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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Give Me a Story to Tell and Make it Relevant

I like story-telling, narrative preaching or whatever you want to call it. My grandfather, Papa, as we called him, would let me snuggle in the bed with him and he would start a story and tell me to finish it. It was great at such an early age to be mentored in the art of story-telling. Papa would lead off with a wild yarn and I would try to make it wilder, then he would ask the hard but creative question, "What did the story mean to you?"

Story and meaning have been on my mind as I've been perusing the UMC Call to Action Committee's reports on our church. It has been interesting to read the Towers Watson report on the driving forces of vitality in the UMC. One of the factors mentioned specifically is "Using more topical preaching in Traditional service." I've been a lectionary preacher for years, but have always attempted to be topical at the same time: timely, practical, relevant. The studies of our denomination have been fascinating. You can find the Towers Watson and Apex reports at http://www.umc.org/calltoaction under "Research Projects."

The Towers Watson summary says that there are four key areas identified as vitality-drivers: number of small groups, empowered and effective lay leadership, relevant worship experiences, and excellent pastoral leadership including good preaching and length of tenure. Likewise the Apex group has studied the UMC and has found that mission clarity, competency, and "distance issues" between the general agencies, Bishops and the local church have exacerbated a relevancy crisis for our denomination.

The point that keeps zinging me is about story-telling and relevancy. As a District Superintendent I'm going from charge conference to charge conference this time of year. I am trying to support connectionalism and especially connectional giving in these difficult economic times. I am absolutely convinced that people will give if they can put a face on apportionments. The same is true for local churches. The studies show that churches that have more face-time activities are vital. If the general church via agencies and bishops can give more face-time to local constituencies then they will be more relevant. It's all about telling a personal story.

My fear is that we have too many people from bottom to top and top to bottom that don't have a story to tell. We aren't doing so hot in terms of relevancy because we're not answering all the questions that people are asking. Sometimes we're answering questions that people are not even asking. That is useless. But, I'm thinking in the back of my pea-brain, that the story that is too often untold or the penultimate unanswered question is "What is the meaning of life?" If I cannot answer that question with the Jesus-story in my own story then relevancy is shot to you-know-where. The Gospel is the essence of relevancy.

So I'll finish with a story. Make of it what you will. Talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. It seems in this story that the Pope needed a heart transplant. After word spread that the Pope needed a new heart, letters, emails, phone calls, and telegrams poured into the Vatican with offers from people to give the Pope their heart. The Pope pondered how he would decide from so many donors whose heart he would take. He couldn’t believe that so many people were so willing to give up their lives so he could receive their heart. He came up with a plan. On the appointed day announced ahead to the world, he would stand on the balcony of the Pope’s chambers overlooking St. Peter’s Square and drop a feather. Whoever it landed on would be the blessed donor. The day came and the Pope stood and dropped the feather. It floated down, down, down, until it was just above the heads of the gathered throng. People were shouting, “Take my heart, Pope, Take my heart!” Then just as the feather almost landed it was, “Take my heart, Pope – Blow,Whew; Take my heart, Pope, Blow/Whew”

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