Encountering God in the Stories of Others

Mike is the drummer for the praise team at our church. He’s a young guy, a teacher at the local high school, a drum line instructor, and—perhaps most importantly—a drummer in a band that plays venues up and down the Jersey Shore. Mike is cool. And the young people in our youth ministry know he’s cool. They see him drumming on stage just about every Sunday morning, providing the real cool-factor to the otherwise baby-boomer-style praise team.

Encountering God

Heike is the chair of the finance committee at our church. She attends the traditional service where, instead of a praise team, we have a choir and an organ. Heike comes in the church office, usually when no one else is around, to do the books and make sure the church is in a decent financial position. Heike is also cool, but the young people at our church are less likely to know Heike than Mike.

What do Mike and Heike have in common? They hang out in different crowds, they occupy different generations, and they shop at different stores. But both Heike and Mike have had experiences of God. Both have stories to tell about how they’ve been encountered by God. Their stories may be about as different as they are from one another. But both of them have felt, in some way, the mysterious sense that God is present in their lives.

An Approach to Storytelling in Youth Ministry

This summer, in our youth ministry, we invited Heike, Mike, and a bunch of other people in the church—people who usually don’t go to youth group—to come talk about those kinds of experiences. Each week someone new was invited to come in and talk about a time when they experienced God. As we listened to these stories we discovered that different people encounter God in different ways but God is active in each person’s life.

What we also realized is just how rare it is to hear someone actually talk about his or her experience of God. This is probably explained by the fact that, in our rationalistic and secular society, it is increasingly difficult to talk about faith, let alone an encounter with the divine.

One question I asked each person who told of their experience of God was, “how did you know that it was God and not just indigestion?”[1]

The most common answer was, basically, “I don’t know… somehow, I just knew.” And it was remarkable how “ok with it” some people were with not knowing for sure. Mike, for example, just said, “I guess I don’t really know for sure that it is God, it just feels right to think it is.”

How can we expect young people ever to recognize God in their own lives if they’re not confronted by the stories of God in ours?

While many of us are uncomfortable with this kind of answer, the honesty behind it is compelling. And it was especially compelling to the young people in our youth ministry.

One young man in the group said to me afterward, “it’s nice to know that you don’t have to know.” He was relieved to discover that even these adults, these people who were up front talking about encountering God, were as uncertain as he was. The uncertainty these adults confessed made him more comfortable thinking about his own experiences as experiences of God.

Hearing people talk about their experiences of God gave the young people in our youth ministry a new perspective each week. As common as it is to hear a preacher or youth pastor talk about God, it’s rare to actually hear about people’s personal experiences of God. But it’s extremely important that we find ways to do just that, to tell stories of God’s action in our lives.

Mundane Events as Sacred Narratives

The theologian, Eberhard Jungel wrote, “If thinking wants to think God, then it must endeavor to tell stories.”[2]

It is in God’s action in our lived experience that we are met by God, not just in a feeling or a philosophical position.

So it simply won’t do for young people to have only an emotional or rational concept of God in their toolbox. If we really want them to be able to talk about God, they’ve got to be able to talk about their experiences of God.

It is in God’s action in our lived experience that we are met by God, not just in a feeling or a philosophical position.

According to veteran youth worker and practical theologian, Amanda Hontz Drury, “Narrative does more than describe; it also constructs.”[3] Our identities and the ways we carry ourselves in the world are often shaped by these stories.

Whether we tell them as stories of God’s action or we write them off as mundane events or peculiar dramas will profoundly affect the world we live in and how we live in it. As Drury writes, “While articulation may not affect my status before God, it may affect the way I understand God to be at work in my life and subsequently how I respond to God.”[4]

But what if young people never hear others, particularly (though not exclusively) adults, tell those stories? What if young people see Mike at the drums every week but never hear the story of how he feels God’s presence with him while he’s drumming? What if they pass Heike in the hall between services but never hear the story of how God was with her during her childhood?

They’ll likely mistake these sacred encounters for merely ordinary happenings. How can we expect young people ever to recognize God in their own lives if they’re not confronted by the stories of God in ours?

In our youth ministry, we are striving to learn from the Bible… but we also want to learn from Mike and from Heike. We want to learn from one another, to hear one another’s stories of God, so that we can begin to recognize, even in our uncertainty, the mystery of God’s presence in our own lives.

            [1] I stole this question from Kenda Creasy Dean.

            [2] Eberhard Jungel, God as Mystery of the World, p. 303.

            [3] Amanda Hontz Drury, Saying is Believing, p. 25.

            [4] Drury, p. 44.


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

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