Finding God and Health In The Experience of Storytelling

When people are invited into a safe space to tell their own stories, a mystery unfolds that kindles an authentic connection. It feels as if one of Jesus' parables is getting re-enacted before our very eyes.
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I love it when science documents the benefit of one of life's little pleasures. First there was the antioxidant value of dark chocolate, followed by red wine. Recently I learned that laughter -- even if it's fake -- decreases stress-related hormones. Now we learn that storytelling may have health benefits.

A University of Massachusetts Medical School study recently found that storytelling may have positive effects on patients with high blood pressure. For at least one group of low-income African Americans followed in the study, listening to personal narratives helped maintain lower blood pressure as effectively as more medication. The study found that participants who watched videos of stories drawn from their own community and told in patients' natural voices fared better than those who watched generic, how-to videos about stress reduction.

Does that surprise us? All the world's religious traditions hold stories at their core. While generic how-to messages usually make us tune out, stories grab us. They bring us in, trigger empathy and sometimes cause us to redirect our steps. I know I've found myself riveted to the driver's seat for an extra moment during a slice of NPR's StoryCorps. And it happens to me every once in a while on Sunday morning during the "joys and concerns" part of worship. A real live person tells a little story. Suddenly, I'm upright in my pew, all ears and attentiveness. Recently an older gentleman launched with this line: "God visited us last night at 11:59 p.m. He doesn't have a name yet, but our grandson has safely arrived." Just that small dose of story slipped in sideways had a profound effect on my week, causing me to ask where God might visit me in the days ahead.

This makes me wonder: What would happen if we welcomed stories more regularly into the places we come hoping for healing of our bodies, souls, family lives, communities and world? What if we went a step further and invited deeper listening, asking people to turn off the switches of our information age in favor of a quiet, contemplative moment of holy listening?

I've been eavesdropping on an unscientific experiment with storytelling and holy listening lately. As a self-appointed spy for hope amid the mainline denominations' well-reported decline, I've been looking at congregations who are stirring up a greater capacity for people to be authentically present to one another. This experiment -- part of The Fund for Theological Education's Calling Congregations initiative -- seeks to establish listening congregations as places that might foster a deeper connection to younger generations, especially millennials who tend to have little or no use for organized religion. Authentic connection is a key desire among churched and un-churched, young and old alike who are hungry for lives of meaning and purpose. When people are invited into a safe space to tell their own stories, a mystery unfolds that kindles the authentic connection many people seek. Sometimes it feels as if one of Jesus' parables is getting re-enacted before our very eyes.

Here are a few glimpses of what I've seen:

  • A pastor named John from Dallas began encouraging parishioners at his African Methodist Episcopal church to tell each other stories -- on occasion and in safe spaces, such as the renowned class meetings of John Wesley, founder of Methodism. Wesley would ask: "How is it with your soul?" The question gets updated to sound a little less 18th-century: "How have you experienced God this week?" Or "Tell me about a time recently when you got totally caught up in loving what you were doing?" Shortly after introducing this idea among leaders in the congregation, Pastor John walked in unannounced to a ministry group's visitation at a local retirement community. He found the room vibrating with the energy of old stories revisited, told, honored and pondered anew in light of God's story.

  • A laywoman at a Presbyterian church in South Carolina went to a retreat focused on creating space to listen deeply to one another's stories. She told me that, for the first time in her long life as a churchgoer, she had found what she'd been craving. "It was the opposite of small talk," Amy said. "Only on rare occasions in my life as a church member have I been able to share somebody else's story and have somebody else share in my story. This is Church. But you don't get this sitting in the sanctuary."
  • During a girls retreat, a teenager named Cat told a story to a group of her peers, who then joined in wondering about images of God in the story. At the end of the session Cat said, "The opportunity to talk about my life in a safe space feels different. God is like a safe space where I don't have to watch what I say and feel." One of the other girls in the group said "Wow. We can do this for each other."
  • Dr. Thomas K. Houston, lead researcher in the University of Massachusetts blood pressure study, says, "The magic in stories lies in the relatedness they foster." What the people in the congregations I'm visiting are learning together about storytelling has major implications for shaping the church-that-is-becoming. Maybe, as churches, we could decide to sidestep the generic how-to messages. What if we find ways to welcome the stories of people like us, similar "patients" in these "hospitals for the soul" that church can be? What if the art of storytelling and holy listening could be honed as a spiritual technology, a practice at which people of faith can get better and better, so that we might offer its healing potential to some broken places in the world?

    Placing personal narrative at the center of faith formation is a time-honored way of doing church. It was the source of the oral tradition we now hold as sacred Scripture. Women used it in the 1970's as the path to raise consciousness about patriarchy and chart a course for liberation. The black church has a rich tradition of welcoming personal narratives into worship.

    The churchly name for storytelling is "testimony" and congregations have been experimenting with new ways of embodying this practice. Lillian Daniel, author of Tell It Like It Is, offers this definition: "A testimony is your spoken story about how you have experienced God, offered in the context of our community worship." After a Lenten experiment in welcoming weekly moments of such storytelling in worship, her congregation kept right on doing it, finding that "The practice of testimony strengthened the bonds among us as a community and drew us closer to God as individuals and as a community."

    Margaret Ann Crain found a similar kind of storytelling at work among teenagers in a church in Evanston, Illinois. In this multicultural church teens regularly stand up during worship, at potlucks and in everyday conversation to tell about a "God Moment" experienced on a mission trip. Crain found that naming these God moments came quite easily for teens raised in this church, where practices of storytelling have been intentionally fostered over the past decade and everyone -- from children on up -- gets "a chance to start telling their story and connecting their story to our community." In the words of one of the pastors: "Telling story and connecting story is what we do."

    Fostering relatedness through storytelling could become part of our daily diet of small pleasures. As dark chocolate, a glass of red wine and laughter are good for an individual body, so may storytelling be an antioxidant for our corporate body, a balm for the ailing heart at the center of many of our congregations.

    Dori Baker is scholar-in-residence for The Fund for Theological Education's Calling Congregations initiative and a designer of VocationCARE, an approach for congregations who want to nurture young leaders for the church and the world. She is an author and editor of the new book Greenhouses of Hope: Congregations Growing Young Leaders who Will Change the World.

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