As summer rolls round, with its inevitable schedule of conferences, festivals, and the inexplicably named ‘house parties’, I’ve been having a think about the narratives that are told from those platforms.
Stories of projects and ministries to inspire us. Of amazing charities competing for our support. Of testimonies of miracle transformations that encourage the Church.
In almost any Christian ministry, the dominant narratives tend to be the success stories.
They populate, not only platforms at summer-conferences, but also church newsletters, case-studies on funding applications and anecdotes at social events in order to justify why us charity bods are earning less money than our accountant friends.
They are pithy tales with salvation punch-lines; they are finite with happy endings. A before, and an after.
If you only have half an hour to garner support, of course you’re only going to give the highlights; stories that are simplified and condensed; stripped of nuance and packaged in bite-sized accessible testimony chunks.
OK, I’m starting to sound cynical.
Outcome-mongering is not specific to ministry, it’s a facet of speedily changing millennial iLife. We’re supposed to be able to get a point across in Twitter’s 140 characters. The recommended blog-length to hold millennial attention is just 200 words. If you can do it in a captioned photo, even better.
Seth Godin, online marketing expert, calls the way we consume information ‘snack culture’. It’s a culture that says to make good content, efficiency is king. We need to be able to summarise our aims and activities in one sentence.
After all, no one wants to stand on the stage and tell an expectant evangelical crowd, hungry for miraculous transformation stories: “Our ministry is hard and disappointing, with largely unmeasurable outcomes. In some ways, it might help you become a better person, but you’ll probably still be a bit shit because, aren’t we all? If you want to sign up to our internship, visit our stall in concourse.”
So what’s my point? And what’s the difference between ‘glory stories’ and the command to ‘dwell on what is praise-worthy’?
My point is that these narratives are people’s stories. And so how we use them is important. Narratives create norms, models, cultures and expectations. Countless enthusiastic evangelicals dive head-first into very tough ministries on the evidence of well edited books and church-front testimony and then find out that it’s not that shiny in real life. It’s actually bloody hard.
Victory narratives are important, but we must also have a counter narrative. One that says people still struggle with addiction after they come to know Jesus. That having a successful ministry doesn’t stop you being a screw-up. That Jesus being in the pain and the disappointment is as much a part of his character as the victory moments and glory-stories. He doesn’t draw a neat line between the messy and the glorious. And that’s pretty wonderful.