Creating a Healing Culture of Storytelling


At a conference this month I heard John Bucher talk about our intrinsic love of stories. He described how our love affair with story goes deeper than we think. We are created from stories; we’re formed by them. We need stories to mirror back our reality—parables, fables, songwriting, novels, movies, and yes, even Netflix binging. We NEED stories. Stories help us make meaning of our lives. And that storytelling could help us heal a hurting world today.

John Bucher is a mythologist. It says so on his business card. He earned a PhD in mythology and serves as Executive Director for the Joseph Campbell Foundation. He has worked with HBO, DC Comics, and many others, including the John Maxwell Leadership Foundation and Virtual Reality projects. He knows the power of story:                    

People have used story to make sense of the world because part of the human experience is recognizing that there is mystery… We’re all doing the best we can to work through these issues that we all seem to share as human beings and trying to come to some sense of what it means…what does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be conscious? What does it mean to be human? 

We don’t know anything except for our own experience and that leaves us insecure, it leaves us unsure… But our comfort comes from exchanging stories, telling each other the stories that we have about the way the world looks to us… And even when we don’t get it right… we hear each other’s stories and we say, ah I take comfort in that, I feel better because what you said—it resonates with me, And it makes me feel like maybe I am not alone here.

In a conversation with Bucher we talked about how our culture loves Marvel movies. Even though critics have panned some of the movies, people love them. Why? He suggested that these stories speak to our “collective journey,” and perhaps in a culture deeply divided (over Covid, politics, religion, and more) we crave stories that honor what happens when we stick together. Toward the end of our conversation he said, “I would suggest to you the grand achievement of any great storyteller is making someone feel a little less alone in the world.”

An Epidemic of Isolation
The current polarizing climate in the U.S. has left many of us feeling isolated. We’re experiencing a loneliness epidemic. Maybe the healing we need will come through the nurturing of a storytelling culture our faith communities.

In the spring of 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy raised the alarm bell with his advisory that Americans are lonelier and more socially disconnected than ever. He warned us of the serious threat to our physical and mental health. People experiencing social isolation and loneliness have a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, a 32 percent increased risk of stroke, and a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, a lack of social connections increases our risk of premature death by more than 60 percent.

Murthy says: “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.”

Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist and co-author of the 2021 study Loneliness In America, suggests our faith communities can make a difference. He calls the need to take action on loneliness “a moral matter in terms of our community health.” In this study, Weissbourd says, “We need to return to an idea that was central to our founding and is at the heart of many great religious traditions: We have commitments to ourselves, but we also have vital commitments to each other, including to those who are vulnerable.”

How Churches Can Be Healing Centers
Churches have an opportunity to connect people to one another and offer hope in a world that can seem dark to a person experiencing loneliness. Could storytelling, and story-listening, be transformative in the lives of our people? Yes! This is the new life of an Easter season. This is resurrection.

As I work with churches who are trying to engage parents, I get an opportunity to hear about innovation programs, curriculum, and events. But at one conference I heard a parent give witness during a panel discussion on how the family faith-formation approach at his church had been transformational for him and his wife. After he spoke, I asked him to describe what his parish does when parents gather. Is it curriculum-focused? Is it parent skills-focused? What is it that’s transformational? Turns out it was none of the above. It’s story-focused. The parents facilitate the sessions themselves. They ask the same question every week—we all waited to hear that powerful question…

“How are you doing today? No, really, how are you?”

And then they share their lives… The joys and the challenges. They share where they see God at work in their lives, how they’ve been blessed, where they’re struggling to find hope, where they struggle to pray… all of it. And “all of it” is wrapped in faith. God is in all of it. And their story-sharing offers hope to those struggling to find it.

Creating a Storytelling Culture
“Tell me a story, please” is one of our earliest refrains, says author Alice Camille in her book, Listening to God.“Next to actually living,” she says, “telling stories is probably our most important activity… Stories tell us who we are and why we are.” By sharing stories, we connect with each other. So how do we create a storytelling culture? I believe there are five actions we need to take:

  1. Extend radical inclusivity—all are welcome! Invite everyone in the community, those engaged and committed to growing in your parish, those who are loosely connected to your church, and those who have walked away or have been marginalized by others for any reason. Invite people to sessions that speak to healing around grief, divorce, loss of pregnancy, loss of a job, deconstructing faith, or any issue that causes pain. Invite people to sessions around parenting or around issues of social justice. Any topic that can provide an opportunity for persons to witness to their pain, struggle, faith and/or hope is a storytelling opportunity.
  2. Provide safe and sacred spaces for story-sharing. Leaders must remind participants that each person’s story is theirs to share. When we leave a space, we do not share another’s story without their permission. We can tell how a story resonates, how it moves us, but only as it relates to us, to our stories, not to the specific person who tells the story. These spaces must be judgment-free zones, reminding participants of the dignity of every person present. When we share stories, we honor the sacred in one another. Here we remember we are on holy ground in the presence of another: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
  3. Build trust through vulnerability. Vulnerability precedes trust. As leaders we must be willing to be vulnerable—to share our own stories before we can expect others to do the same. Imagine a place where your people feel safe to be vulnerable with one another about what hurts, about what gives them hope today. Imagine a faith community where the members know one another authentically, where they really know one another’s stories. In such a community we can accompany one another on the faith journey (and in life) in real and powerful ways.
  4. Focus on people not programs. Too often we lean on scripted curriculums or programs that seem (at first glance) to be easy to implement. In some ways they may be, but when something feels scripted, it rarely feels authentic. That makes creating a safe and sacred space more difficult. When we rely too much on what is prescribed for a program, we fail to recognize the needs of the actual person in front of us. See the person. Listen to them to discover those needs. Do not make assumptions. Listening sessions can provide an opportunity to know your community and discern the needs of your people. Focusing on people creates connections. Connections allow for relationships. Relationships are an antidote to social isolation. Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Let’s help people remember that we belong to one another.
  5. A deep and intentional dependence on Jesus’ saving grace. In all of this, we must recognize that we need one another, and we need God. It is only through our dependence on Jesus that we can let go, that we can experience freedom through our stories, and in the stories of others. I think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, how Jesus came alongside and listened to their disillusionment, their pain and confusion, and then offered hope. It was in their surrender that He was revealed. They finally saw Him when He broke the bread and said the blessing. And in that, they realized their need for Him—for the hope that he provided, for the connection they had with others in Him. Through that realization they returned to the community.

If you’re craving help in your journey toward a storytelling culture in your church, please reach out to connect with me, or with one of our other Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coaches—just click HERE to get started.



Denise Utter, M.A., is a freelance consultant, writer, and a speaker—she’s been coaching with Vibrant Faith since 2018. She has worked in ministry and education for 30 years. Denise loves to inspire ministry leaders to reimagine faith formation, put families at the center of faith, and provide innovative approaches to faith formation.




Get Updates About Coaching Services

Thank you for Registering