In his piece “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” Jonathan Haidt attributes the cohesian of cultures to three things: social capital, shared stories, and strong institutions. Last week I wrote about social capital; today I’ll discuss shared stories.
The Bible is one large story full of stories. An exodus occurs in Exodus, but salvation occurs throughout the Bible. Exile happens once but also happens repeatedly. The resurrection is a singular historical event but also happens each time someone puts on Jesus in baptism (Rom. 6:4). We share the story and we also share in the story.
A negative consequence of postmodernism is the lack of a shared story. Something once assumed finds itself debated, deconstructed, and denied. Of course, some shared stories have problems. Christianity’s expansion was not merely through friendly evangelism but also through violent crusades. America’s story of democracy starts in 1776, but historians correctly note that America’s story of slavery began over a century earlier. North Koreans have a shared story, but it’s an oppressive myth. Hitler spread a common story through Germany that was built on lies. Just because a lot of people believe something doesn’t make it right; so a shared story is not always good. But a lack of a shared story is always bad, because people who don’t agree on their shared story are unlikely to agree on much else.
Churches struggle with this. In a single congregation, some think the church’s story is about being rigid and sectarian, while others tell the story of being grace-filled and open. Some who tell the story as an outward–focused church; others tell the story as an inward-focused club. Some see the church as multicultural; others see a dominant majority. I suppose in some regards all of these larger stories have kernels of truth within them. But that doesn’t mean they are equally valid. And it certainly doesn’t mean they are all equally helpful at building unity.
Churches need a shared story. We don’t need to agree on every event and we don’t need to put the exact emphasis on each detail. But we do need to embrace opportunities to tell our common story. Here are some ways to do it.
Tell the story.
We rehearse the narrative of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. A healthy church wouldn’t exist without people who had a dream, and we don’t have a future if we don’t continue to tell the story of that dream. We should celebrate people who have made sacrifices and spiritual heroes who have formed us.
Tell the whole story.
We cannot be faithful to God if we are dishonest. At our best, churches are good. But we are never perfect. God saves us through blood, not whitewashing. Tell the whole story.
Tell the most hopeful version of the whole story.
The reason we tell the story is because, like God’s story, it gives us hope. So we should tell the most hopeful version of it. This hopeful version is not simply that we are a club who hopes to stay alive, but as participants in God’s eternal story. This story never ends.