December 14, 2021

Ditch the hero narrative and tell a story about your community

By Craig Mattson

Professor, Trinity Christian College

Thriving Congregations grantees

Learn more about sociologist Mark Mulder's work with Churches that THRIVE for Racial Justice, a Thriving Congregations project at Davidson College, and about the project at Parish Collective, where Jonathan Brooks serves as board chair.
Davidson College
Parish Collective
iStock / DenKuvaiev

Telling a story about your organization that focuses on its place can help motivate and inspire people to return to the pews, writes a professor at Trinity Christian College.

One brisk January day, Robert White and I walked south down Desplaines Street in Chicago. We had just conducted an open-ended interview about his work as chief program officer at Cara Collective, a workforce preparedness organization. Robert had offered to walk with me to my car so we could talk a little longer.

At the corner of Desplaines and Jackson, I think it was, a man approached us asking for change. After the conversation we’d just had about social enterprise, I was feeling altruistic. I reached for my wallet — and then stopped to listen.

Robert said he didn’t have any money on him. But, he asked, had the man ever heard of his organization, Cara? The guy shook his head. Where was it?

Robert pointed up the street to his organization’s front door, half a block away.

Later, it struck me that even Cara, a long-established, highly admired organization, can struggle to be a recognizable presence in its particular place.

Church leaders face analogous problems today. The last 20-odd months of Zooming worship services have, in many cases, disconnected congregations from their geography. Of course, the local disconnectedness of organizations is nothing new. Even before the pandemic made virtual offerings essential, the attention economy had prioritized digital rather than physical spaces. But in these latter days (we hope) of the pandemic, many church leaders are asking how to get souls off the couch and into the sanctuary.

They may even feel like Robert, pointing people to an organization whose life-giving presence, just a block or two away, should be obvious but isn’t.

I believe that part of the answer lies in the stories we tell about our organizations and their places. In 2019 and 2020, I interviewed 45 organizational leaders for my book “Why Spiritual Capital Matters.” They were mostly social entrepreneurs, and we talked about the role spiritual practices like storytelling might play in their workplace communities.

These leaders would often start by telling me a motivational story clearly honed for investors, donors and shareholders. But often, they also evinced discomfort with the TED Talk-style inspirational story — and, I came to think, with good reason.

For one thing, such a story can exaggerate the persuasiveness of personal inspiration in a time of radical polarization. For another, organizational storytelling that focuses on individual overcoming without regard to place can exacerbate social problems like racism and environmental devastation.

Sociologists like Mark Mulder have shown how ecclesial placelessness can deepen racial discrimination, just as agrarians like Wendell Berry have warned that diminished affection for the local devastates natural ecologies.

But I also found that if I listened long enough, my interlocutors would shift to a different sort of narrative, one more attentive to place. I started calling this fresh mode of communication the “neighborhood story.” Let me share an example.

The Rev. Jonathan Brooks met me for a smoothie and an interview in the Kusanya Cafe, a coffee shop in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Pastah J, as his neighbors call him, grew up in Englewood but left for college and graduate school, thinking he’d never be back.

As you can read in his compelling book “Church Forsaken: Practicing Presence in Neglected Neighborhoods,” he eventually returned to Englewood with his family to pastor a church and help launch an entrepreneurial incubator, the cafe where we were talking.

Although I first heard this origin story as centering on Brooks himself, I came to see that the “main character” in his narrative was the Englewood neighborhood.

He likes to say that if you walk into Kusanya and ask who owns the place, the barista is likely to call out, “You do!” On the back wall is a chalkboard covered with the names of people who helped start the organization.

I started hearing this neighborhood story frequently — and from all sorts of organizational leaders. Here’s some advice for this type of storytelling.

Start the story not with a character but with a place. The inspirational story often starts with a capable protagonist. But when I heard Shannon Hopkins talk about her organization, she began by describing a practice of taking long walks through the streets of London, praying as she went. The story didn’t focus on her own competencies. The important thing was not just what was happening in her heart but also what was happening in her place.

Move the plot not with problems but with hidden resources. Most inspirational storytelling begins with a predicament to be overcome. But Sadell Bradley, a pastor and change maker in Cincinnati, helped me hear another story. She told me that she relies on what she calls a Judaic model in which each community member’s gifts meet particular needs for everybody else. But because such gifts aren’t always obvious, leaders like Bradley have learned to tell stories that cultivate awareness of this hidden capital.

Describe your church not as a guru but as a catalyst. Most hero narratives have a mentor figure, someone who is the Obi-Wan Kenobi to the narrative’s Luke Skywalker. But Dave Odom describes the catalyst as someone whose “default is to encourage, connect and release.” Talking with Dave made me realize that churches could narrate their work not as gurus but as catalysts that animate what’s already happening.

Narrate a vision not of maximization but of sufficiency. The attentional logic of our time urges storytelling that maximizes people’s already scant attention: Get the likes! Track the RTs! Google the analytics! But a neighborhood doesn’t necessarily benefit from a church’s virality. Narrating the just-enough of viable presence and sustainable participation is sufficient unto the day.

As we move, God willing, from pandemic to endemic, church leaders are looking for ways to motivate and inspire people to return to the pews. But the story that most reliably points the way back to the sanctuary need not trace the lofty arc of the hero’s journey so much as a path through the nearby neighborhood.

By Craig Mattson

Professor, Trinity Christian College

Craig Mattson is a professor of communication arts at Trinity Christian College and the author of “Why Spiritual Capital Matters.”