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Stories—sacred and secular—can transform congregations

Alban is a learning institution. One way we learn is to be with really gifted people and to put a topic on the table and learn from their experience.

— Jim Wind, President, Alban Institute

Stories, sacred and secular, make up the fabric of every congregation. They include the story of the community: How it came to be, who its leaders were; times of crisis and courage; times of loss and healing, conversion and transformation. And individual stories of the people who make up the community: How and when and why they came; what and who has shaped them; personal times of crisis and courage, of loss, healing, and faithfulness. Stories of discernment, reflecting God's call to individuals and to the community.

Story multiplies exponentially beyond the local faith community, gathering in narratives from the neighborhood, the wider community, the nation, and the world. These are both sacred, touching the history and impact of religion on history and current events, and secular, embracing political, historical, and cultural mores not overtly linked to religion. Woven through the warp and weft of all these narratives—secular and sacred—for people of faith are the biblical stories of the God who created, sustains, and redeems us.

Story has power—the sacred stories that people of every faith tell again and again, the stories of congregations and of each of their members, and the secular stories "out there" in the culture. Power to expand and change the way we think, power that can transform congregational life.

The Alban Institute is studying the power of narratives to transform congregations. This work is putting flesh and bones on Alban's belief that understanding and using the rich stories around us are essential to the development of faith communities and their members, key to their capacity to grow and change. This special report grows out of that work and also out of a conference, "Secular and Sacred Story: Finding Connections that Enrich Transformation and Ministry," organized by the late Anne Van Dusen, Senior Research Associate with the Congregational Resource Guide. It was held at Alban headquarters May 20–21, 2008.

Conference participants from several Christian denominations included pastors, professors, and laypeople who use film, literature, and storytelling in their congregations and classes; writers, editors, and artists; a filmmaker, a screenwriter, a storyteller, and representatives from the Alban Institute and the Indianapolis Center for Congregations.

Discussion and presentations over the two days looked at the ways we tell our sacred story; the connects and the disconnects with secular culture; the use of congregational and personal stories, books, films, storytelling, and art as tools for building community and transforming congregations.

Later sections look at what we mean by story and consider its power to transform individual lives and communities. We will take an analytical look at our sacred story and consider the use of narratives in preaching. We will discuss the importance of congregational stories and how opportunities to tell personal stories can bring healing and build community. We will consider the impact culture has on faith communities. And we will discuss ways to use literature, film, art, and theater in our congregations.


Dedicated to the late Anne Van Dusen, whose passion for the role of story in congregational life led to the 2008 "Secular and Sacred Story Conference" and this special report.




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