By Eddie Pipkin
April 1, 2017
Michael Sharp was killed in the Congo last week.
Who?, you might understandably be asking, absorbed in the daily barrage of news from Trumpland, reports of bombings and terrorist attacks, and the usual onslaught of depressing details from around the globe. But Michael Sharp was a hero. The kind of hero who works humbly to live out his faith, putting compassion into action and doing his part to bring healing and hope to the world.
He was killed by unknown assailants in the Congo, along with his Swedish counterpart from the U.N., Zaida Catalan, and a Congolese interpreter. They were there in the war-torn African nation to explore civilian massacres, and to jumpstart peace and reconciliation efforts to the various militia groups that have brought decades of violence to the 80 million people who live there. Sharp was young for such a posting, but had impressed many with his commitment to helping others. Congolese researcher Rachel Sweet described him this way in a profile in the Washington Post:
“He just deeply cared about everyone and saw no difference between people of different nationalities,” said Rachel Sweet, a Congo-based researcher who has known him since 2013. She recalled that for the three years he volunteered for the Mennonite Central Committee in Congo, he received only a tiny monthly stipend — and even that he wanted to share. “He refused to eat anything other than beans and rice because that’s what everyone around him was being served,” she said. [You can read and hear more about Michael also on this page at Here and Now.]
I share this sad news with you to celebrate a story worth telling: a committed Christian who lived out his discipleship authentically. They inspire us. They challenge us to think more deeply about our own commitment and dedication to the cause of Christ. Yet these kinds of stories are often overlooked, not only in the national news media, but often with the contexts of our own congregations. Our local faith families are filled with men, women, youth, and children who are doing unheralded good work and growing in their faith. We should share those stories, and here are some reasons why:
- They inspire people. They give people a sense of the possible in imagining what God may do through them and their ministry partners. They move us from the stuck places of our day-to-day routine to a new territory of opportunities. They free us from the shackles of “this won’t work because” to the evidence of “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
- They give people a sense that God can use “even them.” God doesn’t only use clergy or spiritually-gifted superstars. God uses every person uniquely (providing unique gifts to each, unique life experiences to share, and unique opportunities to serve). When people see and hear stories of the ways that their fellow disciples are being used, they begin to understand that everyone has a role to play.
- They create a narrative for our ministry and congregation. It is one thing to talk about the vision for where you want a ministry to go, but when people get to see and hear first-hand accounts of how God is actually at work, they viscerally understand the power of that vision brought to fruition. It moves from the generic to the real.
Of course, we are familiar with the classic stories of our faith (anybody ever heard the story of John Newton and “Amazing Grace” in a sermon?), and preachers often look to the news for inspiration (like I just did with the Michael Sharp story), but what we are really talking about here is the power of local stories, what are traditionally referred to as witnesses or testimonies from our own congregations. These stories of authentically living out the life of a disciple are powerful and relevant.
And there are more outlets than ever for sharing them:
- This is a sometimes neglected element of worship that brings the gospel message to life for those in our congregations. We should routinely be providing opportunities for people to share their unique stories. Done most effectively, this kind of sharing is done in the context of a sermon, scripture reading, or vision casting (not a random witness, but in service of a greater theme).
- Social media. We have never before had some many platforms available to make such discipleship stories available to people 24 hours a day, wherever they are. Written accounts, and even more powerfully, recordings of people telling their own stories, have immediate impact and provide a forum for interaction (continuing the story telling process).
- Old-school media. Once you have a story, don’t neglect to reproduce it as many places as possible, including in print in newsletters, etc. for those who are not so techno-geeky. A good rule of thumb is to never let a blank page (for instance, the back of financial statement) go into an envelope. Blank space is story sharing space.
- Web site. Part of your home portal on the internet should always include a catalog of relevant stories that bring ministry descriptions to life.
- A culture of sharing stories. The key is to build a culture in which sharing stories is encouraged, even expected. We should make it easy for people to share and give them tools for how to do it well. Among leaders, we should create an expectation that part of their role will be as story gatherers and story sharers in their ministry areas (and in reporting back ministry news to the wider congregation).
Be wary of the stumbling blocks that can undermine a goal of more story sharing:
- Misunderstanding what makes a good story. Here is, perhaps, a difference in definition between witness, testimony, and story telling. We’re not just looking for generic descriptions of being blessed by God or non-detailed professions of how God has changed our lives. We’re looking for details that incorporate all the essential elements of a strong narrative: characters, setting, conflict, resolution, and dialogue! [Here’s a fun example of an inspiring story direct from the local IHOP). Compare that captured moment to the bulk of church newletter and e-news articles: they are far and away announcements and quick recaps with NO ACTUAL STORIES.
- Using the same old folks (and thus, inevitably, the same old stories). We all tend to fall back on the same cast of characters in worship planning or when it’s time for the stewardship campaign, etc. These are folks who are easy to work with and who perform well. But relying on the go-to people too often dilutes our catalog of stories and reduces the range of relatability. Go out on a limb and expand the repertoire (heck—set up an expectation that everybody has something valuable to share).
- Accepting people’s whining that they just aren’t good speakers. Very few people want to share when first asked. Most people don’t think they are up to it. So, it our jobs to guide them through the process, coaching them along the way, encouraging them to be themselves while giving them the tools to do it well (video, with which most people are much more comfortable and which make use of the power of editing, versus live speaking, for instance). This could easily be somebody’s job (staff or volunteer): helping people share their stories well.
- Not leveraging a good story among multiple platforms. Once you’ve got a compelling story, share it anywhere and everywhere you possibly can! We ministry leaders too often get a story posted one place and check it off the list. There are lots of ways that people engage with our ministries—they should encounter these compelling stories however they interact with us.
What are ways you have found to encourage dynamic story sharing in the context of your ministry? Share your “stories of stories” with us. And if you have questions we can answer for you, or you’d like to read more about emc3’s material on designing engaging worship or helping disciples develop the skill of sharing their own faith stories, visit us at our web site.