A Community Made of Stories

community

Last Thursday I had the unexpected pleasure of running into a wonderful friend that I had not see in probably fifteen years. Her name is Elaine and she was one of the ‘Lunch Bunch,’ a group of students I got to know when I went to Brock University. The Lunch Bunch started like this:

I started my Math / Science degree in the fall of 1989 and was the only one of my friends who went to University locally. Many of my friends returned to Great Lakes Christian High School for Grade 13 but I went straight on to begin my degree to teach. I knew almost no one at Brock and I found lunch time the worst part of my day. I knew some of the people in my classes but none of them had lockers in Schmon Tower. I gave up on eating alone in the cafeteria the first week. It was too painful to be surrounded by people who knew people and knew that I didn’t know people otherwise I would be sitting with people. I had taken to eating lunch in the hall outside my locker because it was quick, I could get back to my homework when I was done. The problem was that my locker was in the Tower basement which was where all the performance art classrooms were. Drama students strutting around, getting their ‘Othello’ on was eventually too disturbing so I decided to give the cafeteria another try.

One Tuesday in December I returned to the cafeteria and found a guy sitting at a table with eight chairs and three lunch bags already sitting in place. I asked him if this chair I was holding was taken and he silently counted chairs and then told me it was available. I thought it was odd that he would count chairs like that but he looked like a drama major (he was) so wrote it off to that.

Moments later, Donna, Heather, Elaine, Rich, and Tim sat down around the table and continued the story they were telling. I listened intently to everyone, laughed at the appropriate times and finally after about 20 minutes Donna interrupted whoever was speaking and pointed to me with a carrot and said, “Excuse me, are you with us? Who are you? What ‘s your name?” And the rest is ‘history’, or rather ‘my story.’ I became part of the group, not just because I continued to sit with a group of strangers, but because I started sharing my stories and I became part of their’s.

It turns out that the ‘Lunch Bunch’ didn’t start when I sat down with them, but had it’s beginning a few years before. A number of people around the table had gone to E.L. Crosley High School and became close there. The five or six of them that came to Brock continued to sit together at lunch and a couple of years later I accidentally sat right in the middle of them.

We kept eating lunch together. The following year we would try to schedule time together for lunch and some of us were only there occasionally but we kept meeting. Some had an early lunch (10: 30 – 11: 20) and some had a late lunch (11: 30 – 12: 20) and some had both. The people there for both would hear the stories of the first hour and repeat the best of them for the second hour. They would serve as the glue between the two groups. If you had a really good story you would stay and be late for class.

If cars are made out of plastic and steel, and houses are made out of stone and wood, then communities are made of stories. “Stories are the language of the heart.” When Elaine saw me for the first time in 15 years the first thing she said was “I was talking about you just the other day. I was telling the story of when your brother got a bead stuck so far up his nose you had to go to Emergency to get it pulled out. You said, ‘it looked like there had been a knife fight in the assessment room.’” When you’ve really done life with people your stories become their stories.

That’s what a church was meant to be. The church is not a building but is a group of people, but it’s not just any group of people. A church is a group of people who share stories, and together, they are writing one right now. It’s not just that you’re sitting next to each other. You are doing life together. You are making a point of seeing each other outside of the holy hour on Sunday. You talk, you swap stories. You become characters in each other’s stories. You look after each other’s kids. You drop off gingerbread cookies (Judy Dickie drops off Gingerbread men for my son Jacob all the time).

That’s why the ‘church of Facebook’ doesn’t work. Online communities create a sort of voyeuristic social life. We hear each other’s stories but can’t ever be in them. Facebook is a social hermit’s paradise:  all the information, none of the emotional connection. On Facebook you project your preferred self out to the world without ever letting anyone close enough to know who you really are. You can tell your stories and other people can snipe comments at you but there is no truly knowing each other. There is no naked honesty. There is no teaching, reproof, correction, or training (2 Tim. 3: 16). I had better tell you just what you want to hear or you’ll ‘unfriend’ me. There are no ties that bind in Facebook. You are only ‘bound’ by the click of a mouse.

A church is a community that participates in each other’s stories but we share a common story too; one we have embraced: the story of our own adoption. We share the same redemption story together. Our story is the story of Jesus Christ. Jesus, who lived a sinless life, died for our sins, was buried, and rose from the dead three days later. We weren’t there but we have adopted that story and made it ours. Jesus died for you and He died for me.

To be clear, churches have common interests. They have common opinions politically, they have similar likes (with regards to worship for example). But that isn’t what makes us a church. We aren’t a church together because we have the same opinion on instrumental music, or clapping in worship. We aren’t a church together because we would check the same boxes on a church history questionnaire. We aren’t bound together with propositional truth but with a relational truth. Jesus Christ did not say, “I come to tell the truth,” but instead “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14: 6).

We take stories from the text and let them press on us. We make them our stories.  That’s what makes church work, or on the contrary, churches that don’t share stories don’t work.  Without the foundation story of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, without the stories made from sharing life together, there is no church.  Without shared stories, you’re just a lonely person sitting at a table talking to no one.

8 thoughts on “A Community Made of Stories

  1. I think online communities can be as or more inclusive than physical communities. It comes down to how much of oneself one is willing to reveal. I’ve had times when I felt much, much closer to certain of what my wife calls my ‘imaginary friends’ than I have to people I see every week at services and I think it boils down to what I’ve shared with those people and what they’ve shared with me.

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  2. I would agree that online communities can still be genuine. I imagine though that you have learned how to be authentic by also being part of face to face communities too. I worry about people who have never had to be real with anyone in their entire life. They project this ‘preferred self’ into the electronic ether and feed off the comments that bounce back. I think there is a real risk of becoming too self-absorbed. (The risk also exists for people who blog : )

    Are people who are addicted to facebook actually part of a church of self where they worship the trinity of Me, Myself and I.

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  3. I also have to say that I have made lifelong friendships and deep connections through various online communities. I’ve also been a part of several offline communities, including church communities, where the deep connection never developed – I still felt alone in the crowd, disconnected, and like no one knew who I really was. I get your point, and I do agree that strong communities are built through shared experiences, through opening up to each other and becoming a part of each others lives. But I can’t agree with the online/offline distinction.

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  4. I truly enjoyed reading your post, I love it when I’m in a group that shares, listens to and enjoys each others stories. Sounds like family/Church as it should be. I pray, it becomes more and more ‘the reality’ for everyone in ‘the Church family’. You are a wise man.

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  5. I think Adam and Erica raise valid points in that sometimes you’re more familiar sharing with people who are in online communities because

    a) chances are that community is based around some sort of mutual interest right off the bat
    b) you don’t see them in real life, so the “risk” at opening up is minimal
    c) communication is convenient: you can leave emails, Instant Message, text, or chat…

    That being said, church communities are based around the mutual interest in our God, and Lord, so *A* should already be a lock.
    C is somewhat applicable since ideally you meet with your brothers and sisters regularly, albeit in formalized worship. The problem with C in church is that the meetings are formalized. It’s very socially constructed, and not conducive to opening up. I find Online Communities a lot easier to do so, and that plays into B.
    B is something that I think a lot people have problems with especially in churches, which is sad because it should be the exact opposite. If I’m having problems or trouble, I should feel comfortable sharing with my brothers/sisters. So why do a lot of people have a problem with that?

    At the end of the day, we can take a lesson from B and C with churches…

    The lessons I can see are:

    Meet outside of formalized church services. Meet in homes, invite people over or out for supper. Get social with people outside of a church environment as well as in it.
    This way you’re more comfortable with people and can open up more without concern about “risking” alienation.

    There’s other lessons that people can take, but the above is something that’s been on my mind for the past couple of years, and something that my wife and I are trying to do more often.

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  6. Noel, do you really think there is much ‘naked honesty’ in churches. I think most people who have been willing to share on that level have found themselves on the outside. I have been reading a book called “Life’s Healing Choices”, the stories of people who have sought help through Celebrate Recovery. Their stories are desparate and I suspect pelple like them are all around us. I cannot imagine them in most of our churches. I hope I live long enough to see that happen. But time is runnin out.

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  7. Upon further reflection, I think you’re right about Facebook being a disconnecter. Facebook is primarily intended as another layer of interaction with people who you already know. The only reason you’re ‘friends’ with somebody on FB is because you have some preexisting connection in real life (or at one remove; someone is a friend of a friend). Generally this is a pretty shallow and tenuous connection between people. There are people I have no problems with in real life but I have de-friended on Facebook because of the volume or inanity of their posting (too much noise, not enough signal).

    As Sean points out, other, non-FB communities grow up from a shared interest in something completely other than already knowing each other in ‘meatspace’ (skating in Erica’s case, I think, video games/webcomics in mine). There can be a level of connection reached in these communities that is beyond the shallow connection of a casual church acquaintance simply because you must interact in a written format and so ideas become your common ground rather than just being in the same place at the same time.

    Is Christ the great connector? Certainly. Is church the great connection point? In my estimation, decreasingly so. I agree again with Sean about getting connected at places outside the church building. Those times in cafés or parks or homes are where the deep sharing that Wilma talks about takes place.

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  8. Thanks for the comments Wilma, Erica, Sean, Sally,

    In a sense this interaction makes Adam’s second point. Wilma’s question derives it’s weight from the experiences we have shared IRL (in real life). Because of what we have both witnessed and been through as brother and sister, her question has meaning. If I had never shared any experiences with her in person, would this dialogue mean anything? I don’t think so.

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