Storytelling as Part of Spiritual Formation

Jacob Eckeberger
August 26th, 2016

We’re excited to have Aqueelah Ligonde as one of our NYWC speakers. This blog post is a great start to the conversations she’ll be navigating in her seminar: STORYTELLING AND SPIRITUAL FORMATION: A NEW KIND OF PARABLE. Check out more information HERE.

We Are All A Story

I love a good story! I love the way a story can capture moments. Draw us closer to love or hate characters. Cause us to think differently. Encourage us to change our behavior. Stories fill us with emotion. Stories help us to see ourselves in unlikely fictional people and situations. Stories can change lives.

So, it makes perfect sense that our Christian faith is built upon stories and a great storyteller. Jesus used parables to get a message across to people who did not know who he was. Those same parables are used today to get a message across to those of us who know who Jesus is but still need guidance in how to live this Christian life. As churches struggle with the challenge of staying relevant for this generation of young people, I wonder if a big part of it is that we have lost the value of storytelling. The Gospel message of love, hope, and faith are always relevant. The message is always relevant. Maybe is our method we need to re-think. Maybe it is our approach we need to reconsider. What if we could effectively and intentionally use storytelling in our faith formation programs and in how we teach our youth and our churches how to tell their own stories?

Stories in the Making

As leaders of faith formation we can help students, parents, members of our congregation, and leaders to see their own stories as compelling and teachable moments. When we think of the greatest Bible stories we think of David and Goliath, Noah’s Ark, Mary hearing from the angel of the Lord. These are all stories of people who’s lives where changed because of an experience with God. In pretty much every Bible story, there is a moment when a person was one way or sees one way or is living one way until God steps in. God shows up in a whisper, a flood, a burning bush, or another person. God reveals God self to a person and that person’s life changes forever. Ordinary people now have extraordinary stories. Their lives had been stories in the making since before they were born.

I believe that one of our roles as faith formation leaders is to help the “ordinary” youth, the “ordinary” student, the “ordinary” volunteer see that their lives are stories in the making. Every person has had, or will have, a moment where God comes in and changes a moment in their timeline that sends them on a different path than what they thought they would be on. Or God comes and reveals something new and unexpected that the person never thought of before.

The best way for me to explain how this happens is to share a bit of my own story. This story has been the core of my faith story and I always struggle to tell it. It is personal, yet I feel compelled to tell it whenever I need to show how God revealed God’s unending, unconditionally love towards me.

The Story of My Story

As I peeked from behind the curtain out to the audience of about one hundred Dutch teenagers, I realized that God was about to teach me a big lesson. I was on a mission trip with 25 teenagers and 4 other adults. Our mission was to lead schools assemblies, do basketball clinics, teach dance classes, and conduct cultural exchange classes for high school students in the Netherlands. Our host organization was called Atlantic Bridge with a man named John. On this particular event, a midnight basketball/lock-in event, John told us that the speaker had just backed out and that one of us would need to do it. None of us were prepared. We were prepared to play ball, dance, and lead some games, but not to speak. I am not sure how I got chosen to be the speaker that night. Maybe I have blocked out the game of rock, paper, scissors, we played to choose. But, regardless of how it went down…I was the speaker. John told me I had nothing to worry about. All I had to do was tell this room full of Dutch teenager, who were not Christians or were just starting out on their journey, who really only came to play ball and dance, about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Easy, right?

I remember going off to the side, behind the curtain, to pray “Lord, please give me the words to say. I pray these Dutch kids understand me. I pray that I don’t mess up their journey to you, Lord. I pray I don’t stumble and stutter my way through this. Amen.”

As I took a minute to listen, all I heard was “Just tell your story. You have everything you need to talk about my love for you and for them. You have the story”. I had no idea what that meant. But, I started to think about my life and my family. Suddenly, I knew what to say. But, I was terrified to say it. I had never shared this story before and it would open me up in front of strangers and friends.

Out there on the stage there was no turning back. I began to speak.

I told them the story of a teenage girl who got pregnant at 17 years old. She was still in high school and was pregnant by a 17-year old boy, she was dating, and who had a scholarship to college. The boy afraid of telling his mother he got a girl pregnant and of losing his chance at college, denied the girl and left her to raise the child alone. The girl was determined to raise the baby whether she had help or not. The girl gave birth to a baby girl.

When the baby was born, the teenage girl had many visitors to come and see the baby. There was one visitor who was especially taken with the girl. He was a high school friend who had gone away to college, but came home often. After a few visits, he asked the teenage girl if he could bring the baby a gift. She said yes. He brought the baby a teddy bear that sat in the crib with the baby. The two rising young adults were beginning to get to know each other and build a great friendship….actually more than a friendship. Love was beginning to stir between them.

As the baby grew into a toddler, the teen boy and girl, now young adults began to grow closer and closer. And, when the toddler was two and a half years old the two young adults got married. The young man left college. Got two jobs. Moved the young woman and the toddler to a place where they could be a family. The young man worked hard, sacrificing everything for the young woman and the little girl. The young woman dedicated her life to being a mom and did it with excellence.

The little girl grew up to be a “Daddy’s girl” for sure. From that toddler to a school age kid to a teenager to young adult to an adult she only grew to love her Daddy more. As she got older and realized all the sacrifices he made, she knew they were for her. She knew that every dream he didn’t see come true was because he was sacrificing for her to see her dreams come true.

I looked at the audience of about 100 Dutch youth and told them that:

I am still a daddy’s girl. I still have that teddy bear on my bed. And everyday I am reminded of my daddy’s love and sacrifice for me. I think my Dad chose me when he married my Mom. I think he looked at me and thought “I want to be in her life…forever.” 

But, because of my Dad’s love for me, I am more aware of God’s love for me. You see, although my Dad sacrificed many things for me none of it compares to the sacrifice Jesus made for all of us. Yes, I believe my Dad would do anything for me. But, with Jesus, I already know it’s done. When Jesus stretched his arms out on the cross for us, he chose us. He looked at us before we were in our mother’s womb and said “I want to be in her and his life…forever.”

Maybe your father is not around. I don’t know your story. But, I do know that a part of your story is that you are loved by a God who sacrificed the Son of Man for you. I do know that there is no greater love than Jesus. I do know that there is no greater gift than this sacrifice.

I left that stage feeling wide open, but with a feeling that God had taught me how to use my story to share the Gospel of Christ’s love for all people. In that moment I understood, so strongly the power of our stories and the value of teaching our youth how to use what they already have to be used by God. That moment changed my life. It changed my life because it helped me to see myself in the Gospel story and it brought me closer to God in a way that I had never experienced.

So, what’s your story?

How can you use what you have to share this Gospel? How is your journey being shaped by the stories that make up your life? How can your story bring you and others closer to God?

Stop. Pray. And, listen.

I promise you that God will reveal the story that lies within you to share with those who need it most.

aqueelahAqueelah Ligonde is an enthusiastic speaker, preacher and leader with a passion for today’s youth, and young adult women. She has worked with organizations such as: Princeton Seminary Institute For Youth Ministry, Youth Specialties, DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative, and YouthWorks. She serves on the Boards of Holmes Presbyterian Camp and Retreat Center and GenOn/Logos Ministries. She is presently serving in three ministry areas: Staff Consultant with Ministry Architects, Site Coordinator for the Young Adult Volunteer Program of New York City (Presbyterian Church USA), and Field Staff for Racial Ethnic Young Women (Presbyterian Church USA). For over a decade, she served as the Associate Pastor of Youth and Families at the First PresbyterianChurch in Jamaica, Queens, NY. 

Jacob Eckeberger

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.