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February 7, 2012

Telling Our Stories to Change Lives

It doesn’t have to be slick or perfect, people just want to hear the raw, authentic version of your moments meeting Christ.

When I first read that IAmSecond.com—a website designed to “help individuals discover hope”—reached 5 million visitors in its brief three-year history, I wasn’t surprised. After all, who among us doesn’t enjoy hearing the stories of others—especially famous others—who have struggled in life, then “found” Jesus and rebounded? Who isn’t interested in seeing beautifully produced videos of those who overcame desperate circumstances to find life anew by seeking God first?

I Am Second’s sleek site offers stories and videos like this aplenty. So I get why people would be drawn to hear, to watch.

That said, after spending a chunk of time there, clicking around at a few videos, fast-forwarding through many of them, I wasn’t exactly hooked.

After all, there wasn’t anything for me. As selfish and “I am first” as this may sound, I’m just being honest. While I have struggled plenty in my life—in fact, in many ways I’m mid-struggle right now—I didn’t connect with the stories presented.

Maybe it was the presentation itself. Though promotional material for the site professes “authentic” and “raw” film testimonies, to me, most felt distant. Though I have no doubt the stories are true, the feelings sincere, the ever-present black background and white chair remind viewers it’s a set. With props. It’s not real life. Not raw. Maybe not entirely authentic.

Maybe it was the over-arching maleness of the site. Except for the hot pink stripe across the top, like so much else in Christendom, this site is male-dominated. Not only are most of the videos of men, but the topics seem to speak largely to men. Middle-class American men, at least.

But before clicking away, I took one last look, this time scrolling through “all videos,” until I saw Anne Rice. And I wanted to take back everything I’d just written. She spoke beautifully about her writing, about her walking away from the faith, about her having been a “Christ-haunted atheist.” And I felt like she was talking to me—like we had a connection.

I’ve never been an atheist. I’ve been a Christian nearly all my life. But as one who has been “prone to wander,” as the song goes, I’ve known that Christ-haunted feeling, that beckoning back to the Cross. And like Anne Rice, I’m a writer (though one of us is a touch more successful than the other). And like her, I’m a lover of some of the mysterious ways we explore faith.

Finally connecting with a story made me realize that the I Am Second folks are definitely on to something. They’re filling a gaping hole in this world—the hole of people willing to tell their stories.

The stories of having hurt, having been lost, desperate, of hitting rock bottom (again and again) and feeling the hand of God reach into a life. We do want to hear stories of those who know what it is to be turned around, made new.

But really, I don’t think we want to hear it from people we don’t know—even if we do admire and relate to them as I did with Anne Rice—we want to hear them from our friends, our families, our neighbors. And they want to hear them from us.

I say this with great caution—as a writer. Because I write these kinds of stories. Stories of my own frustration and disappointment and hurt and disillusionment and feeling abandoned by God. And I long for others to connect with me and my stories. The same way the creators of I Am Second hope others will connect.

But as a writer, I also understand that there’s safety in the distance of the written page. Even though I try to write and share as transparently as I can, there’s still a distance from writer to reader, from speaker to audience, that makes this story-telling easier.

The real trick—and the real power—lies in telling the stories face to face. In person. For real. In real time.

To turn and tell one another—our friends, families, neighbors— when we feel desperate, needy, hurt. And then to tell what Jesus has done and is doing in our lives. The way people who encountered Jesus in the Scriptures did. The way the Woman at the Well ran right into town to tell what Jesus had done. The way the Bleeding Woman pressed through a crowd—infecting everyone she touched—to show her shame and her suffering and her faith. The way Mary ran back to tell how Jesus appeared to her.

So while I hope millions continue to click on I Am Second, and I pray people continue to buy books and read blogs to be fortified with hope and grace, what I really hope is that every time we do experience the power of a story to change a life, we remember that we don’t have to be on a slick site or the printed page to do it.

And really, those stories are best when they aren’t.

Caryn Rivadeneira is author of Grumble Hallelujah: Learning to Love Your Life Even When It Lets You Down. Visit Caryn at her website, friend her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.

Related Tags: narrative, story, testimony


Great article. I agree that we can be more deeply touched by listening to the stories of people we know. I also believe that if we can peel off the layers of shame and fear of rejection, we tell a more authentic--more belivable story. When we do this, we heal others and allow them to be who they are. And in the process, we heal ourselves.

Alicea Jones

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