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THE Defining Story

Charles Kiser —  June 1, 2016 — 11 Comments

Last week I reflected on how we live out of defining stories that we constantly rehearse. These stories are based on experiences and are the basis of our beliefs about ourselves and the world. Our stories can be true, false, or probably in most cases, somewhere in between.

This week I want to share a fabulous quote from James K. A. Smith about the “narrative character of our faith” from the book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

The following excerpt articulates why we named our faith community Storyline, why instead of a “statement of faith” we share the story of God, why we use the lectionary to guide our worship gatherings, and how God’s story is the definitive story that shapes disciples of Jesus.

…Too many Christians have bought into the modernist valorization of scientific facts and end up reducing Christianity to just another collection of propositions. Our beliefs are encapsulated in “statements of faith” that simply catalog a collection of statements about God, Jesus, the Spirit, sin, redemption, and so on. Knowledge is reduced to biblical information that can be encapsulated and encoded….

….But isn’t it curious that God’s revelation to humanity is given not as a collection of propositions or facts but rather within a narrative–a grand, sweeping story from Genesis to Revelation? Is there not a sense in which we’ve forgotten that God’s primary vehicle for revelation is a story unfolded within the biblical canon?

….Why is narrative important, and how does it differ from propositional knowledge? First, narrative is a more fully orbed means of communication (and hence revelation), activating the imagination and involving the whole person in a concrete world where God’s story unfolds. Second, Christian faith–unlike almost any other world religion (with the exception of Judaism)–is not a religion simply of ideas that have been collected. The faith is inextricably linked to the events and story of God’s redemptive action in the world….The notion of reducing Christian faith to four spiritual laws signals a deep capitulation to scientific knowledge….

.…Crucial for our discipleship and formation is being able to write ourselves into the story of God’s redeeming action in the world–being able to find our role in the play, our character in the story. To do that, we need to know the story, and that story should be communicated when we gather as the people of God, that is, in worship.

In your experience, what are effective ways of locating ourselves within God’s story?

It’s true.

Fred Liggin calls them “authorizing narratives.” James Bryan Smith calls them “false/true narratives.” We might also call them “defining stories.”

We are storied creatures. We live out of interpreted experiences and memories. These stories impact our behavior and our growth.

If we want to change or grow — in any aspect of our lives — we must address our defining stories. Because all stories are not created equal. Some are false and distorted, either causing us to see ourselves as less than we are or more than we are. Humility is simply living out of accurate stories about ourselves.

Some would say we need to address our beliefs, and that beliefs influence our behavior. This is true, but it doesn’t go deep enough. Stories are deeper than beliefs. They emerge out of life experiences that mark us indelibly. We don’t think and act out of propositions (beliefs), but fundamentally out of defining stories. 

Ever watch the Biggest Loser reality show? Notice how much time they spend digging for such defining stories? Most of the time the participants are not consciously aware of them; but they are there, influencing their decisions to overeat and remain sedentary. And when they are finally realized, it is often with many tears and deep impact.

I’m on a physical health journey myself and have attempted to explore my defining stories in this area. As I paid attention I was amazed at how many stories I tell myself – mostly when I make bad decisions. Stories like “This is just genetic. I’ll always be overweight.” As with the most powerful false narratives, there is always an element of truth in them. That’s what makes them so deceiving. But it is a false narrative nonetheless. The true narrative is that God is making all things new, including my physical body. If God can raise Jesus from the dead then surely he can empower me to arrive at a healthier place physically.

One of the Holy Spirit’s gifts to us is to bring these stories into our awareness. That is 90% of the work, and God will do the heavy lifting if we’ll let him. “The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord that sheds light on one’s inmost being ” (Proverbs 20:27).

What area of your life are you working on right now? What defining stories are you telling yourself that hinder/help your progress? 

noun: jargon; plural noun: jargons
  1. special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

Bad news and good news: Christian jargon is inevitable. Language is a fundamental component of culture, and so the culture of any faith community will be defined by its language.

That’s bad news because some religious jargon is worthless and vapid. It makes Christians look ridiculous, like the video above. And it makes outsiders feel like they are all the more outside, because they can’t understand what’s being said.

The good news is that language is a major asset in spiritual formation. Language opens up new vistas of imagination for us about how to follow Jesus. Mike Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture is a great example of such formative language.

Further, outsiders aren’t always as resistant to learning new language as we might assume.

Think about Starbucks. Their language isn’t user-friendly at all. Who knew what Venti was before Starbucks? But people are open to it because they want to be invited to enter a different world — the world of the Italian cafe.

Quinn Fox suggests that the church “might learn about corporate worship language from the language of coffee. Starbucks realizes, it seems, that a distinctive menu that people need to learn is not a bad thing.

So we shouldn’t try to avoid language (because we can’t), but rather think intentionally about the jargon we use. Two questions that might help us:

  1. Is our language helpful? Does it give us a lens for seeing the world and ourselves as followers of Jesus, or is it empty and meaningless?
  2. Are we hospitable with our language? What makes jargon jargon is that it’s difficult to understand. When we use different language in our worship gatherings and conversations, are we sensitive to who is hearing it? Do we explain what it means to outsiders and invite them into our world?

Maybe you’re wondering if Christians should only use Bible words to talk about Bible things. Trouble is, the first Christians didn’t even do that. They created new language to describe what they were experiencing that drew from the broader cultural warehouse. For example, the word church (ecclesia) wasn’t a “Christian” word until Christians decided to borrow it from their broader culture; it was a political word to describe a political assembly. Do you see the imagination that word opened up for the early Christians? They saw themselves as a political movement — God’s kingdom moving into the world over against the kingdoms of the world.

Please leave a comment! What are the challenges to being purposeful in our use of language?


It’s the week after Pentecost Sunday, the day when the Holy Spirit was made available to everybody — male and female, young and old, slave and free, near and far (Acts 2:1-21).

We often associate the gift of the Holy Spirit with a blessing we receive: salvation, life, peace, joy, etc.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is also about what we are able to give to others. The Holy Spirit fills us so that his grace can pour out of us to bless others.

Paul calls these spiritual gifts:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

I believe spiritual gifts are misunderstood in at least two ways. As Inigo Montoya would say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

1. Sometimes gifts are described as the equivalent of natural strengths or temperament. My spiritual gift is whatever I’m good at.

Certainly there is sometimes overlap between gifts and strengths. The trouble is that God often calls people to ministry in areas of their weakness. Moses is a good example. God calls him to be a public speaker and he is “slow of speech and tongue” (see Exodus 3-4). Sometimes the Holy Spirit gives us grace to do something precisely because we need the grace…because of our weakness! Which makes the glory of God all the more evident in our lives when we cooperate.

This is an important point because it’s possible to use spiritual gifts as a cover up for selfishness or fear. If something is outside our comfort zone, we might be tempted to say, “Well, that’s not my gift.” By which we mean,”That’s not my natural strength.” But what if the Holy Spirit is calling us to do something outside of our strength so that the image of Jesus might be formed more fully within us?

2.Sometimes spiritual gifts are assumed to be permanent. This is my spiritual gift for all time.

This assumption is built on the first misconception. If my gift is my natural strength, then it will always be my gift. But the language that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12:7ff. is “manifestation.” Another word for it is “appearance” — as in, if the gift appears, it can also disappear. Paul is saying that gifts “show up” in disciples to bless people and build up the church and then they go away. Granted, some gifts, like “apostle” or “teacher” may have a longer vocational shelf-life, but it seems that there are shorter term gifts as well (e.g., gifts of knowledge, wisdom, discernment, etc.).

So what are spiritual gifts then? Notice the words Paul uses for them in the passage above: gifts, service, and working.

Spiritual gifts are like an assignment from the Spirit. A role. A job. And the purpose of that assignment is to strengthen and bless the church for the good of the world.

The good news of Pentecost is that everybody gets to play! Everybody who receives the gift of the Spirit also receives an assignment in the body of Christ that helps to implement the restoration of the world.

What are the implications of understanding spiritual gifts in this way? How does this understanding compare with yours?


I wonder if introversion is sometimes confused with social anxiety.

I’ve heard people describe their introversion as shyness or difficulty being around people or reluctance to make new relationships. 

But to describe it in that way is to misunderstand introversion. Introversion isn’t about social comfort as much as where people get their energy – how we recharge our batteries. Introverts recharge by being alone. Extroverts recharge by being with people. “Ambiverts” recharge by being alone or being with people. 

I believe that when such people are trying to describe their introversion they are actually describing their social anxiety – fear of being around people; fear of being rejected; fear of being humiliated. The former is part of their temperament; the latter is part of their heart and mind. 

Both introverts and extroverts have social anxiety (believe it or not). The danger for introverts is that they dress up social anxiety as introversion thereby opting out of social openness, gracious hospitality, and kingdom witness with their neighbors. The casualty is not only missing out on the mission but also the formation of God driving fear out of our hearts with God’s perfect love. 

The truth is that I know some +10 introverts who are some of the most fruitful evangelists, church planters, and public speakers on the planet. Their introversion is an asset rather than a hindrance for their work. 

Cards on the table: I’m an ambivert. I consistently test in the middle of the introversion – extroversion scale on Meyers-Briggs. I usually lean a bit to the extroversion side. This might surprise those who know me – that I’m not more extroverted. My wife is actually more extroverted than I am, and she is less “up front” and “in the center” than I tend to be. 

All that to say, I don’t have an agenda to shame introverts. I have too much introversion within me to do so! And I realize that it’s an extroverts’ world – lots of introverts are pressured to act like extroverts. I’m not suggesting that. 

I’m simply wondering if we would be more available to joining God in God’s work in this world if we – both introverts and extroverts – paid attention to the social anxiety that inhibits us in relationships. I think we would be. 

How do my musings compare with your experience of temperament and social anxiety?