful out of our dust."
These words ring true for me. I suspect she’s right. But they create a tension for a storyteller in the church, because we're supposed to be doing non-fiction. How do we tell great stories without creating an artificially large narrative of the Christian life? How do we shine a light on ordinary, unfinished stories that sound more like our own?
We’ve started to lean into this tension as a team. I wish I could say we’ve hammered out an awesome approach that solves it. We haven’t. But we’re giving it a shot.
We’re sharing more audio and written stories outside of our weekend services. We’re trying to be more intentional about naming conflict and doubt. We’re resisting the urge to make bigger heroes of the cool kids. It’s a start.
We believe that every story matters (which is easy to agree with in public, only to quietly dismiss with our own story.) But show and tell is over. People need hope. They need to recognize their own stories as meaningful and worth sharing in our church.
As storytellers, we have the opportunity to steer things in that direction. Imagine what will happen when we do.