Tonight, in my church, we’ll convene a group of 40-50 lay people who will study and pray for the next few months about planting a new congregation, a satellite campus. Part of what we’ll be talking about is the need for 21st century Christians to convert themselves all over again, to turn away from institutional (‘organized’) religion and rediscover what it means to be part of a movement of Jesus followers joining Christ’s reconciling work in the world.
One of the effects of institutional Christianity in the 20th century has been the near total inability of Sunday morning Christians to articulate their faith, to be able, without embarrassment or cheese, to tell their story. To weave God’s story in to the story of their life. Of course mainline churches are in decline. How could you convert someone else to something you can’t actually talk about in a coherent way? Much less compelling. A faith that is essentially private is incapable of being shared.
Tonight we’ll be inviting people to start telling their stories. We’ll even be giving them very specific vocabulary words to try and use: God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Faith, Gospel, Salvation, and the Names of People and Places.
We’ll also be giving them vocabulary they’re NOT allowed to use: Member, Denomination Name, Committee, Voting, Years of Belonging to a Church, Personal, Private, To Me
One of our goals over the next months is that by the end of this process we’ll have 40-50 people who can tell their story in a way that’s not embarrassing to them or to their listener. Just that alone would give us a DNA worth replicating.
So, with story in mind, here’s my story:
I could tell you about how I first came to faith.
I could tell you about a childhood and adolescence with God seldom mentioned by any one in my family save my grandmother’s Italian prayers and my parents screaming God-damn at one another.
I could tell you about the surprising, compulsory church attendance my mother instituted one Christmas and the Sundays thereafter. I could tell you about my refusal to participate in the worship during those Sundays, my mockery of everyone else who did, my demanded criteria before I would ever decide to believe.
I could tell you about being surprised in one of those Sundays to discover myself singing and praying along. I could tell you about sitting in the church balcony, watching the wine being poured into a chalice and bread being broken to Jesus’ words ‘…for you..’ and suddenly feeling convicted.
As though whatever slate I’d been carrying around within me had been wiped clean.
I could tell you about the few years after that Sunday, before leaving for college, in which I tried to make up for lost time, throwing myself in to the life, worship and ministry of the church. I could tell you about how, in that time, I grew into some one I was not before- someone whom some of my friends and many in family did not like as much as the person I’d been before.
But someone who more closely resembled, albeit imperfectly and only in fits and snatches of moments, Jesus.
I could tell you that story from beginning to middle to now.
But if I told that story as though I were the main character, as though the story at any point turned on my initiative or volition, not only would I be lying I would be making a grave theological mistake.
My story cannot be told without the Holy Spirit.
My story is not ‘my’ story (nor is your story ‘your’ story).
My story is the Holy Spirit’s story, or rather my story is the story of how the Holy Spirit caught me up in God’s story.
My story (and your story) is not the story of how I came to faith. My story is the story how the Spirit, through God’s gracious initiative, made me a participant in the story of salvation.
That we so often do not tell our stories this way reflects the extent to which we minimize the work of the Spirt, the only result of which would be a privatized faith.
I wonder, how would you tell your own story?
Would you be able to?