The Merge experience

Friends and fellow youth workers

As many of you know, over the past few years my ministry with students has been in process and evolving.  One of the main changes has been the use of storytelling. Just last week I wrote about the need and power of telling and retelling stories and The Story.  I firmly believe in the importance of story-based teaching and discussions within the context of narrative theology. Never before have I witnessed my students fully engaged and participating in the “lesson” time as when we enter in stories together.  Stories have a way of sparking the imagination, captivating attention, and ushering us into something much bigger than ourselves.  Movies, television, and music seem to do that instinctively and we all know how influential they have become in the lives of students.  God’s story truly has the same ability and potential, and it takes committed youth workers to bring that out with and for students.

I have not been along in this journey of discovery.  Many youth workers and thinkers have shaped my ever-changing and growing philosophy and approach.  One of the most signficant and influential has been Michael Novelli.  Perhaps you have read his books, Shaped by the Story: Helping Students Encounter God in a New Way and Enter the Story: 7 Experiences to Unlock the Bible for Your Students.

If not, I highly recommend these.  You can get more information on the right hand column of my blog on the home page.

Another insightful book is from Mark Miller called Experiential Storytelling:  (Re) Discovering Narrative to Communicate God’s Message. additionally, pretty much anything by Donald Miller is great as well.

The main reason why Michael Novelli’s book work so well in my context is because they are written from the perspective of today’s students.  Mark’s heart and passion is for teenagers and student ministry and helping youth workers create atmospheres and environments to make the story of God come alive.

At home in my youth group, we have spent the past few years experimented with storytelling, creative spaces, and reshaping our message into a fuller narrative theology.  Novelli’s works have greatly helped and inspired myself and my youth leaders.

I am also excited to share his latest endeavor called Merge.  Merge is “an innovative learning experience inspiring high school students to join God’s story.”

Merge takes high school students on a week-long journey that’s:

Fueled by Imagination:  Creative storytelling, arts and media, lively dialogue, and hands-on learning, guide students to enter the stories of the Bible.

Centered on The Story: An in-depth journey through the Bible’s storyline awakens students to a new purpose and identity found in God’s Story.

Designed for effective Learning: Innovative methods that are learner-centered, experience-based, theologically deep, and educationally grounded connect with and inspire each type of student

Shaped by Students: Students thrive in their giftedness as they’re given the tools and inspiration to process what they’re learning and create thoughtful and artistic responses.

Sparking a Movement: Groups are moved to dream and plan specifically for how they can change the world, joining in God’s Story of love and restoration.

I know from personal experience how effective this type of training and learning is for students.  Its one thing for us as youth workers to journey through this on our own, but imagine the possibilities of joining with our students in this experience.  I am not exaggerating when I share that experiential storytelling, narrative-based theology, and creating time and space for hands-on and interactive learning has completely transformed our student ministry.  I encourage you to look into these resources and think about attending Merge July 11-16 in Grand Rapids, MI

For those of you who may be interested, I have included some helpful links below.

Merge– website for more information

Follow Merge Experience on Twitter

Echo the Story–  great resources for narrative based lessons of the story of God

Follow Michael Novelli on Twitter

Reasons why you should take your students to merge–  good post from Chris Folmsbee regarding Merge

Mergo from Marko– another good post from Mark Oestriecher

MergeQuotes– what others are saying about Merge


The telling and re-telling of Stories

This past weekend, I drove to PA farm country with my wife to celebrate her college homecoming and  reunion.  ( I will get in trouble if I mention how many years…)

We had a great time and it was thrilling for me to meet so many of her friends that I had heard stories about.  I was amazed watching my wife relive her time at college and the hilarious journeys and escapades her friends always seemed to get into.  We all sat around for hours swapping stories of days gone by and how each person met one another.  There was a wonderful familiarity, fondness, and closeness that permeated the conversations.

These memories were exhilarating for me to hear and even more so for this group of friends to share.  Their eyes would light up and brilliant smiles would adorn their faces as they recounted these cherished moments.  Some made them laugh, others reflect, a few stories brought tears, but they all brought these friends closer together.  Though now living spread throughout the country, the re-telling of these shared stories fused them and brought them back to the beginning.  Back in time to a place and space they all loved.

Good stories do that, don’t they.  We love stories because of the power and influence they have on us.  Stories often “bring us back” to places, people, and times long ago, and sometimes long-lost.  We yearn for these memories and moments because they remind us of our roots, a place of fondness, familiarity, and  grounding in an ever-changing world around us.  Old photos or videos can do that.  Music has that same ability, as down seeing certain people again, a stroll down memory lane, or simply visiting places from the past. My wife and I were able to to take a beautiful 4 mile drive down the winding back-country roads she used to run.  We saw her old door room, cafeteria, and chapel.   We even watched a soccer game from the stands she used to watch as a student _____ years ago!  Her school won 5-0 if you wanted to know!

As I sat there over the weekend with my wife’s friends (whom I now consider my friends as well), I thought about my college friends.  Every time we get together we continually rehash the old stories of our “glory” days playing baseball.  Well, they weren’t really glory days, but you know how time passes and stories become much grander….

There is something magical when we get together.  Our wives say that we turn back into childish college kids once again (although I don’t think it is intended as a compliment).

I love to hear and retell the stories of baseball games we won and lost, our trips to Florida for spring break, the crazy assistant coach we once had, our trips into Boston on the weekends, and the times I would house sit down the road from campus.

Year after year we re-tell the same exact stories, and never grow tired of them.  In fact, I would argue that these stories actually grow in interest, enthusiasm, and sometimes exaggeration as the years go by and help us grow closer as friends.  No matter what happens in our lives: divorce, loss of jobs, tough pregnancies, miscarriages, financial troubles, we will always have these stories, and thus we will always have each other.  And that is a very powerful and present reality.

Donald Miller writes in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years that we are each given a story to live out.  The only question is what kind of story are we living? Are we living interesting stories?  Stories that we will be re-telling 10, 20, and 50 years down the road.

As youth workers, are we helping and inspiring our students to live out the full potential of their story?

Are we telling them good stories that they will want to re-tell to others?

One of the reasons why the Christian faith interests me so, is the reality that I am part of a much bigger (and really exciting) story of God.  The Bible helps narrate this story as lived out over time through generations of faithful people of God.  By the telling and re-telling of these Bible stories, we are connected to The Story and reminded of our roots.  A sense of familiarity, closeness, and home can be experienced as we share these stories of faith and faithful people from times ago.

It is like sitting around with old friends and remembering why you are such good friends to begin with.  Or like remembering when you first met your spouse and how exciting those moments were and then living today in that same reality and presence.

Just as it is important to re-tell stories, it is also crucial to always be making new ones.  If my wife’s friends got together every few years and only told stories of the past, I wonder how deep their friendships would or could grow?  And how long would those friendships be able to last?

If my friends and I got together and only relived our “glory” days, then our friendship would eventually become only a thing in the past.  These memories and moments could be looked upon as historical events that were signficant at the time, but no longer.  The friendships eventually would cease to have much meaning and significance to the person I am today and am becoming.

In some ways, we view our faith like that at times.  As youth workers, we teach the Biblical stories that way, as more of historical events of  faith that used to happen ie, how God used to work in and through his people. We want our students to know the stories (and sometimes memorize where they can find them in the Bible), but seldom do our students feel and experience the stories.  Now, if we are good story-tellers we may captivate our students’ attention for a while with stories of faith, but at the end of the day, they are seen as little more than just stories that have no real bearing on life today.

However, what friends have inherent in them is the ability to create new stories each time they are together.  This past weekend, as the stories of old were being shared, an entire new story was unfolding before our eyes. I have no doubt that 10 years from now, we will look back on this weekend with fondness, laughter, and maybe even a childish college smirk.

Likewise, my friends and I are actively making new stories. For awhile after college, we made pilgrimages down to Florida for spring training, but now instead of playing the game we love we watched our beloved Boson Red Sox.  Time has passed and our lives are different (so long to Florida!) but we still make a point to meet up a few times a year and the legacy of foolishness increases each time!

As youth workers, we also need to be creating new stories of faith, a faith that is real, active, alive, and exciting.

We should be great story-tellers of the faith of old and at the same time be journeying with our students in forming new stories of faith lived out in community.  Faith not simply found in pages in a book from people of the past, but a faith that is encouraged and inspired to live out great stories just like as in the “glory” days.

God was, and still is on a mission of redemption and we have an active role in The Story.  God is actively bringing this world to its intended purpose of wholeness, completion, and salvation. This story has a beginning and will have an ending, but it is not fully written….not yet.  We are part of the story.  We are in the story. We are the story.

People will look back on our lives 10, 100, or maybe 1,000 years from now and see a story.  What kind of story will they see? In our faith journey as youth workers, are we encouraging ourselves and students to live a full, robust, active, and exciting story?

I honestly hope that the best is yet to come for my friends and I, and the same for my wife and her friends from college.

And I equally hope and pray that the best is yet to come in our Story.

May our stories be more exciting and awe-inspiring tomorrow then they were yesterday.

We may build upon the legacy of faith we have been given and add to it each day.

May we remember well and respect the stories of the past as they keep us grounded, rooted, and united as part of one family and group of friends.

And may they inspire us to create and live out new stories each day that will be looked upon with great joy and fondness when we have one final homecoming and reunion and our Story has its last curtain call.