When Your Story Clashes with Your Church’s Story

Dave Rhodes
February 4, 2020

by Dave Rhodes

If you’ve been a leader at any level in a church, whether staff or volunteer, you’ve been through it—especially if you haven’t been a part of the church since its birth or yours.

You make a decision for your ministry, you make a comment in a meeting, you inform a member about something that affects them, or perhaps you answer a question in a job interview. Whatever you say or do is innocent, and you don’t notice it as a big deal.

But suddenly you get the sense that something has gone terribly wrong. You see it in people’s faces, how they stop nodding along, how they shift uncomfortably in their seats, how they give each other anxious looks. You catch it in whispers in the corner of the room.

Then the storm hits—the outburst from the person across the table, the email from someone who wasn’t in the meeting, the knock on the door that says, “Let’s talk.” Soon you feel the whole system turning on you like antibodies attacking a virus.

You walk out of the room, hang up the phone, close the computer, and wonder, “What just happened?”

Nine times out of ten what happened can be summed up this way: your story clashed with the church’s story.

Everyone has a story

Every one of us has a story. Events in your life are not random and disconnected; they are pages in a unified story, the story of you. Your story isn’t isolated from other stories, of course. Every character in your story has a story of their own. Every group that you are a member of—a family, a community, an ethnic people, a nation—has its own story that has deeply affected yours. But it’s still your story, and it is unique.

Every story has a moral or morals. Even if the story isn’t written to teach a lesson, every story has embedded in it ideas of what is right and wrong, attractive and repulsive. Your story has these morals too, some shaped by the world around you and some arising from your high points and hard times.

The danger comes when you, living out your story, attach to a new group that is living out its own story. Because every church has a story too. It had “parents,” a birth, stages of life as it matured, its own high points and hard times. All these things have shaped the morals of its own story. So when you do something that suits your story neatly, but it clashes against the sensitive spots in the church’s story, sparks fly.

Four stories every church must tell

Our stories matter. They may be the most powerful assets (and liabilities) we have as human beings. But an unexamined story is a sleeping giant. Without waking it up and learning deeply from it, we miss out on a lot of power. But we also risk it rolling over onto us!

This is the challenge and the opportunity placed before every church. As a body born in story, a church has four stories to tell to release the power God has placed in it:

  • The first is the story of the Bible—the grand story of God and his creation from its beginning to its end and new beginning.
  • The second is the story of the universal church—the history (and histories) of God’s people from the coming of Jesus to today.
  • The third is the story of an individual church—the chronicle of the prehistory and founding of a congregation and its development through time to what it is now.
  • The fourth is the story of individual believers—the life story of each follower of Jesus.

In a world where meaning is up for grabs, where so many people feel aimless and fear that their lives are pointless, imagine the power released in believers’ lives if they could tell all four of these stories. Imagine the confidence that they would have in their identity and the conviction they would have in their calling. Imagine how each person’s self-concept would be rooted in Christ, in the people of God, and even in your church, the body of believers they call home. Imagine the missional power that would unleash. Imagine the attention it would command from the world around.

But also imagine how knowing these stories—especially the last two—would increase the unity of the Spirit in a church, how it would defuse disharmony, strengthen alignment, and make everyone stronger and healthier.

Hard stories that heal

Churches that don’t process their collective story have an eerie tendency to repeat the most painful parts. It’s like a dance: the dancers (the people) may change, and the music (the presenting issues) may change, but the steps—the way conflict plays out—remain the same.

If you’re a church leader, consider that this may be why you struggle to gain or maintain momentum. People have a hard time buying into a new vision if the last one caused pain that is still unmourned. People aren’t living without a story to explain those painful times—nobody can. If you don’t tell them a story, they will make one up. In their private conversations, they are telling some story of what happened and why it matters. But is it the best, truest, or most faithful version of the story?

When the family of churches I serve took time to investigate and tell our story, the results were powerful. There were staff who were part of the organization from the beginning, and they still bore barely closed wounds from the journey that the rest of us didn’t know about. Naming those hurts as part of the organization’s story helped them heal. We also saw how what could have been interpreted as a split in our past was actually a key step in our movement toward multiplication. We even saw how failures to grow our physical plant were actually stepping stones to the same end.

A healthy community is one that is honest about its struggles without hiding its successes. It openly names both the high points and the hard times and gives glory to God for his guidance over generations. The fellowship I serve now regularly rehearses our story in special gatherings to remind us where we’ve come from and trust God for where we’re going.

But the church’s story is only one side of the coin. The other is your story. Knowing your own story goes a long way to revealing what is most important to you, where you are most sensitive, why you respond to situations in repetitive ways. It is the intersection of your story and the church’s story that causes you to bump into obstacles and wonder what’s going on. But when both stories are known and interpreted, you can say not only, “Oh, that’s what’s going on,” but also, “Now I see why I’m here!”

Three resources for you and your church

This month we’re proud to offer three resources for learning your story and the story of your church.

The first is a free webinar called “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Forgive the Hamilton reference—this webinar is about how to help every person in your church learn their story, see how God has been working in it to make them who they are today, and share the story of his grace with others. It’s a powerful process to mobilize ministry and personal evangelism.

The second resource is the Church Discovery Grid tool. This is a process you can walk through with your leaders and the longest-involved members of your church to see your church’s story in a new light and build unity around it. Every webinar participant will receive this excellent tool for free.

Third is an online course called Your Story Matters. This resource is a rich, in-depth look at your own story, unpacking its significance for your life’s call. It’s a meaty portion of the full Younique Life Plan Journey.

In the end our stories don’t clash, because God is weaving them all together in his great story with a happy ending that lasts forever. And by his grace, even now we get to glimpse where they are going.

Dave Rhodes

Dave is the Pastor of Discipleship and Movement Initiatives at Grace Fellowship Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the co-founder of Younique and Wayfarer, and a collaborative partner for 100 Movements, 10,000 Fathers. Before coming to Grace Fellowship, Dave served as the U.S. Team Leader for 3DM and as Lead Strategist for Wayfarer. Dave has authored several books and resources including Redefining Normal: An Open Invitation for Ordinary People Wanting to Become Extraordinary Disciples. Dave graduated from Palm Beach Atlantic University and went on to graduate from Beeson Divinity School with Master of Divinity. Dave is married to Kim and the father of 3 fabulous children—Emma, Izzie and Frankie.