The Next Faithful Step
A Shared Story of Future Hope
Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary
I define vision as "a shared story of future hope." Vision is designed to change people and to entice them to participate in a change that is larger themselves. People do not grab onto a plan, nor do they assent to abstract beliefs. That does not change them. Instead, people are transformed when they participate in a story—one that sets them on a trajectory. Sometimes that change can happen when the story finally names the deep difficulty that a person feels. I think that a significant part, for example, of Martin Luther King's early success was not about offering a plan. It was about naming a dilemma. When he talked about what it meant to be trapped by Jim Crow, people recognized themselves in that story. But then he went on over the years to offer a plan (a vision) that came in the form of a story. His audience did not come to some intellectual decision that non-violence was the best philosophy (although King himself had done just that). They "bought into" King's vision because they could picture it. They could see the story playing out. And they could see themselves in the story. Vision is a shared story of future hope.
One way to cast such a vision is to tell a new story. Let me illustrate how transforming it can be for someone to imagine their way into a story. In II Samuel 12, Nathan the Prophet faced a serious problem. He had to find a way to tell the king he was wrong. And not just wrong, embarrassingly wrong. This was difficult because, well, kings are known to kill prophets who deliver bad news. So Nathan decided to tell a story. He said, "There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him." David entered the story. He identified with the poor man. And he knew his role. He was the king and it was the king's job to execute judgment on the rich man. David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, "As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity." Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man!" And Nathan recounted how David had arranged for Uriah the Hittite to die so that David could possess Bathsheba. But the story does not end there. We have to continue to include King David's response. He repented. He openly confessed his sin—and he did not have the prophet killed. Participating in a story allows a person to imagine their way to change.
One way to create a vision is to tell a new story and invite people to participate in it. Another way to use stories comes from the sociologist Nancy Ammerman. She studied communities undergoing social change (e.g. a company town where the company closes the plant). And she looked for which congregations thrived in the face of social change. One characteristic of these thriving churches is that they "found themselves listening to old stories with new ears." One such story comes from Ammerman's colleague Carl Dudley. He once studied a congregation that was worried about the activism of its youth. It seems that the youth in one of the congregations he studied were agitating for a cause like a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Their methods and their enthusiasm were making some of the older members of the church nervous. But they seemed to have a surprising ally in one of the oldest members of the congregation, a man whose temperament would not usually lead him to support such progressive efforts. After much coaxing, he explained why he supported the teens. He told a story about when he was a young person during Prohibition and the church was mobilized to stop the spread of alcohol. It seems a speakeasy opened up in the community and late one night a group from the church went out to do what they could to close it down. They waited until everyone was gone and then they dynamited the place. The old man supported the youth because nothing they were doing was nearly as radical as what the congregation once did. After the man's story made the rounds, the youth felt immensely empowered and the church board did not feel nearly so uncomfortable. In other words, a story from the past enabled the congregation to follow their youth into the future.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the power of shared stories is by sharing a story. The following comes from the Sticky Faith blog. It describes one leader's experience with shared stories of future hope.
Today's guest blogger is Matthew DePrez. Matthew serves as the Now Generation Pastor at Frontline Community Church in Grand Rapids, MI and was part of the 2010 Sticky Faith Cohort.
In February, our church attended the first of two Sticky Faith Learning Cohort "summits." It was a life-changing experience for our team. During one session, Dr. Scott Cormode talked about vision. He defined vision as "shared stories of future hope." One of the assignments we were required to do was write two "success stories" about students in our program over the course of the next two years.
We wrote one about a student named Kathryn, and another about Kyle. They are both written after real students who attend our program on a regular basis. Over the next few months something happened in my heart that I wasn't expecting. I couldn't get the stories out of my head. The stories wrecked me. Every time I saw Kathryn or Kyle, I thought about the stories. Almost four months later, I called Kathryn and talked with her about her story. I read it to her and waited for her to tell me it was creepy. Her reaction was quite the opposite. Instead, she told me how inspired she was, and how much it encouraged her that people were thinking about her and took her seriously.
This is where we had the idea to take these "stories" one step further. In June we met as an adult leadership team, and each small group leader wrote one story about a student in their small group. It wrecked the small group leaders. Then we started wondering what would happen if students defined their own stories of life change? What if every student attending our program took time to write a story of future hope? And what would happen if they shared those stories of future hope with each other? It got us really excited!! In July, while our students were attending our annual Summer camp, we made it a reality. Students took time to write their own stories of future hope and shared them with their peers. We had students committing to go into full-time ministry, leading other friends to Christ, and bringing their unchurched families to our church. The students dreamed bigger than I ever imagined!!
We've decided to center everything we do as a student ministry around these stories of future hope for 2012. It will become the foundation for each student that attends our program. Each week, one or two students will share their stories of future hope to everybody else in attendance! It's as if these students are writing their own discipleship program right in front of our very eyes - and it's beautiful. We've even processed what would happen if every small group leader wrote a story about every student in their small group, and every student wrote a story of future hope about their leader! When I told our senior pastor what we were doing, he immediately started thinking about how our entire church could participate in something like this! The opportunities are endless. What I've realized is that students are learning what it means to dream in enormous ways about their relationship with Jesus, and it's challenging an entire church to dream about their own relationship with Jesus.
That's a story of future hope.