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  • Writer's pictureNancy Rexford

Forward Chats #14 - July 21, 2019

Telling a Positive Story About Our Church

The background

This was the Sunday that was so hot that some people wondered whether we ought to cancel church entirely. But as it turned out, the service was held in the fellowship hall with some fans going and was quite comfortable, and Jim Pocock’s sermon was lively and thought-provoking. After the service, about 15 people stayed on for Forward Chats. The discussion grew out of our last meeting (July 14), in which we watched a TED talk about the four pillars on which one builds a meaningful life: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and story-telling.

Toward the end of the July 14 Chat, we expanded the idea of story-telling to include the stories we tell about our church. We noted that the stories we tell about this church have often been rather negative, the most common one being, “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. We are a dying church.” Thousands of churches could say the same thing. It isn’t very distinctive. Another common negative story is “we’re a church that talks and talks but never changes.”

As early as the July 7th meeting, Andrea began to push back with a different narrative. She said flatly that it isn’t true that we never change. This church has changed a LOT! (see notes from July 7 for a list) We are now very different from the church we were two or three years ago.

What do we mean by a positive story?

Andrea’s statement, coupled with the TED talk, inspired us to try imagining a new story, a positive story, about this church. As a reminder, if you weren’t at the July 14th meaning, a “story” is not just a string of facts. It is facts plus meaning – a meaning that often arises from the way you link the facts through cause and effect. One famous example compares a sequence of facts

The king died and then the queen died.

—with a story:

The king died and then the queen died of grief.

The story gives meaning to the sequence of events. In this case, the last two words, “of grief,” make it a tragic love story like Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet.

So when we talk about creating a more positive story about our church, we’re not talking about denying the facts, but seeing if there isn’t a more positive meaning we could draw out of those facts, one that helps us go forward with greater hope and energy.

We began by making a list of positive things about this church.

Positive things about Sunday worship

  • Wonderful music program

  • A place to meet people

  • Friendly greeting

  • A place for busy people to be at peace, to stop and reflect on meaning, instead of just doing

Positive benefits to the wider community

  • Church connects us to programs like Family Promise and Recovery High that allow us to take a part in addressing social problems we could never do anything about alone

  • Our scholarship program helps kids launch a better life

  • We make our space available to groups that do good. We have maybe 450 people coming through our doors every week, including recovery groups like AA and Al Anon, a group for autistic children, a big music/theater program and many recitals. People are comfortable here.

Positive characteristics of our church community

  • There is a positive attitude and energy here that helps us go forward even while we are between pastors. We are leaving the negativity behind.

  • This is a church where the congregation takes responsibility for itself and our future. People step up to lead.

  • We can show ways in which our members’ lives changed for the better because of our intervention and support

  • Adjectives include compassionate (most of us!), active, committed, friendly, welcoming, supportive, nurturing of children, committed to community

How to sum it up

We’d like to find a short phrase that we could use to describe our positive story. A few people threw out some opening ideas:

  • The little engine that could

  • A church that can help you change the story you tell about yourself

  • We who are saved because we kept on trying (this is Charles trying to remember T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: East Coker)

But we didn’t have the energy on this hot morning to find the memorable phrase we are looking for. We’d like to come back to this later in the fall – when it’s cooler!

The powerful thing about creating a story, whether positive or negative, is that it tends to change the way one behaves in the future. The story we tell about ourselves is a way of defining who we are, and then we tend to behave in a way that is consistent with the concept we have about ourselves. The story becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So it makes sense to build a positive story out of our past facts, and in fact the New Testament encourages to do exactly that. As Paul says in Philippians, chapter 4:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! . . .

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

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