Life stories may not be so helpful

Two big buzzwords here at APU are “life stories.” Get any number of APU students together for any purpose and someone will exclaim, “Oh my gosh! We should totally tell life stories!” When I was a freshman, I couldn’t even get anyone to explain what sharing one’s life story actually consisted of. Is it one’s testimony or an autobiography?


How do we possibly synthesize a human life into a 15-minute speech? What I have finally learned is that sharing stories with one another can be a powerful and meaningful experience. However, sharing a “life story” can also become evangelical Christian jargon for telling someone else everything you have struggled with–your deepest, darkest secrets–in a forced setting.


There’s nothing wrong with wanting to know what a person has gone through or where a person has been. However, one student leader I know made a good point: we often ask other students and other students ask us to participate in the emotional equivalent of a one night stand. Without a common vision of what the group is trying to accomplish, there’s no point in developing trust. We ask others to be intimate with us without any thought of how the experience will help us to better support him or her in the future. With no sight of what’s ahead, it’s hard for group members to see the point in being vulnerable within a group.


It is good to know what a person has gone through so that you can better support them. In a natural setting, such as in friendships, the sharing of hearts without any thought of a goal or task is appropriate. However, in a task-oriented group such as a missions team, walk-about group or alpha group, focusing too much on building trust before deciding what we need trust for can be a roadblock to a cohesive group rather than an avenue to it.


In my small group communication course, I’ve learned that trust is not established immediately in a group. In fact, it’s the third stage out of the five stages of group development. In order for trust to be built in a task-oriented group, the group first has to dig in and start working at the challenge at hand.


I think we should take this approach more as we develop service teams, D-groups, etc. here at APU. When a group is focused on a central mission or in reaching a common goal, trust is built along the way.


1 Thessalonians 2:8 reads, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”


God calls us to share ourselves with others. But this only happens after “you had become very dear to us.” Trust, like Rome, wasn’t built in a day. And it’s not built as an end in itself. Rather, it is in jumping in, rolling up our sleeves and tackling a project that we develop the structure and communication needed to foster an environment of trust.


For example, I don’t feel close to the other ten people in my Alpha Coordinator group because we sat around and shared our feelings with each other. I feel close to them because I had to depend on them to help meet a group challenge–to stay safe as we travelled one of San Francisco’s most dangerous neighborhoods at 11:00 p.m.. I needed them to notice what I didn’t notice, to know the right way to go when I didn’t and to see those in need with Christ’s eyes.


By focusing on achieving tasks together instead of building relationships in the initial stages of group development, we are not negating the power that trust has in a group. If group members don’t feel safe or like they can’t rely on each other, the group will be unproductive and ineffective.


We must also recognize that a group generally develops in stages in which structure and communication form before relationships do. It makes sense, then, that group members will see the value of taking the time needed to cultivate trust after they have seen the work they’ve accomplished together. They also will want to develop trust when they look ahead to the work they will accomplish in the future.


Trust, like marriage, is no longer a one night stand when it’s the start of all the wonderful things people will accomplish together. It becomes the natural outpouring of a group that is, no matter how different each member is or what they have experienced, working together to create something wonderful. What we need to do is work with our hands–to go out into the world and serve and sweat with our group before we ask for them to share their hearts.