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  • Writer's pictureNancy Rexford

Forward Chats #13 - July 14

What Creates a Meaningful Life?


It was hot in church on Sunday and attendance was low, but 12 people still attended Forward Chats. Nancy introduced this meeting saying that while everyone seems to feel that Forward Chats is a really good development in our church, it also feels as if we are starting to recycle the same observations. How can we take our conversations to a deeper level?

Today, we decided to try something different: a 12-minute “TED talk” (TED = Technology, Entertainment and Design). The TED website ( makes available short talks (under 20 minutes) in which well-prepared speakers share new developments in their fields. Links to a few interesting TED talks are included at the end of this blog post. The talk we watched at this meeting is by Emily Esfahani Smith and is called “There’s more to life than being happy.” It is available here.

Why we chose this TED talk:

We chose this talk because it might help us articulate to outsiders why they might want to come to church. In the old days, when people believed in hell and damnation, you could tell people they had to come to church to be saved from their sins and from an eternity of hellfire. None of us believe that anymore. But if it isn’t a matter of salvation, what is the valuable thing that people gain by coming to church?

This talk may help us explain that using non-theological language. Example; true story of the young man who had been struck and badly injured by an out-of-control car and who had become very isolated because of his many surgeries and periods of therapy. He expressed a need for community but didn’t know where to find it. It never occurred to him (having been raised catholic) that he could find community in a church.

Then we watched Emily Esfahani Smith’s short talk, which we recommend watching. In summary, she says that the search for happiness rarely produces happiness. Happiness comes from having a meaningful life. She outlines “four pillars” that create a meaningful life:

1. Belonging (through love)

2. Purpose (using your strengths to serve others)

3. Transcendence (feeling part of something greater than yourself)

4. Storytelling (the story we tell ourselves about ourselves)

Responses to the talk (grouped by topic, not chronological order)

Fragility of community

  • EJ was struck by the story EES told about how a young man snubbed a friendly newspaper vendor by rejecting his gift and how easy it is to offend someone without intending to, and thus destroy the sense of community and belonging that had been developing.

  • Others including RM added to this perception. It may not be easy to encourage abrasive people to be less insensitive about their remarks, but we can encourage the recipients to look at the whole person and the normally good intentions, not just the insensitive remark in isolation.

  • GJ wondered how we can offer community/belonging to more young people, who might otherwise be drawn into cult-like groups. It was noted that young married people sometimes drift back to give their children a church community.

  • PM remarked that the internet has interrupted the tradition of community. People think they are in a community through their online connections, as if Facebook were the new Transcendence, but it’s not true. Face-to-face interactions are more challenging than Facebook. There’s more accountability, for one thing.

  • RM shared a true story about a church that gave space to a group of young musicians to create a rock service on Sunday morning, quickly attracting a large group of young people to their church. But the older congregation didn’t like it and kicked them out.

Power of Storytelling

  • MD was struck by the storytelling element and how each of the four pillars builds on the others, and especially how storytelling uses the other three.

  • AMG responded with “home, love, family” – and then explained in more detail what she meant. She talked about the rejection she and her sister have faced repeatedly throughout their lives and how even now other workers at Market Basket make fun of her because of her speech. They have looked for community in a church, but in the last church their dog wasn’t permitted inside the building. So it meant a lot to them to be in a church where Rosie is allowed to come with them and where they are accepted and respected and allowed to participate in choir and Forward Chats. What AMG was doing was telling a positive story about her life, and It was moving to hear how much uncritical welcome can mean to the person who experiences it.

  • MJC talked about the power of sharing our individual stories in church and the need to make more opportunities to do that.

  • WL concurred, noting that in her chaplaincy training they were taught to ask “what gives meaning to your life?” when visiting the sick or dying.

  • Several others supported the idea that sharing our spiritual life was important. It’s easier in smaller groups, so maybe we could revive “Spirited Women.”

  • We never know how our story may affect another person. CT mentioned that as he gets older, he feels closer and closer to teachers in his past, appreciating their guidance more than he actually did at the time

The story we tell about the church

  • The stories we tell about this church have often been rather negative:

o In the 1950s we had lots of members and a huge Sunday School. Now our members are dropping away and we have almost no children at all.

o We are a church with a history of conflict in which various factions were able to drive out a whole series of pastors.

o We talk and talk but we never change.

  • Andrea, in the July 7th meeting, was the first person who clearly pushed back with a different narrative. She said it isn’t true that we never change. She stated boldly that this church has changed a LOT! (see notes from last week for a list).

  • Charles reminded us what a story really is:

o It is not just a string of facts, it is facts plus cause and effect, which creates meaning.

o Not just “the king died and then the queen died,” but “the king died and then the queen died of grief.” – FACTS + MEANING

  • The stories we have been telling about the church are out of date. We need to get a new story out there. We need to be missionaries about our church and tell a positive story.

  • AMG suggested passing out flyers about our church door to door, and GJ suggested creating a flyer with a positive story and handing one to every person who attends church and ask them to give that one flyer to one of their neighbors or acquaintances.

At that point, our hour was up. Everyone agreed that we had only touched the surface of this question and that we need to continue the discussion. So next week the topic is:

What story are we going to tell about our Church? Or even better – let’s create the story and just start telling it!


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