I said I wasn’t gonna tell nobody, but I….


Image is by Margaret Sartor, copyrighted by Margaret Sartor, and from Duke University Libraries.

Margaret Sartor was on The God Complex yesterday, with a fascinating discussion (click “Carol and Bruce talk with Margaret” on the Blog Talk Radio widget to the right to hear the interview). She’s a documentary photographer, as well as an author, and I wondered if putting together this book of journal entries was something like forming a documentary.

She said that it was. In fact, she said that we are created to form narrative out of chaos, making a subtle nod to Genesis.

Her statement reminded me that the role of the narrative seems to be changing at this moment. Daniel Pink says that’s because facts are now easy and cheap. We no longer need researchers to hold them and dig them up. Facts are now on the Internet, and Google does the digging for us. So, there is a shift in culture: The story is now more valuable.

What do stories have that facts do not?

According to Pink, we remember stories. We’re just wired that way. Stories wrap the facts into a context, and then deliver them with emotional impact. According to Sartor, they help form narrative out of chaos.

How does this help us in our congregations?

(1) Do we know our church’s story? Pink explains that certain businesses are forming in order to harvest the stories from their employees and customers. Then, they take the chaos of those narratives to provide a mission statement. Testimony and mission are what we are all about in our congregations. But, I wonder, have we identified the narrative of our churches? Do we use it to reach out to our broader community and tell them who we are? And who God is? Can we imagine a process of harvesting our own stories?

(2) Do we preach our stories? We are taught in our seminary courses to gather all of those facts. But do we learn how to present them in a context, with emotional impact?

I know in my preaching courses, emotional impact was looked down upon. It was seen as manipulative. In my internship, I was criticized because my sermon made people cry. There was an actual complaint from a member of the congregation.

But shouldn’t that be our jobs? To stir people, emotionally and intellectually? Isn’t that what a good story is all about? Why should we expect to cry at Hollywood movies, and then be horrified if the Word of God moves us? I know that many have felt religiously manipulated in church before, but have we moved too reactively into the heady realm?

Testimony, evangelism, preaching… what am I leaving out? How have you noticed this creative power working through the narratives in your congregation? Tell us the story….


10 thoughts on “I said I wasn’t gonna tell nobody, but I….

  1. Whenever I give ministry at Quaker meeting – which isn’t often as I truly follow the wise advise of many elder to speak only if you feel you cannot do otherwise (unfortuately not all Quakers heed these words in meeting!)- I always feel a powerful emotion – and that touches others in the meeting as well. I tend to think if you haven’t had an emotional impact in some way – maybe it’s tears, maybe it’s a feeling of tenderness – than really we haven’t done what the spirit/god/the light is calling us to do.

  2. I am a subscriber to the sometimes maligned preaching style, “indirect communication.” Based upon the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard and the work of Fred Craddock this style requires narrative and story. It requires that you identify with the congregation to the extent that the story you offer engages them, resonates with their story, and moves them along the trajectory of the sermon. Sometimes this results in tears. Sometimes this results in laughter.

    The problem with letting the testimony stand on its own and not resorting to our ‘post-enlightenment’ rhetoric is that sometimes the story is so powerful that people fail to remember the point. A story can be too powerful. And, my very reserved folks are sometimes afraid of powerful stories.

    Yet, it is (I pray) the Holy Spirit that is at work between my lips and listener’s ears.

  3. I’m thinking forward to All Saint’s Sunday this morning and reflecting on the stories I heard at a recent women’s fellowship assembly. Our generations are so much in need of one another – of hearing the stories of the whole, opening to the movement of the Spirit through community beyond time. Not in the sense that the past should be reified – as I think some might like, especially tired, worn out lay leaders of aging women’s fellowships – but that our narratives carry gospel truth and in the telling are enlivened by the Spirit in community. We need to hear our stories. Not only the record of the past in scripture and ‘way it’s always been’ stories, but also in the testimony of young single mothers who see God and in the tingling revelations encountered by teenagers.

  4. I know in my preaching courses, emotional impact was looked down upon. It was seen as manipulative. In my internship, I was criticized because my sermon made people cry. There was an actual complaint from a member of the congregation.

    I’m very sorry that this has been your experience. Although I am definitely aware of the mistrust many churches (especially the kind I went to college around) have about “emotional” messages, I can’t help but wonder if there’s also a bit of sexism in this, too. I wonder if a man had preached the same sermon, if the complaints would have been the same. Indeed, I half-expect that people would have praised the same sermon, saying they were “moved.”

    I can’t be sure, of course, but I still have the suspicion.

  5. Hahaha! Well, not that you’ve brought that up… I’m thinking that story sounds kind of obnoxious…. But I think Mark might have a point. I rarely think of sexism, but now that I look back, that’s a pretty good explanation.

  6. The key, as you point out, is that it needs to be both emotional and intellectual…an engagement of the whole person.

    The difference, I think, could be seen in today’s meeting of Presbytery. We had a lecture, and we had a sermon. The lecture was data-heavy, scholarly, and…well…not all that engaging. Interesting, but not engaging. The sermon was funny, passionate, intense, and taught essentially the same things as the lecture. There was less academic detail, but more Holy Spirit.

    We Presbyterians tend to be taught how to lecture, when in actuality, we should be learning how to preach.

  7. One of the best things to happen in educational research the past 25 years was the acceptance of qualitative research as a methodology which produced valuable knowledge. Qualitative research often involves hearing people’s stories and then analyzing their text for higher categories of concepts. But first the researcher must listen and record the stories. One of my doctoral students did a wonderful piece of research on the stories of Appalachian story tellers in our area. This research certainly showed the power and joy of narratives carefully preserved and reproduced over time for an ethnic community and for the rest of us.

    I think this kind of research shows why we need to learn better how to harness and use the power of narrative stories in worship.

  8. I feel as though a lack of emotion is disingenuous. I am sure my homiletics profs will disagree but at this point, that’s how i see it. It is true that the message we bring is most important, how we present it undoubtedly has an effect on whether folks are able to receive it. Too little emotion can leave people to think about the game they are going to watch after church or the doctors appointment they have tomorrow morning. Sure, they may think of these things anyway, but why make it easier to do so? And too much emotion can make people uncomfortable in a way that can cause the message to go in one ear and out the other. This comment is already too long, but I will end to say that God gave us emotions so it seems to me that to express them is natural and desirable.

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