Claiming a Narrative in a Church Plant

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More than the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John is chock-full of personal encounters between Jesus and another individual: Jesus encounters the woman at the well (John 4), the woman caught in adultery (John 8), Nicodemus at night (John 3), the man born blind (John 9), and others. The community that was formed and would be nourished through the Gospel of John is given a range of personal stories to claim as their own. Why might John have structured his gospel in such a way?

My colleague, Dr. Bob Whitesel shares one potential answer. Stories, he argues, have the capacity to help achieve change in a positive way. Whitesel shows how linking change to scriptural stories increases the odds of successful change management. Yet the power of stories is present even before there is a need for change. Their power can be used in a church plant, too. I suggest that church plants consider claiming a scriptural narrative as a key story for the plant. Claiming a narrative means that the selected story becomes an integral part of the church plant—a story everyone knows, everyone has heard multiple times, and that everyone can tell.

Every organization, including churches, has certain stories they share to maintain identity, whether or not they are told intentionally. For example, when you think about a particular friend, is there a story that captures them and describes them succinctly—a story that communicates who they are? A story that their closest friends all know? The fluid, in-process nature of the church plant and the wealth of narratives available from Scripture make church plants a great context for claiming and using of a narrative for its formation.

Here are four benefits to the claiming of a narrative:

  1. Gospel narratives provide a lens for interpretation in ambiguous situations

While life seems remarkably simple in the past, it can be remarkably ambiguous in the present. The past is simple, in part, because its stories and accounts have been smoothed-out in their telling and re-telling. Every church plant will face ambiguous times—when are we times.

  • “Are we in a time of refining or dying?”
  • “Are we in a time of accidental growth or genuine momentum?”
  • “Is this a time to double down as the leader or step aside for another point person?”

Narratives provide a lens for understanding the times—or other ambiguous situations. Narratives are not intended to make ambiguous situations that are actually clear. For ambiguous situations, however, narratives can provide characters with which to identify, angles to consider, and conclusions to entertain. If your church plant has claimed a narrative, the story will provide a means for your church to engage in the discipline of discernment together.

  1. Gospel narratives create a rallying cry

Just as a claimed narrative can provide a lens for interpretation, so a narrative can provide a rallying cry—a script for grasping victory from likely defeat. Gospel narratives can provide heroes church plant participants can identify with in the face of difficulty.

  • “Remember when…?”
  • “How do you think _____ would have felt…?”
  • “This can be just like the time….”

Gospel narratives, when claimed by a church plant and grasped by multiple members, provide points of discussion for encouragement and optimism. Narratives provide a script beyond the negativity and a way for someone to change the tenor of conversation.

  1. Gospel narratives form an identity

My family has a repertoire of stories. We know all of them, but we still tell and re-tell them. Any number of the unofficial storytellers in our family can tell the story. The point is not the story itself. The point is that we become more a family in its mutual hearing. Most of these stories are funny and laughing together makes us family even more. The stories are funnier to us than they are to anyone else. These narratives give us an identity.

Likewise, a claimed gospel narrative can enable a church plant community to say,
“This is our story and this is who we will be.” The Johannine community had stories not found in other gospels because they were formed by these stories. They claimed these stories. They could not imagine being together and not telling these stories on a consistent basis.

  1. Gospel narratives form ways forward through conflict

This reason is very similar to #1, but with the added benefit of (hopefully) achieving humility. So often conflict can reduce to pointless argumentation where no one is able to budge for the other—where the evidence is carefully marshaled not for consideration, but for persuasion—or to silence and avoidance. Gospel narratives provide inroads for people to identify with characters and tell their story/opinion by identifying with the story and its characters. In so doing, the other is submitting to the same narrative (developing humility) and is given a story by which to share their values and point of view (providing access for conversation). Claiming a Gospel narrative can help achieve change and reconciliation in a positive way.

Perhaps you are seeing the benefit of claiming a gospel narrative for your church plant. Here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Read through all the Gospels with an open spirit. Pray, “Lord, speak to me in particular through a story.”
  2. Test the narrative against a few trusted individuals and key members of your church plant. How do they respond to the narrative? Does it resonate with them? Ask if they have other gospel stories that come to mind when they think of the church plant.
  3. Preach on the claimed narrative 3-4 times over the next year and develop material for your small groups. Make sure it is taught to the children and teens in your church. Gauge the level of engagement of your congregation. Listen to their responses.
  4. Tell your people your intention with the narrative and ask them to teach it in their families, read it during their devotions, and talk about it in their small groups.
  5. Listen for stories and feedback about how the story was used through the year. How did it come up in conversation? How was it helpful (or not) in difficult conversations?

Claiming a Gospel narrative has the potential to create identity, decrease conflict, and form interpretation. Have you ever claimed a narrative? What was your experience? What did you learn and what would you suggest to other people in a similar process?

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Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and his wife, Heather, have three children. Aaron is the author of Putting the Plot Back in Preaching (Seedbed), co-author with Tim Perry of He Ascended into Heaven (Paraclete Press) and editor of Developing Ears to Hear (Emeth Press). Aaron completed his PhD in Organizational Leadership (Regent University). Follow him on Twitter @aaronhmperry

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