Bridging the gap between Symbol and Story

I was on a phone call a few years ago with three colleagues when I articulated my frequently stated belief that we “over-teach and under-train” in faith communities. The President of CareNet in Winston-Salem responded “And I would add that we under-experience.” Adding a few of my own words, I would say that faith communities tend to over-think and under-experience.

One indicator that we have fallen prey to these temptations is an excess of symbols that have not been imagesconverted into stories. Words are symbols of experiences; they are not the experiences themselves. I have a friend who used to say “Going to church is like checking into a cheap hotel room. There are lots of menu around but very few meals.” Talking about grace, peace, or salvation is quite different from experiencing grace, receiving peace, or finding that one has been saved in a real and substantial way.

I remember talking to a young Christian who said to me, “I keep hearing in church that we should listen to God. God never speaks to me.” I took note and kept listening. A few minutes later, he described a situation where he was driving down a rural roadway when a thought popped into his head. I simply said to him “Maybe that was God speaking to you.” He sat in silence for a moment, then smiled broadly as he exclaimed, “Wait a minute! Maybe you are right!” The words “God speaks to us” had moved off the menu to the meal, from symbol to story.

People are hungry for stories but faith communities are ready to tell far too few of them. On average, only 17% of members clearly agree that they feel comfortable telling faith stories. Yet those stories abound. If you ask a general audience to indicate by a raised hand (with closed eyes) if they have had a powerful experience of a divine presence either through nature, a near-death experience, a mystical encounter, a synchronicity, etc. the great majority would raise their hands.

The New York Times recently ran an article in the sports section on “Memorable Sports Apologies through the Years.” When you read through them (and do a little bit of self-reflection as you do), you realize that most of us do not know how offer, request, or receive forgiveness in any real life situation even though we have confessed our sins in hundreds of worship services. This is because we forget that “passing the peace” is a sign of the peace of Christ that needs to be given substance in real life. Only then does it move from menu to meal, from symbol to story.

People hearing about organizational intelligence for the first time often react to the perception that numbers have nothing to do with real life. In fact, they are little different from any other symbol in the church that has not been converted into story. Religious sounding words can be just as discarnate as numbers and decimal points.

Questions that begin with the words “Tell me about a time…” are good for converting symbols to stories. We “tell” stories. “Tell me about a time when you felt like there was excitement in the church and you weren’t simply going through the motions.” “Tell me about a time when you walked out of your church and felt a deep sense of wholeness and peace.”

Russ Crabtree

Founder, Holy Cow! Consulting