How many of us have joined a small group looking for authentic and transformational community only to leave frustrated or disappointed? Even if we've been together for months—or years—we wonder if we really know anyone in our group and if anyone truly knows us. As small-group leaders and directors, we believe our relationships, with Jesus and others, deepen when we share our lives with one another. Too often, though, our small group "sharing" is limited to answering Bible Study questions or offering prayer requests. We make space for snippets rather than stories.
But stories are important. We can experience healing as we share our story and listen to others' stories. Have you considered that over 70 percent of Scripture is narrative? That means the primary way God chose to reveal himself is through story. God knows that stories engage us on all levels: intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical. He created us not just to have a story, but to be a revelation of the good story of the gospel. Every life is meant to uniquely reflect something of the character and kingdom of God that no other story can.
Author and counselor Dan Allender states, "If we come to know our story and then give it away, we will discover the deepest meaning of our lives. We will discover the Author who is embedded in our story, and we will know the glory he has designed for each one of us to reveal." The experiences of our lives affect how we relate to ourselves, others, and God. Our story shapes our relationships, spirituality, calling, and purpose. When we have questions like, "Why am I like this?" or "Why do I believe God is that way?" or "What am I supposed to be doing with my life?" discoveries and insights can be found when we explore our story and then share it with others.
So what if we took the time in our small groups to truly tell our stories to one another? When my small groups reach a point where there is a relational foundation of warmth and trust, we set aside a season to do some storytelling. Each person has an hour to share his or her story, and then invite the others in the group to engage the story. If people are willing to tell a good story, their real story, the time will be transformational for both the tellers and the listeners.
How do we tell our real stories? Let me tell you three stories and let you decide.
The First Story
I have been involved in small-group ministry for over 25 years. I attended my first women's ministry small group in 1996. I took a break from women's groups for a while and led a mix of different kinds of groups. I also have served as a Small Groups Director and Support & Recovery Ministry Director. This spring, I will be leading a new small group for five other women leaders.
The Second Story
Despite being a small-group leader for over 25 years, I have always felt a little uncomfortable or intimidated with women's ministry small groups. I didn't attend my first all women small group until I was a mom with small children. The women were very nice, but I still got nervous. The Bible says, "Cast all your anxieties on God because he cares for you," so I decided to stop worrying. I then trusted God even more and ended up leading women's groups! They are so great, and I have such great friends as a result! This spring, I am very excited to start a new group with other women small-group leaders, and I know it's going to be such a blessing.
The Third Story
When I was in middle school, I got invited to birthday party. I was the new girl who had moved in the middle of the year, and I was desperate for some girlfriends. The kids at school did not seem to like me, and the girls were especially sophisticated in their methods of exclusion. I was so relieved and happy when the most popular girl came up to me with an invitation to her birthday sleepover.
On the afternoon of the party, I skipped up to the front porch of a big house and rang the doorbell. I held a new sleeping back in one hand and a big present in the other. The door opened and a woman looked down at me confused. I told her I was there for the party. She said I must be at the wrong house. Just then, I saw them. Down the hall, "Jane" and all her girlfriends were pointing and laughing. There was no party. It had been a trick, a cruel joke.
I will never forget the feeling I had as I saw the girls delighting in my humiliation and shame. Ever since then, it has been a struggle to trust any invitation to join women in community. The first time I came to a women's ministry event, I felt like I was standing on that front porch again. The fear of rejection was overwhelming. The ladies in my first women's small group were exceedingly kind. But I was guarded and judgmental. I was not able to experience the depth of friendship I was longing for.
It's been an ongoing process for me to trust that God cares about the pain of that middle school experience and then to risk lowering all my self-protective defenses to open my heart to care and repair. It has taken many communities of women inviting me again and again to come with my gifts and desire for intimacy and belonging in order to step through thresholds into good and genuine friendships with groups of women. My heart still races with insecurity when I take a seat in a women's group. But now there's also hope, and sometimes even expectation. I have experienced the redemptive power of a circle of women, and I'm anxiously excited to join a new circle this spring.
Telling a Good Story
You may have already realized this, but I've actually told you the same story three ways. Only one version, though, comes close to being a good story—my true story. It's very easy to tell a story like the first one. It's a list of demographic, factual information that hides who I am behind what I do.
The second story is what I like to call my "once I was lost, now I am found" story. I pretend everything is fixed, cleaned up, and resolved. We can be tempted to think that these are inspiring stories, but they're often thin, meaningless fakes of the profound, often confusing, unfinished rich story that God is coauthoring with each of us. True stories will hold tension, reveal themes, and invite relationships.
The Book of Romans names how we are living between the "now" and the "not yet," and how our spirits groan and ache with hope for heaven. A good story comes out of that ache and hope. It acknowledges the gap in our lives due to the fall and the tension that we live with every day. Not everything is resolved or understood. There's a sense of mystery, wonder, and awe. There's also the struggle of doubt, confusion, and even despair. A good story holds both heartache and hope, questions and answers. It's a story that doesn't yet have its ending. The third story holds these together. It is my true story.
Sharing Your Story
Dan Allender, the author of To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future says that our story was uniquely crafted to say "yes" to something of the kingdom of God, and "no" to something of the kingdom of darkness. Do you know what the "yes" and "no" of your life are? What is the heart and soul of your story? Where do the tears flow in your life? The laughter? What breaks your heart? What makes it sing? As you share the stories behind these questions, you will discover patterns and themes. What do they reveal about you, God, and your calling and purpose?
As tellers of our story, we need to be more than transparent. We need to be vulnerable. I'm transparent when I disclose myself to you, but I remain in control. I'm giving you information, but not necessarily myself. It's a way for me to let you know about me without really knowing me. I am vulnerable when I invite you to respond and engage with me around what I've shared.
Being vulnerable is scary, so we often find ways to keep control of our story and the people listening. One way we do this is by sabotaging the telling by labeling, dismissing, or excusing our own story. "My life is pretty boring, but here goes." "Well, everyone has it tough in their teen years." These kinds of comments keep listeners away. We haven't truly trusted them with our story. We've interpreted it for them already, often in a dismissive way. We're afraid our story is too much, so we diminish and dishonor it as a preemptive way to address the fear that someone else may diminish or dishonor us.
We can also be afraid that our story is not enough. We don't want our story to be ignored or rejected so we get caught in a kind of emotional striptease, where we overshare in a way that titillates and manipulates, creating a false kind of intimacy. We've taken a shortcut in building authentic trust by giving details that exploit rather than invite. Don't "bare all" to get people to pay attention. Trust the power and meaning of your story.
A good story is not told in a vacuum, though. We cannot see our own face nor can we look directly into the face of God. We need others to reflect ourselves and the image of God back to us. For our story to have meaning, it must be told in the context of community and stir the desire for relationship. Will you invite others into your life with your story? Will you allow them access into the sacred spaces where they can both mourn and celebrate with you?
In order for good stories to be shared, our small groups must reflect what Daniel Taylor, author and professor of literature at Bethel College calls the "ethics of storytelling." He believes there should be a covenant of mutual honor, openness, and value between the teller and listener.
As listeners of another's story, we're receiving a gift. Will we receive that gift well, or will we squander it? We've all experienced that awkward silence when we've finished sharing and we're staring at the group. As a listener, what will your face reflect back to the storyteller? Will it say, "Thank you. I want to know you even more." or will it be blank and bored, revealing a heart that's too proud or hard to be moved? Will we listen to another's story with the sense of privilege and delight that the person deserves? Allow others' stories to impact, inspire, disturb, and disrupt you. Share what it has meant for you to be the receiver of that story. Ask questions. Be curious and kind.
We dishonor a story when we interrupt with our advice, believing we can answer or fix things. In our attempts to ease our own discomfort, we often try to explain away things with dismissive or belittling comments like:
- "Oh it isn't that bad."
- "You should have done this …"
- "If you prayed more …"
We also waste another's story when we hijack it as our own. How many times have you experienced the "what-you-just-shared-reminds-me-of-me" response? Resist the temptation to consume another's story and regurgitate your own, saying something like, "Well when I experienced that, I …"
Finally, perhaps the greatest harm we can cause is through gossip. When you're invited into another's story, take your shoes off, because you're entering holy ground. When you take a story that is given to you in trust and instead gossip about it, you've violated a soul. Story really is that sacred.
In my own life and as a small-group leader, I know that story transforms story. When I have created holy space in my small groups for people to tell good stories, we have encountered Jesus more fully and have grown to know and love one another more deeply. What is your story? May you claim it, live it, love it, share it, and invite someone to do the same.
—Jen Oyama Murphy is a former small groups and support & recovery ministry director and is passionate about the substance of stories.