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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Storytelling is an art—one that can add new dimensions of meaning to worship. Kristin Maier's A Good Telling is replete with guidance, best practices, and encouragement for developing this craft.
- Hewitt and Brooks have created two worksheets—one for worship planning (PDF), the other for brainstorming an image (PDF) to drive a worship service.
- 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.