The Embodied Sermon
The topic was alcohol, and it was a classic creation-fall-redemption sermon that warmed every Reformed heart in the sanctuary. “He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts…” (Ps. 104: 14-15a). “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.” (Eph. 5: 18a) The message was packed with wisdom and helpful illustrations, celebrating both our freedom in Christ and the self-control that comes as a fruit of the Spirit.
But this powerful sermon intensified to an entirely deeper level after it was done. A longtime member of the congregation slowly walked to the pulpit, quietly composed herself, and said, “I am a recovering alcoholic, and I would like to share my story.” And for the next ten minutes she did, describing her journey into darkness, which was followed by checking into a rehab center, and now, thirteen years later, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in our church every week. I think our sanctuary was the quietest that I had ever experienced. As a youth leader, I was especially struck by the rapt attention given to her by every teenager in the building.
I imagine that you are not surprised by this.
“Mirrored here, may our lives tell your story,” petitions the hymn Shine, Jesus, Shine, and, because Jesus lives in us through the Holy Spirit, that’s what happens! Jesus is present in our church through the stories of the lives.
In my 62 years as a member of the CRC, I’ve noticed that we tend to describe people either in terms of the opinions they hold or the stories they share. And these two are very different.
Opinions tend to be black and white. Stories are multi-colored.
Opinions can become walls to hide behind. Stories render us vulnerable.
Opinions divide people into us and them. Stories bring people together.
Opinions can generate negative emotions. Stories often generate more loving emotions.
In other words, story-sharing increases the space for Jesus to live in our churches.
Providing story-sharing platforms.
But story-sharing is not easy, and usually does not occur naturally. For that reason, one of our callings in congregational leadership is to provide story-sharing platforms that give people permission to tell their stories to folks who listen respectfully.
Here are some examples:
- In sermons and other parts of the liturgy we who lead have opportunity to incorporate glimpses of our own testimony or to relate the testimonies of others.
- Our worship moments can include a short time dedicated to a brief testimony, like the recovering alcoholic journey I described above. (see this post for a detailed description of one example: Three Minutes of Grace.)
- Once a month my home congregation invites one person to share a half hour faith journey after the service, often conducted interview style with our lead pastor.
- I always try to include questions that evoke stories in the small group I lead at youth group. For example, this week our focus was on social media, and I asked, “Describe a time when you felt down because of the response you received to a Facebook post.” The question was part of a larger discussion about finding our identity in Christ rather than through social media.
- Sometimes I’ll begin a committee meeting by asking each person to name a favorite verse and describe why this verse has life-significance for them.
- A pastor told me that once a year he gathers all the parents of first-graders, and does a workshop with them on how to share their own faith stories with their children.
Do you see what each of these bullets have in common? Each one declares in its own way, “we all have hundreds of God stories inside us, and they need help to come out!” And we provide such help when we offer permission-giving platforms like these.
Imagine if your congregation intentionally decided to work towards becoming a place that provides story-sharing platforms, and imagine how the church culture might change after five years of such sharing. Imagine how the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ might have more room to flourish in that kind of an environment.
Faith Formation Ministries has a toolkit that provides dozens of ideas for providing story sharing platforms. You can check it out at crcna.org/FaithFormation/toolkits. If you’d like to consult with an FFM team member concerning how to adapt these ideas for your congregation, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If your church has developed other story-sharing platforms, please describe them in the comments. Thanks!