Diana and I had two experiences recently that made us think more deeply about the way we invite and welcome seekers into our communities.
We were driving to Chicago, and we stopped to see the Cahokia Mounds. The Cahokia Mounds is the site of a pre-Columbian Native American city that existed 1050–1350 AD. At its highpoint, it had a population of 14,000–18,000 people — larger than the city of London at the time. Today, all that is left is a series of about 80 ceremonial mounds. All of the buildings of the city and the massive wooden palisade wall that surrounded the ceremonial precinct have completely deteriorated. It is almost impossible to imagine what the ancient metropolis looked like.
A view we didn’t expect
When we pulled into the parking lot near the largest mound, there were several people standing around the descriptive signboard that explained the significance and history of the mound. We tried to read the sign while standing six feet away from the group. When they noticed us peering over their shoulders, one of the group pushed an iPad into my hands and said, “Want to see something cool?”
He had me hold the iPad up toward the mound, as though I were taking a picture of it. And there on the screen, the ceremonial temple appeared at the top, as though it had been there the whole time hidden by some kind of invisibility cloak. The group leader had me turn in a circle, and as I did, I saw the entire ancient city — houses, barns, shops, streets, even the massive palisade wall, which appeared to extend straight through our car in the parking lot.
I wondered what would happen if when seekers are standing just beyond the threshold, looking in over our shoulders, we notice them and turn to them and say a gospel version of, “Want to see something cool?” And then we give them a 360-degree view of the reign of God, which a moment ago was invisible to them.
We wouldn’t wait for them to knock on the door or walk into the office. We wouldn’t give them a form to fill out a schedule of classes. We wouldn’t make them work so hard to see what we see. We would immediately engage them to help them see what is right in front of them.
Storytelling evokes a powerful response
I thought about that for the next couple of hours as we drove to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. Diana and I have visited over a dozen presidential libraries and historical homes. Some are better than others, but all of them seem to be a collection of artifacts that showcase important moments in the life of the president. It’s usually pretty interesting in the moment, but a week later, it is hard to remember everything you saw.
When we walked into Lincoln’s library, we were greeted by a docent standing in the center of a brightly lit, circular room, next to wax figures of Abraham and Mary Lincoln and their three surviving children. It was as though the Lincolns themselves had come out to welcome us.
The docent waved us over to another docent who was standing in front of a theater. “The show starts in three minutes,” she said as she smiled at us. As we settled into our seats in the darkened room, we saw a stage that was set up to look like the back room of the library archives. I was expecting some kind of animatronic recitation of Lincoln’s biography similar to the Lincoln attraction at Disneyland.
So when a live actor walked out on stage, it got my attention. What followed was a Hollywood-level performance of lighting effects, music, choreography, stagecraft, and storytelling that enthralled me. I’ve read a couple of Lincoln biographies, and there was nothing in the presentation that I didn’t already know about. But the emotion behind the story gripped me. It was like I was hearing (and learning) something brand new.
And that continued for the next two-plus hours that we spent in the museum. Every room, every display, every artifact were all woven seamlessly together to first engage us emotionally and second to tell one story. Instead of being overwhelmed with an avalanche of facts about Lincoln, I was overwhelmed with a powerful feeling of astonishment. Every moment of Lincoln’s life, as told through the event of touring the museum, was a moment of resilience in the face of adversity. The same story was told over and over, in deeper and more engaging ways as we moved from his days as a child in a single-room log cabin to his 1,654-mile funeral procession through 180 cities.
How do we tell powerful stories?
While Lincoln’s story is inspiring, we have one story that is even more astonishing:
Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you. (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, 164)
What would happen if every Sunday someone from the parish was standing front and center at the doors to welcome strangers and wave them over to another smiling parishioner who handed them a hymnal, already opened to the opening song, and said a gospel version of, “The show starts in three minutes”?
What if from that moment onward, we focused the entire parish budget, all the volunteer resources, all the parish facilities, all the staff job descriptions, every meeting agenda, and every parish activity on telling one story: “Jesus Christ loves you”?
Now I know you don’t have all the money, and time, and resources in the world to pull off something as spectacular as the alternative reality app from Cahokia Mounds or the theatrical production levels of the Lincoln Museum.
What you do have is what the first disciples had — the Holy Spirit. St. Peter’s proclamation on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:14-36) is basically a gospel version of “Want to see something cool?” He didn’t need an app to reveal to people what was right in front of them.
The one story, told in a way that matters
St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is basically a gospel version of “The show starts in three minutes” that grabs your heart at:
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1:7)
And keeps adding and building and layering the one story of salvation all the way up through:
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen. (16:25-27)
You don’t need swelling orchestral music and dry-ice smoke to make Romans pound loudly in the hearts of seekers. All you need is your best lector who, at the Easter Vigil, proclaims from memory Romans 6:3-11 while looking directly at the elect.
The point is not the special effects. The point is the one story, passionately believed, faithfully followed, and well told. If we can imitate all the saintly storytellers who have come before us and tell the one story in a way that matters to seekers today, they will remember it for the rest of their lives.
That’s what I was thinking about on our drive to Chicago.
What’s the one story you’re thinking about right now? How are you going to show your seekers “something cool”? Share your thoughts in the comments below.