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Storytelling in Worship

How Do We Choose Stories to Tell in Worship?

Stories are a powerful tool in worship, especially multigenerational worship. Laden with images, metaphors, playfulness, and truth, story provides a common language and shared experience across different generations and theologies.

"Medicine" stories—those that glow and spark in worship—meet the following needs:

  • They honor the listeners’ imagination, making room for their experience to take hold, rather than trying to over-explain. Storytelling is an act of trust. Our imaginations jump at the chance to fill gaps and questions in a story. Let people meet the story where they are, rather than needing to explain every moment.
  • They have a rhythm and “make sense,” lending themselves to script-free telling and easy listening. Around the world, human cultures have created stories that rely on repetition, following a predictable path.
  • They contain an image or metaphor that can thread its way into other moments in worship. Images and metaphors are powerful ways for people to connect to meaning. Within a worship service, a recurring image/metaphor is a breadcrumb trail, connecting disparate elements into a cohesive experience.
  • They provide a common narrative—a congregational shorthand. With their otherworld-context and (often) humor, stories provide a shared narrative to talk about meaningful issues in a new way.
  • They make us wonder. As Kristin Maier reminds us in her book A Good Telling:

    Some unexpected element must be wrestled with in the context of a story. It doesn’t have to be neatly resolved, but it must be present. The unexpected or unusual circumstance can be gentle or startling, funny or serious, common or outlandish. However we name it, a story needs to make us wonder, “What happens next?” A story must introduce to our psyche something that we want to see resolved or completed.

  • They trigger our “campfire” gene—that part of our deep-time souls that craves stories as "medicine." In a society of forwarded links and posted articles, "once upon a time" stories tap into the archetypal human hunger to imagine and dream, rather than take in more data.

Resources

  1. One of the best compilations of stories, suitable for UU worship, is Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, ed. Elisa Davy Pearmain—a fantastic resource not only for excellent stories, but also framing and contextual understanding.
  2. Rev. Erika Hewitt and religious educator Becky Brooks have created a list of their Top Ten Folktales (PDF) for adaptation and use in UU worship.
  3. Storytelling is an art—one that can add new dimensions of meaning to worship. Kristin Maier's A Good Tellingis replete with guidance, best practices, and encouragement for developing this craft.
  4. Hewitt and Brooks have created two worksheets—one for worship planning (PDF), the other for brainstorming an image (PDF) to drive a worship service.
  5. This excerpt (PDF) from The Shared Pulpit explains why a well-chosen image or metaphor, rather than an abstract theme, often creates a more meaningful worship experience.
A jar filled with glowing, purple sparks.
“Some people are remedied by thunderstorms, some by music, some by the voice of a person they love. Story has the same kind of influence. It flows where it is needed, and applies itself there—like an antibiotic that finds the source of the infection... The story helps to make that part of the psyche clear and strong again."
—Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “A Life Made by Hand"
Book Cover for  "Doorways to the Soul," edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain

One of the best compilations of stories suitable for UU worship is Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain—a fantastic resource not only for excellent stories, but also framing and contextual understanding.