Storytelling is central to the work of the church — and it’s time to rethink how we tell stories, says the Rev. Lillian Daniel. She’ll talk about that, as one of three keynote speakers slated for the Perkins Fall Convocation, November 15-16, focused on the theme, “Speak Up! Stories for a New Day.”

Daniel is senior pastor of First Congregational Church in Dubuque, Iowa, and author of Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To. That book, which is generating international conversations about the changing religious landscape, continues the theme of her previous book, When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough, about the growing number of people claiming “none” as their religious preference.

Perkins Perspective spoke to Daniel in advance of her November keynote; here are excerpts.

Perspective: You plan to talk about how storytelling changed during the pandemic, as many pastors switched to online, video formats.  What were the key changes you saw?

With in-person worship, to people in the pews, you’re the person they’re watching from a distance. It is very theatrical in that sense. But when we started just recording that kind of worship service, it didn’t feel intimate when you watched it. It was as if viewers were eavesdropping visually and orally on people worshiping. Some of the formal ways in which we speak in worship in person seemed extra corny on video.

During the pandemic, many of us started preaching to a camera. It was much more intimate. You have to be more conversational, and it’s much harder to keep people’s attention on video.  So the role of conversational storytelling became really important. A lot of pastors learned to do that in settings, like I’m doing right now, at my desk, on Zoom.

I think stories are the best way to communicate in those times. I remember, at the beginning of the pandemic, I started to type an email, where I had to say, “We’re shutting down. Y’all can’t come this Sunday.” I remember thinking, “I can’t just write this as a newsletter. I have to do this as a video. That let me turn an announcement into a story, in which I could say, “If you told me this would happen a week ago, I would’ve said you were crazy.” When you create a story, it’s not just culture wars and fighting about whether or not you’re a scientist. Instead, you’re telling a story that people are included in.

You’ve said that you’re hoping to get people to tell a different story about the church. Talk a little about that.

The book that I’ll be talking about a lot is Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To. I’m looking at all the stereotypes about church. Like the one that says we’re all a bunch of fundamentalists who do whatever the charismatic pastor says, and all the church members are lemmings and don’t think for themselves.  If I could find a gig like that, I would take it! (Laughs.)  Never, in my life, have I experienced church that way. It doesn’t really happen, certainly not in mainline Protestantism or Catholicism. So that’s a bad, inaccurate story about religion, right?

But many of the people who could tell a different story about churches are afraid of offending people by talking about their faith, so they just say nothing. They let other people dominate the conversation.

You’ve also said, because of the pandemic, people are finding their way back into the story of church in unexpected ways. Can you elaborate?

This is the gift of that move to technology. Even those small, tech averse, congregations that never expected to embrace online worship — almost all of them have a joyful story about it. Such as, “I couldn’t believe it, but my aunt who lives in Nebraska was tuning into our worship,” or, “Total strangers have been listening to our worship,” or, “We finally did Zoom coffee hour, and now my relatives can meet my fellow church members.” The flip side is that I think almost all of us later experienced a dip back down in numbers of views after the initial euphoria and excitement. I think everybody got sick of staring at screens.  But online worship also created an opportunity for people to stick a toe in the door of the church, without physically coming in the door.

I think this means that we have to be even more conscious that there are people “in the room” who are invisible to us, who may not have any idea what we’re doing or why. We cannot run church as if we all know the same story, as if this is episode three and we just presume everyone there saw episodes one and two.

I always do this thing when I preach, I do an introduction to scripture where I explain, here’s where we are. So I say, “This is from a letter written by somebody named Paul who was starting churches.” You cannot assume that people know who these people are. There’s nothing that makes you feel less interested in a story than realizing you’ve missed some of the essential plot.

Obvious question: What’s the definition of a story?

I think a story implies a plot or a series of events where something happens, and something changes.  It’s not an interesting story to say, “I sat at my desk all day,” right? There needs to be movement in a story, which is different from making a declarative statement or a doctrinal statement.

There’s also needs to be conflict.  If you see where it’s all going, it’s not an interesting story. There’s got to be a moment where it takes a turn and something that happened causes something else to happen. And the Bible’s full of great stories like that.

You talked about personal stories in worship. I tend to think of them as preachers’ bread and butter.  Can pastors overdo the personal stories? 

I’m completely inconsistent on this because I use stories all the time. And, of course, when I use them, I think it’s artfully done in service to the Gospel, but when other people do it too much, it’s narcissism. (Laughs)

I think most preachers, if we are healthy, have a suspicion of our own personal stories. We know that if we talk about our cat or dog, there’s going to be a guaranteed group of people in the congregation who are going to say, “I loved church today because I also have a cat or a dog.” We often get really positive feedback for “telling personal stories.” But is it in service to the Gospel? Do people in the pews even remember the day’s Gospel passage or do they only remember the story about your cat or your dog? And is that just a sort of cheap connection?

I think that, particularly when we couldn’t be in person together, people got very didactic in their points of view, in politics and media. A story is a way to defuse that. So, in church, rather than saying, “Because I believe in science, I have decided in my own logic and intelligence to shut down worship,” maybe you can instead turn that into a story.  You could say, “I used to think COVID was a hoax. Then my mother got it and got really sick, and I changed my mind.” That’s a story with a plot, which is different from saying, “All you anti-vaxxers are killing us.”

I do have rule of thumb:  if you tell a story about yourself, you should never be the hero.  You should be the character who learns something. A good story might be, “I used to think this, and then this wise person showed me that.” But if the story is, “People used to think this, and then I showed them, in my wisdom, this other thing,” that’s not so good.