Storytelling: a Path to Spiritual Formation
by Nancy Goede (March / April 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 2)
Knowing one's personal story of faith, and sharing it, become integral steps in the process of spiritual formation
There's a lot of material out there about spirituality and young adultswhat they're looking for in a church, in a God, or how the church can help them grow spiritually. As a campus pastor, I'm interested in reading the results of surveys and studies, because I want to know what most people in their late teens and early 20s think and do.
But for all the material out there, none of it will tell me about John, a student at the University of Chicago. Even my past experience with other students in this place will not help me to know him, and his singular spiritual experiences and struggles.
The only way I can know this young man is to ask him to tell me his story. Finding ways to help young adults tell the story of their spiritual life is something church professionals can do to aid in this mysterious process called spiritual formation.
If young adults want to grow spiritually, it helps if they realize what they already know and where they've already been. Learning to shape their spiritual story, and tell it well, is a first step that can suggest other steps to come.
I recently asked several students who worship regularly to write about the things that have impacted their faith, that is, the things they find have nurtured or torn down their spirit. I already know the common challenges for young people; most adults do. We've been there.
As church professionals, we've told our faith stories countless times, to teachers, to committees, and through sermons. We can't remember a time when we haven't reflected on that story of joy and doubt and questions. We can't remember a time when we could not tell that story reasonably well.
But John, a medical student, has been away from the church a long time, and he's just beginning to piece together the story of his adult spiritual life. When I asked students to write about the people or events that have formed their spirit, most made lists or wrote short paragraphs.
John, on the other hand, wrote pages of reflection, mostly about the things that had shaken his faith. When he left for college and left the faith and practice of his home, he fell away from the church. His friends weren't interested in questions about God or worship; neither was his girlfriend. A teacher challenged him for referring to the Ten Commandments in a paper, and his science studies raised difficult questions.
Finally, he decided to come back and try again with the help of a faith community.
It's a very common story for a 25-year-old. I already knew the outline from brief conversation. But in writing his story, John entrusted me with emotions and reflections that go far beyond a casual biographical sentence or two.
An important part of caring for people is keeping their secrets, and holding their emotions and their struggles in trust. In pastoral care, we help people make a story from the pieces. We help them form the story of their spirit. John is beginning to tell the story of where he has been, the story of his faith being torn down.
The next step for him will be to decide what might build it up, and to learn to talk about that. No matter how common his story might seem, John has to put it together from the ground up, and he has to tell it to someone, someone who will listen closely. Then he'll be ready to move forward in building his spiritual life.
Working with Internationals
Each of the students wrote their own reflections on faith formation, and shared them with me, but not with each other. Last year, I had a very different experience with a group of international students in the community.
We were planning a Sunday service in Epiphany highlighting mission in each of their countries in Asia. Each of the students contributed a favorite piece of music for worship, and the names of people for whom they wanted us to pray. Seven students and young adults gathered to help with sermon preparation. My hope was that we would together discuss the lessons for the day, and that their insights would be the basis for my sermon.
Conversation, however, was slow. The students didn't know each other well, and they seemed hesitant to engage with each other over Scripture. But soon, talk turned to home churches, how worship was different or the same, and how the community cared for others. Soon, every student was eager to talk.
Each told the story of how their families had come to faith, or the history of their family in their Christian community. Some talked about what had led them to seminary study, while others spoke about a pastor or a piece of Scripture that led them to deeper commitment to Christ. By the end of our time together, I indeed had plenty of sermon material, but more importantly, seven faith stories were spoken, some for the first time in this American setting.
One young woman from mainland China, who had been in the United States several years and had been active in a couple of American congregations, was able to articulate for the first time her feelings about working on a church committee. She was the only woman in the group who was not white and born in the United States, and she suspected that her opinion wasn't sought or valued.
She hadn't realized how distressed she was until she spoke to the group about the experience. The pieces came together, and it became clear, to her and to me, what the next steps might be.
Knowing the biography of young adults is different from hearing their stories. Even if we think we know what young adults face and what they need, we can only know the people in our congregations by asking them to tell us their stories.
We can be helpful to young people in their spiritual formation by giving them opportunities to tell those faith stories. They need chances to choose the important pieces, to explain connections, and to learn to tell their stories well.
Once they know where they've been, then they can see where they might want to go with their life in Christ.
Nancy Goede is an ELCA campus pastor at the University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.