A question that is often asked in Bible studies featuring a story Jesus told is “What is a parable?” There are many answers to this question; some more insightful than others. The best answer I have heard came from storyteller Donald Davis during a keynote at a Festival Gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers. According to Donald, a parable, is any story that is laid beside or parallel to another story. He said, “the stories of Jesus are parables because they remind us of a similar story in our life. The stories inform one another.” He pointed out that Jesus didn’t tell stories randomly. Almost all that he told were born of a particular circumstance that motivated their telling. The stories were laid parallel to what was happening around him.
Donald Davis’ definition of a parable has always stayed in the forefront of my mind. To me, the answer to the question “what is a parable?” is simply any story that is laid beside another. The meeting of the stories is a place where I believe the Holy Spirit can be found.
In the Presbyterian Church, USA, we have a movement called 1001 New Worshipping Communities (NWC). It is an attempt to start, for the most part, non-traditional worshiping communities in all sorts of contexts and in particular, with people who might not ever darken a traditional church door. I know of NWC’s that have started as a coffee house, a soup kitchen, a running group, CrossFit gym and around adventure sports. It’s all very exciting and is serving as a great experiment in the re-definition of a church.
I wanted to get in on the fun too, but for a long time I couldn’t discern on what to base my community. As a pastor of an established church, most of my contacts were with people who were already in churches.
Then one day while I was preparing a sermon based on a parable of Jesus and Donald Davis’ definition immediately came to my mind. Ta Da! That was it! People love stories. We all have them. We all love to listen to them. Ergo, my new worshiping community, “Parallels” came into being.
The basic premise of the Parallels NWC is to pick a theme for the service. A story from the Bible based on the theme is told. Then two or three other people tell their personal stories based on the theme of the service. The Bible story and the personal stories are laid parallel to one another. The Biblical story informs the way we hear the personal stories and the personal stories in turn helps us hear new things in the Biblical story. The fun part of the service is that those sharing personal stories don’t usually know what Biblical story I’m going to tell, so there’s a sense of surprise in each service.
The services are rounded out by singing upbeat music and a time of prayer. There is also a time for participants to share a reflection with their neighbor. At the end of the service I offer a few words that help people make connections among the stories. This is done in the moment as I can’t predict what the experience of the stories will be.
Here is a link to a home-made video of the October service, “Unlikely Saints.” It begins with me telling the story of Jesus encounter with a Syro-Phoenician Woman from Mark’s gospel; an unlikely saint if ever there was one. It provides the context for hearing from Mariellen Boomhower tell about her experience with “Jeanette” at the Schenectady County jail, and then Kernan Davis relating the witness of his nephew Chris. These stories, which were each about 10 minutes, are edited to give you just a taste.
The services are monthly now, but I hope to increase to twice a month in 2017. Early feedback has been good. We had about 20 at the first service in July, and 30 at the second service in August. I’m experimenting with holding the service on different days of the week until the end of the year too.
So far, I’ve been recruiting my own personal storytellers, but I will know Parallels has turned a corner when people from the community start asking me if they can tell their story.
Here’s a listing of the service themes thus far been and where we are headed.
- July – “Taking a Risk” Stories about the time you took a chance.
- August “The A-Ha Moment” Stories of self-discovery and being awakened
- September “Failure is an Option” Stories of redemption or lessons learn when we fall short
- October “Unlikely Saints” Stories of the saints in our lives
- November “In Search of…” What have I looked for?
- December “If It Hadn’t a Been Fer…” Stories of our origins. Featuring internationally-known biblical storyteller, Dennis Dewey
- January “New Beginnings”