Participating in the Story of God 1

Pointing to the large pile of stones gathered near the river, a young teen asks her grandmother, “Why are those rocks there?” Having waited for that very question to be asked, the teen’s trusted mentor answers, “It’s an amazing story–one that I heard over and over again as I was growing up. Many years ago, our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. . . .” The grandmother continues by recounting the way in which God called a leader, plagues struck the Egyptians, waters were divided, manna was provided, and a covenant was made.
In another corner of the village, several persons have gathered around the evening fire, singing songs and recounting the amazing exploits and sincere faith of ancestors such as Deborah, Gideon, Hannah, and David. Some around the fire have heard these stories dozens of times. For others in the circle, this night is one of initiation as they hear of events and experiences that will define their identity and shape their character for the remainder of their lives.
The conversation between the young teen and her grandmother, as well as the dialogue around the community campfire, is a snapshot of what the people of God have been doing for thousands of years. Throughout our history, the faith, like a baton in a relay race, has been passed on from one generation to the next. Recounting what God has done in the life of His community, the people of God have creatively invited the next generation to become active participants in God’s ongoing activity, whether it be through piling stones, telling stories, singing songs, preaching sermons, writing letters, or celebrating central events around a meal. They faithfully carried out the ancient task given to subsequent generations: “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise, bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6.7-9).
Now, thousands of years later, we face the same challenge that all generations before us have faced: how are we to pass the ancient faith to the next generation? Increasingly, since the days of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, we have all too easily become satisfied with reducing the work of God to a list of points or propositions that can then be applied to life. Like a winepress, we tend to “squeeze the juice” out of biblical stories, songs, and letters, reduce them to a set of “how-to’s” or “applicable points.” We then give those reductions to our students as simple ways to make it through another week. The problem is that nothing is left of the story, the song, or the letter. As result, God’s past and present activity becomes distant and foreign to our lives.  Scripture becomes nothing more than a “how to” manual or a rule book, and the Church is perceived as an antiquated way of dealing with life or an overbearing authority figure.
Likewise, our students are never challenged to think about their faith within the story, the song, or the letter; everything is done for them. As a result, the life of faith can quickly become a mindless and heartless following of points rather than a transformed way of thinking and being in the world.
Furthermore, even when biblical truths are applied to the dominant culture in which we live, that dominant culture often continues to determine our priorities. We may provide our students with a few biblical steps for surviving in the real world and offer lifestyles to guarantee eternal life, but our own identity and the identities of our students continue to be shaped by the dominant culture. The Kingdom of God as it is depicted in Scripture and the subsequent history of the Church becomes nothing more than a foreign object to observe rather than a home in which to live.
One of our greatest challenges is to rediscover and practice the manner in which our ancestors have consistently communicated the faith and talked about God. Our spiritual ancestors challenge us to do something other than give our students spiritual how-to’s. We must speak of an alternative world within which to live, a lens through which life can be seen and understood, and an identity that will shape character and lifestyle.
How might we face the challenge that confronts us? The Story of God and his people has already provided an answer to that very question. Piece by piece, stories, songs, sermons, letters, creeds, holidays, and sacraments, all belonging to a counter-kingdom, the Kingdom of God, are consistently and deliberately handed to the next generation. Out of those numerous pieces is constructed an alternative world in which our students can find their identity and their character.
More than simply telling numerous disconnected stories, we recognize that for the people of God there exists one grand narrative, beginning with the earliest chapters of the Bible and extending through the history of the Christian Church down to the present day. It is a mega-story with a grand plot: God is reconciling the world to himself through His people. In more recent years, such an approach to ministry that calls persons to find their identity within the grand Story of God has been given the name narrative. Although the name may be a recent development, the method of inviting subsequent generations to participate in the mega-story of God, to discover their identity within that story, and to develop a character in light of that identity has deep roots in Scripture and Christian tradition. Such an approach to ministry and discipleship has been the distinctive way in which the people of God have talked about God. We might call this way of talking about God narrative theology.
As teachers, mentors, parents, and youth workers, what would it mean for us to practice ministry as “narrative God-talkers?” What would it mean for us to understand our own identity as being narrative theologians? Certainly, all of us who talk about God, His nature, His activity among us, and His will for our lives, whether it be in messages, Bible studies, or counseling sessions, are God-talkers (theologians). The question for us is never “Are we theologians?” Rather, as persons whose primary responsibility is to speak about God and name His activity in the lives of students, the question is “What type of theologians are we?” As we step into the world of narrative, let us explore what it would mean for us to practice youth ministry as narrative God-talkers.

By Tim Green

This series of reflections on a narrative model for Christian ministry comes from the book Worship Centered Teaching.
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Paul Sheneman
Paul Sheneman is an author, speaker and youth pastor. He serves with the Macedonia Methodist Church in Ohio. He drinks way too much coffee for his own good. His main interest is exploring Christian formation. You can follow most of his ramblings on his blog at www.discipleshipremix.com or on Twitter @PaulSheneman.