Why You Should use Personal Stories
Students need clarity. Oftentimes, spiritual discussions can be abstract and feel vague and/or confusing. But here’s the truth. Our lives aren’t split up into the “spiritual” and “nonspiritual”. The truths communicated by the Bible should and do impact every single area of our lives. If you’re a Christian, you have stories about how these truths have concretely shaped you and changed you. You have stories about what it really means to follow Jesus. You have stories about how the Spirit has overcome sin within you. Your goal as a small group leader is to communicate truth and love to your students. In order to do this well, you need to provide your students with clarity. Personal stories are one of the best ways to accomplish that.
Want your students to be vulnerable with you? You have to be vulnerable with them first. Your stories reveal who you are as a person. They reveal your mistakes and the ways God has redeemed you and used you. That’s powerful stuff to share with students, and when they see your willingness to open up with them, they’ll be far more likely to share their hearts with you.
Sharing your personal stories also increases your connection with your students. Why? Because personal stories are…well…personal. They tell your students more about who you are, and they help to humanize you in general. You aren’t just a leader, you’re a person too. Just like it’s important to ask students questions about themselves to get to know them, it’s also important to be willing to share about yourself to build connection. When your students feel connected to you, they will feel connected to what you are teaching them.
How to develop personal stories for small group discussion.
The first answer to small group troubles is almost always preparation. As you read through your curriculum prior to the weekend and prep Bible verses and google words you don’t know, think about moments in your life that apply to the concepts presented. Ask yourself, ‘What lesson is this trying to teach,’ and think about when/how you’ve learned that in your own life. As you think, jot down some stories that come to mind and pull out a few that might be especially captivating or relatable. Funny/embarrassing stories will always be a hit and immediately make your students feel like they know you.
Identify hard truths.
Personal stories are one of the most effective ways for students to make sense of some of the hard truths that we want them to learn in small groups. You need to identify these hard truths prior to stepping into your small group so that you can communicate them well. Things often challenging for students are scripture passages and deep spiritual concepts. Both of these things can become clouded by language and context. Biblical translations are usually not written in every-day language and deeper truths can be steeped in ‘churchy’ words that aren’t so plain. You can clear the fog in these areas by using personal stories to help make sense of tricky language.
Think like a student.
This is related directly to the last point. As you read curriculum, don’t read it as a nineteen-year-old college student, but as one of your students. Think about what you knew at their age, how you thought, what you thought about. Thinking like your student will not only help you figure out where to insert personal stories into your teaching, but also what kind of stories to use. It is important to make sure that your stories are relevant. For example, if you are teaching sixth graders, a story about how you got your driver’s license may not be as relatable as how you embarrassed yourself in front of your crush in the lunch room. Sixth graders are awkward, but they can’t drive. As the teacher, the more your students feel they can identify with you, the more they will feel like what you are teaching is for them.
When to Use Personal Stories
You need to illustrate an abstract point.
Key points can often be rather abstract statements. This lack of concreteness makes it hard for students to fully grasp certain concepts. Thankfully, personal stories can provide examples that help to clear up confusion and ground theoretical statements in real life.
For example, if you make the statement “Jesus changes people’s lives”, what does that look like? Changing lives is an abstract concept that’s hard to grasp without a clear example. Giving students specific examples of how Jesus has changed your life will allow them to understand and internalize this key concept.
You need authority on a given topic.
There are just some topics that students will not trust you on unless you give them evidence that you have real life experience. A perfect example of this, especially for girls, is dating. Whether it’s middle or high school girls, the subject of dating comes up ALL the time. One unnamed SWAT leader once made the unfortunate mistake of not sharing her relevant dating experience with her middle school girls, and they completely ignored her advice for the rest of the weekend. Don’t be that leader. Come prepared with stories that will provide you with the necessary authority on important topics.
When NOT to use Personal Stories
Just because you have a funny story.
Everyone has funny stories, and sometimes they seem like they might be just maybe within a mile of the topic in discussion. If your funny story is not 100% relevant to the topic at hand, save it. There’s plenty of other times for funny stories to be shared.
Your story is vague or doesn’t illustrate any point.
You need to be extremely intentional with your story. If it’s not illustrating an abstract point or clearing up a vague concept, then don’t tell it. If you do tell an off-topic story, you’re likely only going to confuse your students even more, or you’ll just distract them.
Your story is inappropriate.
This one should be a no-brainer. Know when to draw the line with your students between being vulnerable about your mistakes and relating something unnecessary and inappropriate.
At the end of the day, it’s all about your students. The golden rule for deciding what stories to tell and when to tell them is simple. Is your story building up your students and enhancing their experiences with the material and with you? If the answer is yes, then go for it.
Small Group Interns - Nic & Sophie