At Gilead Church in Chicago, storytelling is central to worship


When Rebecca Anderson attended a Moth storytelling occasion some ten years ago, she arrived 3 hours ahead of it was slated to start—and nonetheless couldn’t get a seat. “The area was packed with twenty-, thirty-, fortysomethings,” recalled Anderson.

That expertise gave the Disciples of Christ pastor an thought. “The evangelist element of me believed, ‘Do we not have a correct story to inform in neighborhood?’” The former stand-up comic did her booming preacher impression when describing that epiphany. The insight at some point led to Anderson joining with her pal Vince Amlin, a United Church of Christ pastor, in beginning a church in which telling stories is central.

Now in its third year, Gilead Church has met in many unique venues. In two of them, the worship leaders, storytellers, and preachers have employed the overall performance space of a bar, with the congregation sitting in chairs or on stools at higher tables, as even though attending a smaller concert. In the present venue, a disco ball hangs from the ceiling. In the course of communion the celebrants step off the stage to the very same level as the congregation. One particular evening at the bar exactly where Gilead met for far more than a year, pastors presented the bread and cup to the common bartender, who received communion at the only rail the church had.

The storytelling frequently starts right after the opening song and welcome. A second story is told later in the service, ahead of the prayers of the persons and the sermon. The liturgy is not particularly unique from that of quite a few UCC or Disciples congregations formed in current decades. “We haven’t invented something complete-cloth,” stated Amlin.

Following every single story, the pastor says, “The word of God for the persons of God,” and the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” Gilead Church believes that everybody’s story is a God story. Amlin sees two components to that claim: that “every person’s story is holy—no 1 is excluded from that. But also that each and every element of every single person’s story is a God story.”

A distinction among Gilead’s stories and these told at an open mic competitors or reside occasion hosted by the Moth is that at Gilead the stories can be a automobile to generate genuine intimacy amongst persons who are having to know 1 one more. Even though some storytellers are invited to Gilead right after the pastors hear them at a storytelling occasion, quite a few if not most are element of the congregation. Their storytelling makes it possible for for vulnerability, Anderson stated, and creates solidarity. It is 1 point to know you are not the only 1 to have had a miscarriage it is one more point to know a person else in the area who had a miscarriage.

Amlin and Anderson have no criteria for what tends to make a certain story worth sharing in worship. To them, the person stories and the bigger Christian story are connected mainly because of the incarnation.

“God chooses to be present in true life and true bodies,” Amlin stated. “That’s why our stories are sacred.”

The worship format underscores the church’s conviction that each and every life is beloved by God and so is each and every story, whether—to cite two examples—it’s about taking a pit bull and a pregnant cat to the vet with a van-complete of persons recovering from addictions or about getting a confession amid the blaring dance music of the Gay Pride parade.

Amlin likened the operate of storytelling to the prayer of examen in Ignatian spirituality, in which persons assessment the events of the day with the aim of becoming far more attuned to the movements of God that could otherwise be missed. “In telling and retelling and shaping these stories you can grow to be far more conscious of God’s presence, each in the previous and in the present going forward.”

Susan Haarman, a former campus minister who is element of Gilead’s leadership group, connected the sort of storytelling Gilead does in worship to the element of anamnesis in the Eucharist—it’s about remembering and reliving at the very same time.

“By remembering exactly where grace moved in my life, I’m in a position to channel it and bring it into the area once again,” she stated, “and extend it to the persons who are listening.”

In the current book Major by Story: Rethinking Church Leadership, Vaughan S. Roberts and David Sims note that element of the energy of stories is that they do not demand persons to agree with them in order to evoke interest, humility, and openness to getting changed.

Describing stories, Anderson cites a claim she’s heard from other folks: “The universal is in the particular.” Far more important than providing persons grand suggestions, she stated, is speaking about 1 moment or 1 connection. Preachers frequently make statements such as, “You generally really feel x when y occurs,” which only tends to make listeners consider about the gap among the preacher’s expertise and their personal. Stories bring listeners into the speaker’s expertise.

Stories at Gilead could be regarded a type of testimony, but Anderson hesitates to use the term mainly because it can sound as well formulaic. The classic shape of religious testimony, she says, is “I after was lost and now I am discovered,” but “there are lots of stories that are ‘I after was lost and I’m nonetheless sort of a mess.’”

Gilead has been supported by a onetime grant of $30,000 from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, 1 of 12 schools participating in a Lilly Endowment plan referred to as the Young Adult Initiative. Gilead is also sustained by donations from the congregation and from the two denominations to which Gilead belongs: the UCC and Disciples.

Gilead Church is not for absolutely everyone, Anderson and Amlin readily admit. Their hope is that it is a church for persons who have been told or produced to really feel that the church is not for them. The church may well jar some persons out of their comfort zone, based on what these comfort zones are. For these who consistently attend storytelling events like the Moth, the setting is familiar, but they may well squirm a bit at the religious language. Standard churchgoers will locate the words and practices familiar but may well be unsure about worshiping in a bar.

Haarman recounted possessing two types of conversations with newcomers. “For people who either have been out of faith communities for a lengthy time or possibly have felt a lot of discomfort by faith communities, they stroll in and say, ‘This is so radical, this is so unique and new,’ which I appreciate. People who have been element of Christian communities say, ‘This is church, in a bar, and you swap out some of the scriptures for stories in the themes of the gospel,’ which I also appreciate.”

One particular uncommon aspect of Gilead for these familiar with Christian worship is that scripture is most frequently told as element of the sermon rather than study beforehand. The pastors’ method to scripture is to be “as narrative as feasible,” Amlin stated, “so persons who do not currently know these books, these words, can locate an entry point.”

All round the preaching is related to other mainline preaching except the narrative is far more sustained in the sermon. “We attempt to use narrative not in the spot of sermon illustration or a funny story to get us began but to speak about exactly where the text is for us, in our lives,” Amlin stated. “Hopefully it is undertaking the operate that scripture does.”

In 1 sermon on a day when the worship theme was “Endings”—and the theme for the month was “Choose your personal adventure”—Amlin wove in exegesis with a narrative telling of Jesus appearing to the disciples right after the resurrection. By touching Jesus’ wounds, Thomas is seeing that Jesus’ death was not the finish. For all of us the challenge is to opt for the ending we think in and want to reside toward.

Amlin connected Jesus’ words in John 20:29—“Blessed are these who have not noticed and but have come to believe”—with a story about comforting his 3-year-old daughter right after she had a poor dream, telling her that he would maintain her protected. He chose to inform his daughter that story, he stated, “even understanding the strategies I’ll fall down in that as a parent and the strategies that life hurts us,” he stated. “It carries a deeper truth.” The story about his daughter conveyed the sermon’s message that we can opt for an ending with no certainty about it. “That’s basically what faith is, deciding on a story and deciding on to reside by that story even in the face of counterinformation.”

Acts of pastoral care can turn out to shape the storytelling. Anderson in some cases follows up with persons who have shared an expertise privately with her and invites them to inform it in worship. It is a way of saying the story has worth. She recalled hearing a particular person inform about a cross-nation road trip in which the pivotal moment occurred “on the morning of the third day.” The particular person accepted Anderson’s invitation to inform that story on Easter.

When preparing the storytelling element of worship, Gilead’s leaders begin with the theme for a worship season or service. At times Anderson will recall a person she heard at a storytelling occasion who could speak to that subject. On a net web page titled “Look, Ma, I’m telling a story at a church!” which Gilead shares particularly with the performers, writers, and comics they invite, they emphasize that they do not ask if storytellers are religious, nor do they ask them to speak about religion. For all storytellers, the parameters for content material and language are just practically nothing “hateful or disrespectful,” and they specify that they affirm LGBTQ+ people as they are.

Storytellers in some cases give a content material warning, as in the case of 1 lady who, ahead of speaking about her time in the Peace Corps, told listeners that her story involved state-sponsored violence. The pastors have begun acknowledging that the stories may well be emotional and stating that they are offered to speak afterward. Not quite a few youngsters attend Gilead, and Anderson hasn’t heard about situations of them reacting negatively to content material in the stories. Parents have stated that if youngsters have inquiries, they go over them at household.

Gilead’s pastors consider about the church general as undertaking the operate of translation. They’re striving to make the tradition accessible to persons who didn’t develop up with it or who have been pushed out, as properly as to a new generation, Amlin stated.

Anderson noted that there are points a new church can do that an established church can not or will not. “Any congregation is a translation of the gospel,” she stated. “A new church is a new translation—not a superior translation, but a translation for a particular time and location.”

She recalled getting away from church for years and returning as an adult, attending a church plant that was a couple of years old at the time.

“It wasn’t a new gospel,” she stated. “My expertise was this Pentecost-y gasp exactly where I heard it. . . . I was, like, ‘Oh, I recognize what they’re saying.’”

A version of this write-up seems in the print edition below the title “Every story is a God story.”



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