How Storytelling Fuels Thriving Congregations

Don’t you just LOVE IT when diverse threads of your ministry converge and strengthen each other? Even better, don’t you get excited when this sort of confluence helps you see your ministry path more clearly than before? 


At Vibrant Faith we’re working with churches across the U.S. in two separate but overlapping lanes—the first project is called Thriving Congregations, and the second is called the Fourth-Soil Parenting Project. Both are partnerships with the Lilly Endowment. As we dig deep into our work with both projects, we’re discovering truths in one arena that make a huge impact in the other…  

In our Thriving Congregations project we’re helping churches explore what it means to thrive in the midst of an enormous contraction in the post-Covid church. We began this work during the height of the pandemic, coaching 28 churches to plan, launch, and sustain a host of micro-experiments in re-invention. Five-year strategic plans in our current context are anachronistic, and the success metrics we’ve used for a generation have lost their relevance. Thriving is not the same thing as success—especially the American standard of numerical success.  

As an organization, we’ve long believed that thriving naturally follows faith formation—people who are becoming more like Jesus. We oriented our work with our Thriving Congregations churches around that hypothesis. It was hard for some of our churches to wrap themselves around that, so we created this simple statement: “At Vibrant Faith, we believe that a life of THRIVING follows an increasing capacity to be present to God and to one another.”  We developed several indicators of what “increasing capacity to be present”  looks like, sourced from the stories of the early church. Our coaches are helping their assigned churches to practice those indicators by re-inventing what they’re already doing. Our thriving indicators all call for increasing levels of awareness of how God is active and working in their communal and daily lives.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of the year we launched another project that taps into our central calling as an organization. Our Fourth-Soil Parenting Project asks 20 new partner churches to more fully engage Christian parents over the next three years. Our goal is to help churches re-focus on supporting faith development in and through home life. We’re exploring how a generation of people raising children can best influence their kids into a deepening relationship with Jesus.  

As we prepared to begin this Fourth-Soil Parenting work, we developed a conviction that engaging and equipping Christian parents MUST include churches encouraging parents to more fully explore their life experiences. Research tells us that our developmental experiences have a lot to do with how deeply we are able to open ourselves to a living faith in God. Our Vibrant Faith Blogging Team, along with Executive Director Rick Lawrence and I, have been writing about this theme in recent weeks.

And then, this weekend, my husband handed me this reference to something Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in his book Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel

In an interesting ‘flip side’ to our axiom that God meets us in our messy reality, Williams says that to be present to God’s presence is to be present to our pain-filled pasts, our shame-filled memories. This is why so many want nothing to do with God: we come face-to-face with ourselves when we come face-to-face with God.”

And there it is…  

If we are not helping people to tell their raw “origin stories,” they’ll be thwarted in their ability to THRIVE, or increase their capacity to be present to God and one another. Likewise, parents will be thwarted in their determination to share their faith unless they are learning to embrace the reality of their “pain-filled pasts.” In other words, if we hope to increase our capacity to be present to God, we’ll need to grow much more comfortable being real in God’s presence. Thank GOD for this reality!

But how often do churches plan and program for THIS? A ministry that is focused on the faith life of parents for the sake of the faith of their children requires a no-holds-barred thriving in the presence of God. We have to learn, or re-learn, how to narrate our stories. And friends, that’s where we’re headed. We’re hoping to share stories of our storytelling experiments as they unfold. And we are profoundly grateful to the Lilly Endowment for their support and vision in this work.  

Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children.


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