It was the 'share your story' slot at holiday club. The storyteller was invited up to the stage. Expecting a cool energetic team member to bound up, there was an interminably long and excruciatingly awkward pause as an old, stooped, frail lady slowly got out of her seat. She painstakingly shuffled all the way up to the stage, which she almost failed to reach, having to go via a flight of steep steps. We all held our breath as she caught hers – and shifted uncomfortably in our seats nervously willing her to begin. Kids were impatiently shuffling, fidgeting and starting to chat.
And finally she began.
For veteran Britain's Got Talent fans it was a 'Subo' moment. For non BGT fans Susan Boyle was an unlikely looking pop star who appeared on stage to the scornful smirks of the Britain's Got Talent judges and then left them gobsmacked by her incredible gift.
My jaw literally dropped as a hush fell and this diminutive lady's immense gift of storytelling transported us out of that hall and into the jungles of Africa. Painting vivid pictures with her words, her spiritual energy and Godly vitality were infectious and inspiring in equal measure. Wow. It was a golden moment where the boundaries of age were busted and we all breathed something beautiful in together.
It made me feel ashamed of my initial reaction to this living legend. Our program-driven culture can segregate us according to age, only briefly bumping into each other accidentally at the end of services during the jostling for position in the queue for the juice and biccies or coffee and cake.
We talk a lot in church about the generation gap. What are we doing to build a generation bridge? Story sharing is a simple place to start. If story sharing was part of our rhythm of church family life we could regularly download priceless, hard-fought wisdom and life lessons from the older generation and upload gratitude and encouragement from the next.
Ever since human beings sat around campfires in caves, we've told stories. In Ireland, at the height of the famine when poverty was rife storytelling thrived. At the end of a long hard hungry day people would gather around the fire in 'rambling houses' to share their stories. Through story they shared their struggles and fears, laughter and joy, and a deep sense of community was forged.
The Israelites understood it was their responsibility to pass true stories of God's good news from one generation to another. 'Remember the days of old, Consider the years of many generations. Ask your father, and he will show you; Your elders, and they will tell you' (Deuteronomy 32:7).
We still live in a story-hungry culture. Millennials, according to Ann Voskampf, say 'Tell me your story, not your sermon.' In 'Speak, How Your Story Can Change the World' Nish Weiseth says 'Sharing your story allows others to glimpse how you've been shaped, what matters to you, and why it matters. ...The walls of isolation we build around ourselves, believing we are the only ones who feel a certain way, come tumbling down when we're vulnerable and honest with each other about both our struggles and our victories. When I am brave enough to share my story, I'm actually reaching out to you, allowing you to cross over whatever divide is between us. By vulnerably offering you my hand, I'm building a bridge between us through my story. '
Just as the older generation loved to gather together to share stories, so do this generation. Alastair Roberts describes the rise of 'The New Storytellers' – young bloggers, and writers who use intimate, informal, chatty spiritual memoir to engage with a generation who are disillusioned with rhetoric. Millennials, like the older generation of story tellers, relate to personal narrative, emotional resonance, and empathy of shared struggle.
We the church need to be more intentional about creating opportunities where the generations can step into each other's space to share stories. A place to capture the life lessons from the faith journeys of the older generation for the emerging one. This is happening nationally through a variety of innovative ideas such as 'The Listening Project' - a partnership between BBC Radio 4 and the British Library. Since 2012 over 1000 intimate conversations have been recorded between friends or relatives, to build a unique picture of our lives today. Nursery schools are popping up in nursing homes, and transformative relationships are being forged.
Could regularly stepping into each other's spaces to share our faith journey story help bridge the gap between the generations in our church?
Here are some simple ways we can create intergenerational spaces for story sharing:
1. Campfire story sharing under the stars
2. Big Night In - board games and banter night
3. Out N About for a Neighbourhood Social Action Project
4. Family Twinning - Families with young children are 'twinned' with an older couple for regular story sharing and support.
5. Faith Journey Listening Project - record intergenerational conversations for future church family generations to learn from.
'Tell your children about it in the years to come, and let your children tell their children. Pass the story down from generation to generation' (Joel 1:3).
Esther Stansfield is a freelance writer and blogger who has worked for Tearfund and Scripture Union.