Every so often, when the time is right and the Spirit moves, a church service can be utterly derailed by something as simple as someone getting up and telling their story.
Sometimes this is spontaneous, sometimes it’s planned, but when an unheard story is told with honesty and vulnerability, it holds the room, somehow becoming its own kind of sermon. I’ve seen it happen – you can’t package it, you can’t manipulate it, you just open up the mic and get out of the way and let the story speak for itself, and God through it.
I believe in people being able to share their stories in church. There are precious moments when a congregation can be formed and an individual can be freed, and we don’t carve out enough spaces in our worship services for these moments to happen. And the more we become a society driven to share the minutiae of our lives through social media, the more important and central this is going to be.
There are stories that need to be heard, not because they’re filler-fodder for an inspirational sermon, not because they’ll make everyone feel better, but because they’re the truth of people’s lives, and its a sad reality that some truths go unheard and leave in impoverished in the silence. But our churches shouldn’t be afraid of truth – challenged, convicted or changed, sure, but not afraid.
So if you’re a church leader, look around – what voices are going unheard in your church? Are there communities in your neighbourhood that interact with you every day except Sunday morning? Whose stories do you need to amplify?
(Because remember, it’s not about you, it’s about Christ and his Kingdom, and that Kingdom may be build in places you don’t go and your people need to hear about that.)
Instinctively I want to follow this up with an appeal for everyone to tell their stories; after all, over the last couple of decades, technology has democratized this sort of thing, right? We all have a voice now… Except some people will speak out and get shouted down, some will tell their stories and get fallen upon by an army of trolls. Everyone has a voice, but death threats and trolling are an efficient way of silencing people. We need to be proactive in creating and safeguarding storytelling spaces, and we need to work on the online signal-to-noise ratio.
But telling our stories can be transformative. They can reshape and reinvigorate and redeem the world around us. They can create spaces for healing and justice around our campfires. They tell us where we’ve been and where we’re going, of what the Empire has done and, subversively, what’s been growing in the margins and the cracks.
We can spiritualise this and call it ‘testimony’, but at its core we need our churches to be storytelling spaces with campfires next to our altars. And then we’ll be able to gather around the bread and wine with the sound of our stories in our ears. We’ll hear our many voices and maybe hear God in the midst of them.