For a few years now, Luther Seminary professors Lois Malcolm ’89 M.A. and Kathryn Schifferdecker have felt a sense of urgency around a troubling trend: many mainline Christians, including seminarians, don’t know how to talk about their faith with people beyond the walls of the church.
It’s not that mainline Christians’ faith isn’t deeply felt; over the past 18 months, Luther Seminary has conducted surveys with 3,900 church members through a new tool called the Spiritual Life Inventory, and 96% say that God is present in their lives.
However, when it comes to talking about their experiences of faith, only 10% say they’ve taught another person how to follow Jesus in the past year, and 76% haven’t shared stories of where God is showing up for them each day.
So Schifferdecker convened a group of faculty to explore what could be done to help seminary students become more comfortable sharing personal stories of Christian faith — and, through the students, influence the larger church.
“We went to dinner and brainstormed,” Malcolm said. “Eventually, we landed on an idea for a semester-long series called ‘Why Jesus.’ We’d invite members of the community to speak about their experiences with Jesus, and open up space for those listening to share their stories as well.”
At the same time, three leadership groups on campus independently expressed interest in experimenting with spiritual storytelling, including the enterprise leadership team, the innovation team, and Spirit Lab, a student-led organization that works to deepen spiritual formation at Luther. The faculty group, Spirit Lab, and the innovation team decided to work together on making Why Jesus a reality.
“The Holy Spirit was bubbling up in multiple places at the same time,” said Bethany Ringdal ’19 M.Div., a member of the Spirit Lab leadership team. “I’ve learned not to ask twice when things come together so beautifully!”
‘Why are you a Christian? What difference does Jesus make in your life?’
The experiment was simple. For 10 weeks, a faculty member, student, or staff member took a half-hour over lunch each Wednesday to respond to two questions: Why are you a Christian? What difference does Jesus make in your life?
After the storyteller spoke, those in attendance broke into small groups to reflect on what they’d heard. A handout helped guide the discussion with several prompts:
- What caught your imagination in the story you heard?
- Where did you see God at work in the storyteller’s life?
- What difference did Jesus make in your life this week?
The group received funds from the student council, Spirit Lab, and the Aus Lecture Memorial Fund, an endowed lectureship that focuses on evangelism, to provide lunch to anyone who came to listen and share. Distributed learning students, or those who were unable to attend the sessions in person, watched videos of the speakers’ stories that were posted afterward in a private online community.
The experience was deeply meaningful for both speakers and participants.
“I looked forward to it every week,” Deb Gelerter ’21 M.Div. said. “This was what I thought seminary would be like all the time—sharing stories and connecting on an intimate spiritual level. I had really been missing something like this.”
For Ben McDonald Coltvet, web content manager, it deepened the sense of shared purpose and created community on many levels. “I found the lunches were a great way to connect between staff, faculty, and students,” he said. “We so rarely take the time to listen deeply and to hear how Jesus has made a difference in each of our lives.”
The Luther Seminary community agreed that the practice was important; it will continue as a part of the shared life of the seminary in the coming academic year.
Why ‘Why Jesus’?
The collaboration group that put Why Jesus together discovered that the experiment did much more than help students gain experience talking about their faith. It engaged the core challenge facing the church in the 21st century, a challenge that the seminary has identified through a robust listening process. The challenge is: many of our churches don’t know how to cultivate Christian identity and practice in today’s world.
“‘Why Jesus?’ is a crucial question we all need to be asking in this time, when many folks are more comfortable talking about ‘spirituality’ than specifically about Christian faith,” Schifferdecker said. “The way we answer this question will shape the direction the church takes in the coming decades.”
Try it yourself
Why Jesus is a simple practice you can do in large or small groups, formally with a congregation or informally with family and friends. Listen to some of the stories shared this past semester and download a free PDF guide to the practice at faithlead.luthersem.edu/why-jesus.