“How are you?” “How was your week?” “Can you name one item of joy and one item of concern in your life?” The many groups that Bernice and I lead are terribly predictable in one aspect — there will always be a time for people to share their stories. The sharing may take place over the meal that usually kicks off our meetings, or it may happen over the prayer time in the form of prayer requests, or there will be a specific part of the programme dedicated to sharing and connecting. But we make sure that it happens because we believe that telling our stories is a key way of finding meaning and healing for our lives.
Note the growing appreciation for “narrative medicine.” In an interview with Lorrie Klosterman, Lewis Mehl-Madrona defines narrative medicine as “the encompassing of our awareness of health and disease into a storied structure. We embed the illness into the life story of the person in such a way that we discover meaning and purpose in both the illness and the experience of recovery” (“Want to Heal? Tell Your Story,” Utne Reader, September-October 2009, 710). When we are allowed to share the stories of our lives, we begin to find meaning in what happened, and that this a key step in finding wholeness. When people love us enough to listen to our stories empathetically, they remind us of our worth. We must be somebody. People love me enough to give me the precious gifts of time and a hearing.
And just in case you think this emphasis is some New Age nonsense, read what Richard Peace writes in the introduction to his book, Spiritual Autobiography:
I first learned about the power of sharing our stories while an undergraduate at Yale. During my final year I became a member of what was called a Senior Society. They consisted of small groups of men . . . who met regularly. In our group one of the things we did was to tell our life stories. This was a powerful experience for me . . . Many years later, when I designed a seminary course called “The Pursuit of Wholeness,” I revived this idea of sharing life stories. . . . Consistently over the years, students rated this experience near the top of what they most appreciated about the course. (Spiritual Storytelling, Colorado Springs, CO: NAVPRESS,1998, 5.)
Daily we receive fresh reminders of the importance of community. The latest article of Scientific American Mind carried this article:
Belonging to social groups and networks appears to be an important predictor of health — just as important as diet and exercise. This point is demonstrated by a study of 655 stroke patients reported in 2005 . . . Patients who were socially isolated were nearly twice as likely to have another stroke within five years as were those with meaningful social relationships . . . There is now compelling evidence that the health risk of social isolation is comparable to the risks of smoking, high blood pressure and obesity, even after controlling for other variables known to affect health. (Jolanda Jetten et al, “The Social Cure,” Scientific American Mind, September/October 2009, 27-29).
However, community doesn’t happen just because you put a number of people in the same room at the same time. It is our shared stories that connect us. “Community is formed only by shared stories, not by monologues. Empathetic listening is followed, in time, by reciprocal storytelling. I know I have a place in the community not only as I hear and accept its stories but as it hears and makes room for mine.” (Daniel Taylor, Tell Me a Story, St Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2001, 120). Unfortunately this mutual story telling is not happening in many church small groups.
The focus in many church small groups is on finishing the assigned lesson for the evening. The focus is on making sure the group answers all the questions assigned. Since many small groups meet for two to three hours on a Friday evening, putting a priority on completing the assigned study means there is little time left to talk about application — about how we are to apply what we have learnt. And often there is no time left for members to share their stories.
I am not advocating that we downplay the importance of our study time. Any true Christian fellowship must be based on God’s Word. And indeed, our life stories find meaning and redemption only if they are plugged into God’s story. We must ensure that people both study the Word and allow it to transform them. But we must also ensure that there is space in the meeting for people to share their stories.
As I shared above, Bernice and I try to work elements of that into the meal that usually starts off our group meetings. As we share our food, we also share our lives. We have also subdivided our group into smaller sub-groups of twos, threes, or fours during the meeting so that people can find the time, and the relative safety of a smaller group, to share. In his book Simple Small Groups, Bill Search advocates dividing small groups into sub-groups as well.
The larger a group gets, the less people can participate. If a group has twelve members and meets for two hours, each person gets only ten minutes to talk. Since some people are quieter, they won’t talk more than two minutes. And other people . . . will steal their eight minutes. If you split the group, you can double the time each person has. (Bill Search, Simple Small Groups, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008, 61)
We find that sub-groups of three and four work very well. It is also helpful to separate the men and women sometimes. But however we do it, it needs to happen. We need to provide a context where people can share their stories. In the increasingly lonely world we live in, we need to be plugged into communities where people know each other. For as Edward C. Sellner reminds us, “Any sacred journey is a journey shared.” (Mentoring, Cambridge, MA: Cowley Press, 2002, 82)