Looking back, looking forward: Cultural Evolution – Part 3

We’re in the middle of sharing a series of blog posts written by Egil Egil_Elling_picture Elling (@egilelling), from Stavanger, Norway. Egil is a good friend of 3dm, a gifted leader, and a man of integrity.  In Autumn 2011 Egil Elling took on the role as lead Pastor of IMI Kirken, a large local church, following Martin Cave who had led the church since 1979. He’s married to Hildegunn, and has two children , Elia (3) and Frida (1). They have lived in Stavanger for six years.

Each of Elling’s posts reflect on the process of taking an existing church culture and foundation, and building on it to further the Kingdom of God.  If you haven’t already read the first two posts we recommend reading them here and here before continuing with today’s post.

In Elling’s last post he looked at how we can materialize our words into concrete practices and begin to disciple others in those core beliefs and practices. In this post Elling shares how story-telling has been an important tool in releasing the church into discipleship and mission.

Rediscovering the lost art of story-telling

In the previous two posts we have looked at two key concepts we can use to build culture and reproduce what God has given our churches and communities. These two key concepts were

1) Defining core language

2) Defining core practices.

In this post I want to look at one of the most powerful tools we have for doing this on a daily basis: Storytelling

One of the key ways to understand the culture of an organization is to look at the stories that the organization choose to celebrate. In churches we call these stories “testimonies”. We know that sharing stories of what God has done in our lives is a really powerful faith-builder that not only leads us to thanksgiving and worship but also helps us to trust that God can do it again in our lives.

Later on in this post we’ll look at how stories shape our understanding of who we are and how telling shared experiences often gives us a strong sense of a common identity.

As we have continuously sought to build disciples as a church and release people into mission we’ve realised that sharing stories about what God is doing in our lives is both helpful and powerful.

I’ve therefore made a decision to be intentional about sharing these stories whenever we can

And as a leader, I’ve made it an important discipline to model this as often as possible.

These are a few examples of how I’ve tried to do this:

  • Every Monday I write an email to our staff with important information and some reflections. These emails will always open with a couple of recent testimonies about what God has been doing.
  • Each Wednesday I write my little part of our weekly newsletter to the whole church. I will also make space for at least one testimony in this.
  • Each week I lead two huddles – one with the leadership team of the church, and one with young key leaders at the church. In both of these we always start with space for people to share some stories.
  • Each Sunday the church gathers for a worship service. We never gather without a story about something God has been doing in mission.
  • As often as possible I try to include a story in my preaching.

We don’t just share and celebrate the “big” stories

– the stories of people coming to faith, healings and so on – although of we course love them. We realize that behind most big stories there are lots of small stories of prayers prayed, initiatives taken, conversations had and so on. We make sure we celebrate those stories as well. Often we even celebrate the stories of stuff that didn’t work – at least we had a go – so let’s celebrate the attempt!

Several interesting things have come out of this:

  • People in the church have expressed that they feel stronger ownership for what’s going on in the church as they hear these stories.
  • Others communicate that they now dare to take the first steps in what they’ve wanted to live out – as they understand this is the normal way of living here.
  • Some say they finally dare to share what they’re already living out – as they feel certain there’s permission to do it.

We realised that in our staff team there were quite a few people who weren’t very comfortable with sharing what God was doing in their own lives. This has been an issue they’ve had to confront. It’s become such an important practice as a church and they needed to both embrace the discipline themselves and learn to lead the way in it.

As we’ve been doing this, I’ve observed that there are different kinds of stories. Many stories are everyday stories that we share and celebrate as they happen, but don’t necessarily keep telling for very long. Other stories, though, become more like milestones that mark something important about who we are. They are the stories that we continue to tell, to remember what God has done and who we are.

Again, let me give you a few examples:

  • There are stories from some of the first missional communities that we launched a few years ago that I will still refer to, as they say so much about why we do MSCs.
  • This autumn I’ve been speaking on the three dimensions I mentioned in post 1: Gods presence, Gods family, Gods goodness. As I did that, I’ve shared stories of IMI’s journey, including stories from before I came to the church. For instance, I told the story about how Martin Cave (the previous Senior Pastor) brought a group from IMI to visit a Vineyard church in York back in 1980. This was a defining moment for them in influencing the type of church they wanted to become.
  • Being connected to the movement that sprung out of St Thomas’ Church in Sheffield, I’ve heard the stories about when they were meeting in a disused night-club which the fire department then shut down. With no central building the congregation were sent out in MSC’s. Although I’d never heard about St Thomas or Mike Breen at that time it is such a strong and defining story that it almost feels like I’ve experienced it!

Identifying and deliberately sharing these defining stories is great way of building a shared identity, as we share stories of what God has done at key moments in our churches and communities.

I want to finish by challenging you to reflect on how you use storytelling as a tool in your leadership, and which are the defining stories that you need to share with your church.

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