a simsThe Power of Narrative to Shape Relationships, the Power of Narrative Theology to Shape Community

Human beings are, after all, storytellers. We love telling stories, and we love hearing them. We tend to piece together the moments of our lives in terms of a story we tell ourselves—with a beginning; important characters; a plot; twists, turns, and surprises with each new chapter; and, often, an anticipated ending that will help make sense of the whole. Further, hearing someone else’s story often sheds new light upon our own. We become characters in others’ stories, and very often they become characters in ours. (Lodahl, 2008, p. 13)

Stories “make claims on our minds and hearts, often before we know why or how … [and] help us organize and make sense of the experiences of a life" (Anderson & Foley, 2001, p. 4). Christians are tellers of the stories of God’s interactions with people. “Stories shape and create identity—and not just for individuals. They shape identity for families, communities, and cultures. We are awash in stories, and when they are well told, they can locate us in the world even when that world feels chaotic and without purpose" (Keel, 2007, p. 33). The stories of our faith, the Scriptures, and the heritage of stories passed down through the centuries, help us find our footing in a world that, of late, seems ever more chaotic. For most churches, stories have been the bedrock of the congregation’s identity: stories in the community’s memory, stories passed down in local families. As churches experience the cultural shift into postmodernity, story takes a new role in helping us shape and share a common identity as members of the Christ-family, even as we acknowledge and celebrate the uniqueness of each member.

“The stunning insight throughout all these stories is that Yahweh, the creator and sustainer of the universe, has tied himself to this particular people in this particular place at this particular time. This is the scandal of revelation and particularity” (Keel, pp. 35–36). Narrative theology speaks to the whole of the story of God and God’s interaction with God’s people. The stories in the Bible are part of the larger narrative of who God is, but do not encompass the whole of who God is. This is perhaps most explicit in John 1, where Jesus Christ is referred to as the Word of God. It is clear that at this point, Word does not refer only to words on a page or words read and preached before a congregation, but the living Word that God speaks into the lives of the people God has created.

Within narrative theology we understand “story as being first and finally God’s. Sometimes God will seem to slip behind the scenes, but the Story remains, through it all, a testimony to divine love, goodness, and mercy" (Lodahl, p. 14). The readers and hearers of this story respond by trying to locate themselves within the story, are shaped by the story, and themselves shape the continuing Story. “Stories make claims on our minds and hearts, often before we know why or how" (Anderson & Foley, p.4). Effective narrative theology “calls and challenges its readers and hearers to locate themselves within the Story (Lodahl, p. 15)” of God and God’s people.

The Bible itself is a testament to the power of story to shape communities. The Pentateuch, the Mosaic books of Genesis through Deuteronomy, tells of the forming of a people of God, their experiences and the rules (laws) that made living in one place possible. The story is continued in the books of history and prophecy that follow as the growing nation of Israel moves through the time of Judges, requests a king, and reaps the consequences of the kings’ acts through conquest and exile. The Wisdom books speak poetically of God’s relationship to God’s people, God’s constancy, and the nature of love. The writings of the Prophets seek to restore God’s people to righteousness, and to mourn their loss of piety, and lead to the silence between the Jewish and Christian Scriptures (Old and New Testaments).

A new narrative emerges in the Gospels: the story of a community coming to terms with a Messiah who exceeds some of their expectations and fails to meet many others. Following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Epistles reveal a nascent church struggling with questions of unity, belonging, and leadership. The Bible ends with the book of Revelation, rich in symbolism and imagery, which describes God’s ultimate victory and the new life to come. While it is possible to assign genres to the individual books of the Bible, to simply say that Acts is a book of early church history misses its power as a narrative of the early church’s struggle for identity, distinctiveness, and authority in the wake of Jesus’ ascension, through the experiences of the people who became the early church.

Both Testaments are filled with adoption narratives and stories of inclusion within these faith-driven communities. Ruth adopts her mother-in-law’s culture and family following the death of her husband, and is a poignant reminder that there is room among the people of God to welcome earnest converts. Ruth says, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16, NIV). Ruth becomes the means of redemption and acceptance for both women into their new home. The language used by Ruth echoes the language in the covenants that God formed with God’s people: “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people,” (Lev. 26:12, NIV). Similar words are found in Jeremiah 7:23, 11:4, and 30:22, and Ezekiel 36:28, as the prophets call the people in exile to renew their faith in and covenant with God, to be restored to God’s favor and to their right relationship as the people of God. These covenant relationships were “bilateral… Response and participation were expected, desired, and eventually were given as the people say, ‘You are our God'" (Stevens & Collins, 1993, p. 93–94).

Language relating to God’s people makes its way through the Jewish Scriptures to the early church and the Christian Scriptures. Throughout the Epistles, many phrases meaning “God’s people” are used to refer to the Church, both locally and globally:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. (Eph. 2:19–22, NRSV)

Mel Lawrenz (2009) notes that the people of God finally become the dwelling place for God, much like the time of the Exodus in the Hebrew Testament, when the people carried the Tabernacle with them so that God was with them where they went, or as the living stones described in the Epistles.

In the Christian Scriptures, adoption became the metaphor for those who join the growing Christian faith community. Jesus’ response to Judas’ question about belonging in John 14 is, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me” (John 14:23–24, NRSV). In the Epistles, more explicit language of adoption is used:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:15–17, NRSV)

These and other adoption narratives in both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures testify to the importance of this perceived kinship in determining who is included as a member of the worshiping community.

As the early Christian community formed congregations and churches, they identified themselves as the people of God, following the language of the Jewish  Scriptures and tradition out of which Christianity arose. The Apostle Paul begins to unpack how the people of God might work together using powerful metaphors such as the grafting of branches onto an olive tree in Romans 11:16–24, where the faith of Christians is understood to derive strength and nourishment from the roots of Judaism; and the metaphor of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor. 12:12–27, NRSV)

As the body of Christ, the question of belonging becomes not only a question of inter-relatedness by faith, but also by giftedness. Each part of the body has its own unique role, which no other part can fulfill. All the parts of the body must function together to be a whole and healthy body, providing an imperative for unity both within a congregation and within the Church.

Within the body of Christ, unity and community are not synonymous with uniformity (Herrington, Bonem, & Furr, 2000, p. 19). The saints of God can embrace the diversity of experiences and viewpoints among them, and in so doing, enjoy unity of spirit as the body of Christ. The role of church leaders is to “... recognize the tension between unity and diversity and affirm both as essential in God’s plan… [to] find examples of these two dynamics simultaneously at work and highlight them for the congregation” (Herrington, Bonem, & Furr, p. 24). This creative tension does not wash away differences but instead acknowledges and often celebrates them as marks of different gifts given by God to the congregation. In the body of Christ, “... unity includes the respectful inclusion of dissenting voices … Unity is living as a body with members who are different from one another” (Lawrenz, p. 106).

Once unity as a body is established, be it the Church Universal or a local congregation, the question then arises: Who is included as the body of Christ? Who is included in God’s people? The early church, as evidenced by the Epistles, picked up the language of saints to refer to those who were considered faithful. Romans 12:13 asks that the Christians in Rome “[c]ontribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (Rom. 12:13, NRSV). In I Corinthians, the local church is assumed to be familiar with Paul’s teachings to other congregations as regards taking up money for the saints: “Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia” (1 Cor. 16:1, NRSV). It seems clear from these references that the saints were not limited to one congregation but were spread out among all congregations. Additionally, saints were assumed to recognize one another, and to receive one another well. As we consider what Christian identity means, we can sum it up in this way: (1) the Bible contains the story of the formation of the people of God; (2) the people of God are made up of diverse classes and races; (3) the people of God recognize righteousness in one another; and (4) the people of God receive one another as family.

These assumptions about the people of God are reflected in contemporary congregations, among them the one I serve at Ann Street United Methodist Church in Beaufort, North CarolinaI. In the past, the congregation was made up of a geographically and economically isolated and fairly homogeneous group of community members, change in the demographics of the community at large is driving change within the congregation. While the Bible tells the story of how God’s people are formed, there are growing pains associated with embracing a saint from off (as locals would say, at times pejoratively). The diverse people of today’s Beaufort can only be reflected in the congregation at Ann Street if the old Beaufort members can learn to accept and embrace those with new ideas, different socio-economic statuses, and particularly those who are transplants into the local culture as fellow saints or people of God. Hospitality is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and is “... a prelude to reconciliation because it sets up an environment in which trust, kindness, and safety prevail” (Anderson & Foley, p. 182).

The force necessary to drive that change is the transforming power of a relationship with God in Jesus Christ, which shapes us for relationships with others. While we are capable of friendships and family relationships apart from God, it is God’s love that opens our eyes to look past our differences and opens our hearts to welcome a brother or sister in the faith. As Ann Street UMC lives through the ongoing changes of the Beaufort community, the church can open itself to new relationships and learn to appreciate the relationship with God that new Beaufort members already have.

“On the simplest level, a systemic approach to change recognizes that change in one part of the system requires adjustment in every other” (Stevens & Collins, p. 52). Systems Theory views balance in a system as dynamic; this orientation describes Ann Street and Beaufort as needing to reestablish a sense of balance that reflects an authentic understanding of who they are based both on the past and their current reality. Telling stories can help with this process of finding a new sense of balance: “Stories not only inform how things are going, they connect with the stories of those who are leading and generate wise insights for the future. Stories enable leaders to form a better picture of the health of the community than numbers alone ever could” (Myers, p. 81).

Narrative theology emphasizes knowing who we are and learning one another’s stories. For Ann Street, narrative theology asks “Can we incorporate the diverse old and new Beaufort members’ stories into one story of Ann Street Church that encompasses all that has gone into it?” Narrative theology provides the framework to see all the Ann Street members as having common origins as children of God and a common future in the Resurrection. It allows for the intimacy of sharing one’s personal history and the interconnectedness of sharing both what we have in common and what makes us different as positive values in the service of Christ and the church. Using a narrative approach, one facet of my ministry in this place is to encourage church members to locate themselves and others in a story of Ann Street that acknowledges both their commonalities and their differences, understanding that “[s]tory is the measure of community. Story emerges from life … Story is the universal measurement of life” (Myers, 79).

Bringing together the diverse back stories of its members’ varied connections to the church can help ensure that the congregation can develop a shared vision of a preferred future for the church. Discernment of this shared vision will not be an end, but instead a step along the way as we move closer to a sense of community and belonging. “Organic community—belonging—is a process, a conversation… It is not the product of community that we are looking for. It is the process of belonging that we long for” (Myers, p. 82).

Along the way, we have had some fun markers of how well we’ve done in drawing the diverse stories of Ann Street’s members into the larger narrative of this congregation as a part of the Body of Christ. It’s now more common than before to hear a church member tell a story about someone else, because we’ve worked (hard) at creating opportunities both for telling individual stories, and for making connections not only with one another, but also with Christ. Two young children (7 and 8 years old) requested baptism, which is unusual for many UMC churches where baptism is often done as an infant or deferred until adolescent Confirmation or adulthood. However, we believe that our intentional telling of ours and others’ stories has helped even children to decide to take this step. We’ve reclaimed the meaning of story for Ann Street, leveraging its wisdom and community-building power, knowing that as Tim O'Brien said, “stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story” (Dale, 1999, p. 40).

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Anderson, H. & Foley, E. (2001). Mighty stories, dangerous rituals: Weaving together the human and the Divine. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dale, R. (1999).  Quote of O’Brien, T. Leadership for a changing church: Charting the shape of the river. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Herrington, J., Bonem, M. & Furr, J. (2000). Leading congregational change: A practical guide for the transformational journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Keel, T. (2007). Intuitive leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Lawrenz, Mel. (2009). Whole church: Leading from fragmentation to engagement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lodahl, M. (2008). The story of God: A narrative theology, 2nd ed. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press.

Myers, J. (2007). Organic community: Creating a place where people naturally connect. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

New International Version of the Bible.

New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Stevens, R. P. & Collins, P. (1993). The equipping pastor: A systems approach to congregational leadership. Washington, DC: Alban Institute.

This article made possible in part by a grant from the Lattner Family Foundation.