Next time at church, take a look around the congregation and ask yourself, what untold stories are behind all these faces? Imagine putting all those stories together in a book of journeys, so that your whole fellowship can truly get to know each other and grow in awareness of being a community of pilgrims.
This idea recently birthed a beautiful, large-format, 280-page production–simply called ‘Stories’–published by St Pauls Anglican Church in Auckland, New Zealand. Stories from 130 congregation members are laid out across double pages, with professional standard photographs of individuals, couples, families and scenes. They encompass a great variety of personal adventures and encounters with God. Adults and children alike candidly share answers to prayer, experiences of comfort in times of depression and grief, and lessons learned through failures.
Growing up, I would drive past St Pauls every Sunday with my family on the way to our Baptist church in the city. We knew it as a high-church, very traditional ‘smells-and-bells’ Anglican parish meeting in a neo-gothic stone building.
Renewal came to St Pauls in the late-1960’s after a ‘brash young businessman’ invited the vicar to attend a prayer meeting held on Friday evenings in our suburban home. These gatherings were best described by the word ‘charismatic’ which had not yet entered our vocabulary. There was no planned programme; the aim was to follow the leading of the Spirit, each bringing a song, a word, a prophecy, a message in tongues or a testimony, according to the pattern in 1 Corinthians 14:26. The vicar later told of the horror he felt as he entered our jammed-packed living room (at times 70-80 would cram into every corner) and saw one of his parishioners seated there. It was like being discovered in a night club, he said!
However, that was the start of a journey that led to widespread renewal in the Anglican church in New Zealand. Today St Pauls is one of the largest Anglican churches in Australasia, with a total congregation of around two thousand meeting over four Sunday services, and several hundred involved in the children’s pogramme alone. Delightfully creative videos of St Pauls children telling the Christmas story have been watched by millions world-wide. Literally. (See here and here).
Some of the children’s stories tell remarkable tales of answered prayer while others describe first stirrings of an awareness of God’s presence. One girl tells of a family drama during a boating holiday in a remote bay a year ago. One of the three young daughters suffered a cardiac arrest and fell in the water forty metres off-shore. The parents dived in to get her back on board. A trained emergency nurse who just happened to be on the shore swam out and performed articifical respiration on the girl. A defilibrator arrived from a fire-station on shore which brought the girl’s heart back into life until a helicopter could be brought in. The low tide enabled the helicopter to land and whisk the girl to hospital two hundred kilometers away where she eventually recovered.
The elder daughter told how as she began to pray to God the rescue and recovery unfolded before her eyes. The drama had reunited the family with faith, starting a new journey that brought them all to St Pauls.
Another story tells of a young man swept out to sea by a strong current. Dark had settled and the stars came out and he began to realise they would likely be the last things he would see. A back-slider with a Christian background, he had thought he could settle things with God later in life. Now it seemed too late. Then he heard the sound of a motor and a voice calling his name. His friends had called some lifeguards who happened to be having a party at the beach. ‘That night I knew God had saved me,’ he wrote. ‘I was so far out to sea the likelihood of them finding me was remote. That was the night I lost my life. I knew my life now belonged to God.’
A young mother of three describes visiting another young mother, when suddenly she felt the urge to go to a colleague’s home. Leaving her bewildered friend looking after all the children, she rushed to her colleague’s house and knocked on the door. The door opened and her tearful colleague collapsed into her arms. Pointing to bottles of pills on the table inside, she said: ‘I was just about to end my life, but first asked God that if he was real, he would show himself to me somehow.’
Maybe your congregation wouldn’t have such dramatic stories. But how would you know?
Till next week,