“We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations …”

By: Jodi L. Porter
February 09, 2017

As we planned to host over 170 leaders from the High School Youth Theology Institutes (HSYTI) initiative, I imagined they might share helpful stories with each other.

As it turned out, they did. But something even more inspiring emerged than what I had imagined. As leaders shared their successes and their challenges, our stories converged on a common theme: Storytelling is a best practice for this work we do.

Chris Coble, Vice President of the Religion Division at Lilly Endowment Inc., asked during our opening evening, “When did you fall in love with theology?” He invited leaders to remember their stories and consider how they can invite youth into similar stories.

And we might say institutes hope to cultivate “theological literacy,” which Christian educator and theologian Thomas Groome says requires storytelling. It involves a conversation between God’s story and people’s stories that results in the mutual shaping of futures.

How can God’s story help youth imagine faithful work in this world? How can the experiences of youth help form an ever more faithful church for today and tomorrow?

Especially during our peer conversations, leaders identified several ways storytelling must be essential to the work of a youth theology institute:

1. When designing an institute, theological reflection must relate to participants’ lives.

Does the institute invite youth to relate their own stories to the Christian story? They may not know ancient texts or theologians that can animate faith. They may not know great thinkers within their own traditions after which they could model their vocational discernment.

2. Storytelling must be central to evaluation, recruitment and sustainability.

Leaders can structure an evaluation plan in ways that will help tell an institute’s story to future participants and donors. Articulating the story for various stakeholders will help an institute grow its recruitment and enable sustainability. The story might need translated for different venues, such as churches, regional youth events, or key non-profit or public arenas. Leaders also might invite youth ministers to campus to share the story.

3. Mentors and counselors are an important embodiment of story.

Participants will look to mentors for their most immediate examples of living the Christian faith. Mentors also could embody the specific purpose of the college or university. The mentoring experience should be holistic, preparing mentors to interact with the stories of youth and supporting them to continue discerning their own vocations.

4. While embracing unity within Christ, celebrate diversity.

All institutes come from unique Christian traditions, each called to do well what they do (and not what others do). As Kenda Creasy Dean encouraged, “You do you.” For recruitment, institutes must be authentic and clear about their own story, including their faith tradition, the mission of their institution and that of their institute. And institutes should try to be consistent in the story they write through their work. If seeking a diversity of participants, institutes can reflect that commitment to diversity through those invited to lead.

5. Involve youth in telling the story.

By the end of the institute experience, youth should be able to articulate the Christian story (and how it shapes their own) in new ways. We can invite them to lead worship. We can ask them to create ways to express, teach or act upon faith and theology. We might involve them in fundraising through storytelling in churches and schools, and on social media. And we will celebrate that the skills they are honing not only can serve the institute but, most importantly, will serve the church in this world.

As that old hymn reminds us, we’ve a story to tell to the nations.

Let’s invite our youth to help us tell that story anew.

Tags: Inspired Leaders, Thinking Out Loud, Shaping the Future


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