Why do we stop telling stories in Christian formation?

In my files, I have a list of blog posts I want to write someday. Yesterday, as I brainstormed some new ones, I wrote, “Something on stories -- how we seem to think people grow out of them.” And this morning as I looked at the brainstorm list I wrote last fall, I saw, “Telling stories instead of giving information.” So apparently, this has been on my mind for a while.

Today I want to talk about why I think we stop telling stories, and in my next post I'll talk about how we can incorporate stories back in to our formation experience.

Let’s be honest: how many of us think story telling is for little kids? Oh, we know in our heads that Jesus told stories and stories are wonderful and that people are clearly entranced by stories that they see on television and read in the news, etc., etc. But when it comes to Christian formation, for me at least, there’s still a gut-level reaction that “If it’s not Instruction On Things, then it’s not really Christian Education.” 

There’s also, in my experience, a real lack of understanding of how to make the transition from story-telling as a time when small children sit on the floor, cross-legged, in a circle, listening to someone tell a story in a sing-songy voice (and believe me, a good children’s story-teller, who can keep children enraptured for any length of time, is a precious thing). It’s hard to move from that picture of “story time” to a picture of what it means to hear stories as a teen or an adult. 

When kids move into youth group, there seems to be a sudden shift from Stories to Not-Stories-But-Learning that sets up this dynamic. What it seems to say is, “OK, sitting around and listening to stories is fine when you’re little, but now we want to actually have you learn important stuff.” Again, I think in our heads we say – and even know – that learning the stories is really important. But what do our actions show? 

It’s even clearer in adult formation. Take a look at any formation program out there: how many of them are simply about hearing the stories? Oh, they're there, but we hide the stories, almost as if we are ashamed. Instead of sharing stories, we say we are studying church history, or exploring the parables, or sharing the wisdom of great people of faith.  

And I think this spills over into our worship experience as well, the very time when we do share the stories of our faith through Scripture, song, sermon, and the Eucharist. Again, the stories are there, but we don't call it that. And from what I've seen, lots of preachers think that telling stories is not good enough for a Real Sermon. Many is the time that I have gone to a service where the sermon involves reading lengthy quotes from great thinkers and writers, but the only thing I remember is the brief anecdote of “something that happened to me this week.” And the best sermons I've ever heard have been the ones with the stories that stayed with me and lodged in my bones.

Stories stick. But in order to have them stick, we need to tell them. And the “we” in this equation is not just those with the funny collars or the word “Christian Educator” in our job titles. Stories stick when we tell them together. More about that in my next.

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