As the bishop of a diocese in The Episcopal Church, I have been concerned about the decline in church attendance across denominations over the past decades. I used to think that Robert Putnam had diagnosed the problem in his work Bowling Alone that laments the loss of a common green or people joining civic organizations. However, I now believe that people are inherently wired to desire community and are doing so. They are joining organizations like health clubs and book groups; they just aren’t joining the church.
This past summer I focused on one way to stem this trend. My conviction is that as humans we are hardwired to make meaning through narrative, and as Christians we are connected to the never ending story of redemption and salvation. On Sunday we gather together to act out the primal story of the Lord’s death and resurrection so that when we step into the world, we will know the basic pattern story for a whole human life. His death is our death; his resurrection is our resurrection.
The Bible, therefore, is less a moral code, or a record of miracles we can embrace or dispute but more a scrapbook of stories that offers a roadmap to us. We read about Joseph so we will know about forgiveness. We read about Abraham to learn about faith, and we read about Mary Magdalene to learn about the limitless capacity of love. Then we pray to remember these sacred narratives so that we can locate ourselves in the story we are currently living.
My objective for the month of September was to provide a space where people could tell part of their story to help the group members locate themselves in the primal story. I share my story with fellow travelers, and we discover our common story and are thereby empowered to live it as we are connected to the sacred story. Then my pain makes sense because it’s located horizontally in other people and vertically in God’s story of salvation. My wounds are our wounds are the Lord’s wounds.
For the month of September 2015 I worked with a group at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown. Each week we focused on one theme of our life as Christians: calling, wonder, surrender, resurrection. A week before our session I provided a theological reflection on the theme (about a page long) as well as poems and scriptural passages that illuminated the subject. I then asked two persons to tell a story from their life that embodied this theme and gave them general guidelines about how to tell a story (have a title, an opening and an ending, choose one incident, focus on the senses, etc.).
The class exceeded my expectations. Because everyone was to tell their story, there was a great deal of commitment and attention. Having two stories a week gave a rich contrast and enabled us to go back to one of the scriptural stories with a renewed vision. An unexpected result was the trust and connection in the group because of people’s vulnerability.
The task left undone is how to translate this model to conversations with people who are unchurched. My vision is that if we will embrace the core chapters of our own story, we will find ways to articulate those with people we know. That’s what sharing the good news could look like for Episcopalians. We cannot give away what we don’t have. If we don’t know the story of Christ’s redemption and salvation in our lives, then when we speak of those mysteries, we don’t know what we are talking about. However, if we do, then we can have a conversation which might lead to communion and conversion—our own and others.
My summer is over, but my passion for this project is not.
Bishop Taylor is the Bishop of Western North Carolina.