The PC(USA)’s Scattered Church speaker explains evangelism as making friends and telling stories

During a webinar, author and youth minister Mark Yaconelli explains how to connect with youth

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

DECATUR, Georgia —  “Story is relationship,” Mark Yaconelli told a group of 44 participants in the Scattered Church webinar last month focusing on evangelism with youth and young adults.

Gina Yeager-Buckley, Associate for Presbyterian Youth and Triennium, hosted the forum, which concluded a five-week series on evangelism produced by the Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministry area of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. TFE Mission Specialist Kari Hay has made all recordings of all the webinars available in English and Spanish on the Scattered Church webpage. To hear Yaconelli’s talk, click the link above.

Yaconelli described the relationship developed through storytelling as an exchange of gifts where presence and listening are offered, and young people respond with a piece of their life experience. Yaconelli believes youth are experts in their own life experience. This is why prompts like “tell me about a time where you experienced this” can be more fruitful than general questions that can be answered by a word or a shrug. Participants were so excited about new ways to inspire conversation with young people that they requested a list of Yaconelli’s storytelling prompts. These will be shared via Presbyterian Youth and Triennium and will be available as a resource here.

As an example of how to help people conjure memorable moments and share them with others, Yaconelli described the spiritual practices of Ignatius of Loyola, who opened up the reading of scripture through slowing down the narrative to imagine its context through sensory experience. One example is to imagine the smells and sounds of the farm to which the Prodigal Son returns.

For a moment, participants were asked to imagine what if seminaries taught storytelling rather than preaching and to consider how story transports listeners through time, space and bodies. “Story is the language of empathy and compassion,” Yaconelli concluded, before suggesting a simple way to use story to engage scriptural texts with young people through appealing to their experience first and asking them to conjure up the moment through their senses.

Mark Yaconelli

In his new book, “Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us,” Yaconelli shares anecdotes from his career in youth ministry, his nonprofit work in trauma resiliency, his facilitation for communities in crisis, and research by neuroscientists to explain how story helps young people (and anyone) connect to themselves, to others and a larger arc of healing.

Citing a study performed by researchers at Emory University, Yaconelli offered that the more stories a young person knew about their family, the more resilient they were in the face of hardship and trauma. More than any other factor, knowing stories — of one’s birth, the immigration journey of one’s family, or the tales of successes and failures from parents, grandparents and beyond — best predicted positive outcomes for at-risk youth. Stories passed from one generation convey more than their content. They symbolize that someone took the time to tell the young person and to care about the response of their young audience.

“The most important part of the story is the listening,” said Yaconelli, speaking about human beings at any age. “If you tell a story and you look up and someone is looking at their phone, the story dies.” Participants shared how easy it can be to dismiss the casualness of stories whether told in the context of hanging out with young people or in a visit with a homebound church member.

The Rev. Vicky Brown, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Roseburg, Oregon, learned of the webinar on the PCUSA Leaders Facebook page. She said she believes the content spoke to her intergenerational ministry — from leading confirmation for four young women to training Stephen Ministers to make home visits. Listening to people’s stories is foundational to both, and yet, Brown said, “Sometimes people wonder, ‘Am I really doing something?’”

“I hope in the future that the PC(USA) will do more with storytelling, especially with youth,” Yeager-Buckley told the group.

“I hope you can feel this as a tool for evangelism,” said Yaconelli, explaining that was just another word for “making friends” and telling participants not to feel that just because it is fun, it isn’t ministry.

Yaconelli left the group with a benediction that all may “have the pleasure of exchanging our human experience with others and feeling the wider world we live in.”

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