Cultivating belonging in the church through storytelling
This post was originally published on Substack in August 2022. To receive this content early and join a community of people discussing issues around faith and community candidly, subscribe to Courage & Candor here.
We were a total mess. Freshly wounded from being fired as youth pastors, deep in a shame spiral, my husband was struggling with his mental health, and my sister had just passed away. We recently moved from the outskirts of Portland to the city and we were on the hunt for a new church. We felt fragile and guarded, protecting our story, knowing not everyone was trustworthy to hear it. Previous attempts had left us jaded, as our story was either met with disinterest or outright rejection. But most places simply felt too put together for our mess, and yet, we still longed for connection with other Jesus followers. So it was on our third attempt, discouraged but hopeful, that we showed up to a cold, beer-smelling warehouse called Bread & Wine Communities. We were two broken strangers looking for lodging, waiting to see if hospitality stopped short at greetings and coffee or would move close enough to see our rags. Upon entering that first Sunday, we instantly knew this was a place we could bring our brokenness. Perhaps it was the barely keeping it together look of a church gathering in a warehouse that matched our insides.
Who goes to church like this?! We did, unapologetically. Because if the church isn’t a place to bring our stories, then where else is there?
One of the things I loved the most during our time at Bread&Wine is that we shared stories in our Missional Communities. Each person, if they desired to participate, wrote their story with the themes of creation, fall, and redemption, weaving our story with the story of God. We would spend time writing our stories first before sharing, honoring our boundaries of what we felt led to share. It would usually take a few weeks to get through everyone’s story. In those weeks, we practiced listening, encouraging, and only asking clarifying questions. We practiced holding space for one another, stewarding each other’s stories like the tarnished and worn treasures they are for each of us. It was a beautiful practice of knowing and being known.
By the time my husband and I left Bread & Wine, we shared our stories in full about five times. Each time being held in compassion and understanding. It was a practice of seeing each other, taking in the whole context of a human soul with different lived experiences. We gain knowledge and intimacy quickly with one another. But sharing stories didn’t automatically create friendships and we didn’t expect each other to always be open and vulnerable. It was a structured and safe moment in time for someone to share how both their personal brokenness and the love of God made them who they are today. Though this practice happened within Missional Communities, it surely didn’t stay there. Storytelling created a culture of seeing the other, enabling us to see the stranger who walked through our doors any given Sunday. It gave our community confidence to ask questions and the skills to listen.
Sharing stories is not a common practice in the Christian community. Sure we have people share their testimonies but it usually happens on stage with a mic. So it is with great offense that I find more lonely people in the church, who feel unknown and struggle to belong. I find it baffling how little I have been asked about my life by church leaders over the last two decades in ministry. We were essentially strangers serving alongside each other which sets the tone for the community, creating a culture of disconnection. The stories we hear every so often usually consist of significant trauma or addiction followed by supernatural victory. These are beautiful and powerful stories, of course. But where are the stories of the ordinary saints sitting in the pews each week struggling with finances or with fostering a new baby? Where are the stories of seeing God work in the everyday, mundane, stuff of life? We don’t hear them because nobody asks.
When my husband and I were fired as youth pastors, it was obvious the senior pastor knew us very little. It was even more obvious the community didn’t know us as well. Even after being there for over three years, we received no phone calls from the church members to simply ask if we were okay. A bit later in a different community, we were a part of a small group, and much of our conversations remained on the surface, making it shocking when one of the couples announced their divorce. Even recently being on a team of pastors, no one even attempted to get to know me or my husband any more than what they learned in my initial interview.
Church, what keeps us from knowing one another? What keeps us from asking the questions and dedicating time to hear the answers? Why are their strangers in our churches? We are already strangers and foreigners in the world. Up to this point in my life, the church has been where I have experienced both radical belonging and downright rejection. This should not be, especially in the community of God. I am not expecting perfection from the church. I don’t care if their Sunday services are entertaining or have amazing teaching. Though, this is one I do care about – it doesn’t have to be entertaining but it does need to be biblically accurate. Anyways, if the people and leadership in that building show very little interest in me and my family, no amount of shiny programming is going to fill the lack of belonging we feel. The mass exodus we are currently seeing in the church I believe stems from the church ceasing to be a place where people can bring their stories. Stories of injustice, stories of sexual orientation, stories of church abuse, and so many more. All the good, bad, and ugly bits of our lived experiences make up every inch of how we have grown up in the world and they, for better or worse, follow us wherever we go.
Our God is a storyteller and has woven a narrative that can enfold our stories of brokenness into radical belonging. His story tells us that he has been and will always be, for us. Jesus told a myriad of stories in the form of parables, drawing the open-hearted closer while pissing off the bad guys. Stories are powerful, they can be used for good or for bad. When we share our story, it can be a source of connection or weaponized against us. It is terrifying to be vulnerable like that and it will always be a risk to share our stories. But the one place they should be welcomed is in a community of people who share a Common Story. A Story that is rich in sacrificial love and true belonging, rooted in Calvary and sprouted in the resurrection. As Christians, we desire to steward the story of God well, can we also not do the same for one another?
Our stories are Gospel stories. Through them, we carry the Gospel to a world that needs to hear a narrative of hope in the midst of the mundane and present in suffering. Our imperfect stories of struggle and disbelief and failure unfold to a backdrop of Golgotha displaying a love that doesn’t erase our pain but draws it closer to its side. Brothers and sisters, we are all standing at the foot of the cross, can’t we take a moment to look at each other? Because there are thousands upon thousands of stories gathered here, waiting to be told. Are we willing to tell them?
Even more, Church, are we willing to listen?