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Evangelism conference-goers are charged to ‘go and tell the story’

Casey FitzGerald illumines, demonstrates art and practice of biblical storytelling

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

ST. PETE BEACH, FLA – Competing against the noise and the sheer force of a second day of torrential downpours that literally shook the tent of meeting here, the diminutive—by her own admission—Rev. Casey FitzGerald displayed her own God-given powers in presenting the art of biblical storytelling to a rapt audience of some 275 conference attendees.

Despite the din outside, all ears were tuned to FitzGerald, a biblical storyteller who serves as associate pastor for Children & Families and Young Adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Alexandria, Virginia. FitzGeraldone of the featured plenary speakers at the Go Disciple Live “Be the Light” Conference,” being held August 8-11—also regularly writes about storytelling on her website, Faith and Wonder, and podcasts at Story Divine.

Rev. Casey FitzGerald. Photo by Mari Graham.

Rev. Casey FitzGerald. Photo by Mari Graham.

As she began her presentation, FitzGerald encouraged those participants wishing to delve deeper into biblical storytelling to attend her Wednesday afternoon workshop, “Telling God’s Story by Heart.”

“I’ll be using the story of Jesus calming the storm,” she said with a nod toward the outdoors. “We’ll see if it works.”

In laying out both a rationale as well as a scriptural foundation for the practice of storytelling, FitzGerald lifted up the “Shema,” found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”

While she said that the reading of the passage often stops there, FitzGerald stressed the importance of the next verse, “Keep these words…in your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6). “Biblical storytelling is putting the stories of God into our hearts,” she said, “not memorizing them, which means ‘input’ and ‘output,’ but putting them in your heart. The story of God helps you shape your own story.”

FitzGerald then gave a demonstration of story reading versus storytelling, using the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel—through the Baptism of Jesus—as a powerful example. Afterwards she invited participants to provide feedback. Of the latter approach, “I was able to follow the whole story because it was ‘told,’” said one. “I was mesmerized,” said another.

In a chart that she then projected for attendees, FitzGerald contrasted the impact of ”reading” as compared with “telling.” Reading, she maintained, is more “then and there” while telling is more “here and now.” Reading also often unwittingly gives hearers “permission to check out” because they think they know the story, whereas telling allows them to hear it as if for the first time.

To further illustrate the difference, FitzGerald told an anecdote from her mentor, the master biblical storyteller, Dennis Dewey.

“After hearing him tell a story, a listener said to him, ‘You brought the story to life,’” she related. “’No,’ he said, ‘the story is already living. I just didn’t kill it.’”

FitzGerald said that when people become storytellers, their lives are changed. The more she immersed herself in the practice, the more she said she found that “the gospel is not safe.”

“There is no part of who Jesus was that set out to make us comfortable,” she said, confessing that she herself falls into the “afflict the comfortable” category. “It’s not possible to put stories in your heart and stay comfortable.”

After telling yet another story—Jesus’ temptation—FitzGerald said, “Now is the time to internalize and tell stories because there are distinct ties between oral culture and digital culture…In the digital world, people are telling stories all the time. The church needs to be a part of that kind of storytelling.”

FitzGerald’s final story was a deeply personal one—one of her most recent pregnancy, which culminated in the birth of their family’s third child in March. She followed her telling with the story of the Annunciation, poignantly and effectively singing portions of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

In closing, FitzGerald projected a Native American saying, “It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.”

“The United States is changing,” she said, “and the best chance that the Presbyterian Church has is to look at people in the mission field who look different than us and invite them to teach us—because the stories of God belong in the mouths of all of the people.”

After a final video in which a diverse host of people alternated lines in telling the story of the women’s discovery of the empty tomb at Easter, FitzGerald charged her hearers to “go and tell the story.”

From the response she received, there is little doubt that they will.

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The Go Disciple Live “Be the Light” Conference, formerly known as the Evangelism and Church Growth Conference, August 8-11, is a vibrant gathering of Presbyterians committed to disciple-making which leads to authentic evangelism, effective church transformation, justice, and church planting through 1001 new worshiping communities.

 


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