When I was in college I took a class called Sociology of Alienation. One of the markers we examined was the loss of shared cultural narratives in American society. As an illustration, my professor offered the class several literary examples which were based in biblical stories. Not only could the class not place the references, most of us didn’t even know the references once they were pointed out. That was 15 years ago.
I am not surprised, then, when I read the results of survey after survey describing the irrelevance of the Church to the present culture, even amongst those interested in spiritual matters and practices. (Megan Castellan dubbed them “liminals” in her recent post here.) Everywhere I turn, my colleagues in ministry are trying to figure out how to better tell God’s story to a world that increasingly pays no attention to us.
This week the blog over at Confirm Not Conform adressed two key challenges for telling our story in the current landscape: 1) We forget what it’s like to not know. Most of the people we are trying to tell the story to are listening from a different place than from where we are telling the story, and we forget to put ourselves in their shoes. 2) We lose sight of the simple truth that Jesus used day-to-day examples to tell his stories. We forget, Laura Toepfer writes, “that when Jesus was teaching his followers by using stories and parables, they were not yet Bible stories!”
There is an underlying assumption at the heart of these challenges, of course: we assume our job is simply to go out and tell the story. But there’s more to it if we want to share God’s story effectively. Namely, we have to actually share it. It is not “ours”–we do not own it. It is God’s. And God is already at work, present in the lives of anyone we meet. “Sharing the story” seems often to mean something closer to “disclosing the story.” As if we have a story, and they don’t, so we need give it to them. Game over. But really sharing the story would mean walking through the narrative together; it would mean acknowledging that it belongs as much to “the other” as to ourselves; it would mean hearing their questions and answers as loudly as our own.
In Acts 8, Philip’s successful sharing of the story happens because he stops to hear the eunuch’s questions. He respects the eunuch’s experience and lets his curiosity uncover the story as they explore it together. Effective sharing of the gospel story and of the life of the Church in 2012 must mean journeying together to better understand, share, and respond to God’s story alongside our neighbor. We’ll have to live more deeply into “not knowing” and listening for how God shows up in unexpected ways in the day-to-day life of the world. What are the spiritual questions people are asking today? What is their deep longing as they search for meaning and understanding? What kinds of wounds does 21st century life inflict? What are the signs of God’s Spirit that the world expects us to manifest? What story is God calling the Church to hear in the lives of our neighbors?
The Church’s alienation from the wider culture will deepen unless we can begin to use language our neighbors can recognize. (This should come pretty naturally to us Anglicans!) We need to become translators, interpreters, guides, partners. Walking through God’s story with our neighbors, while paying special attention to developing our own practices of discernment and theological reflection, will not only allow those ‘outside’ the Church to hear God’s story but it will break it open in some new way for us as well. We will all end up somewhere new, swept away in the Spirit like Phillip after the eunuch’s baptism.