The Digital Storytelling for Religious Formation project is based in the belief that people of all ages can experience transformation and growth as they learn to tell their stories in the context of a faith community. Stories help people to connect their own experiences with those of others, so that they can see themselves not only as individuals of value but as members of a valued and mutually supportive community. The two congregations involved in these pilot projects were of differing faith communities: one was a mainline Lutheran (ELCA) congregation and the other was a Reformed Jewish congregation.
The program had its beginnings at the request of a youth minister who was concerned about an upcoming transition in leadership in her congregation. How could she help families and young people to feel a sense of continuity in the midst of change? Moreover, how could she help families new to the congregation gain an understanding of the benefits that participation in youth ministry could hold for young people? Maybe the teens in her congregation could be taught how to produce a video that would allow others to catch a glimpse of the accepting, fun, and service-oriented culture that characterized her youth group and that made it such a vital part of the continuity of their religious tradition. She reached out for help in developing a process to make that a reality.
There was another youth minister in the area that was struggling with a different issue. The young people who came to youth programs at his church considered themselves outsiders to the mainstream evangelicalism that largely defined the neighborhood and school culture where they lived. Clearly, young people who came to the congregation valued being a part of a religious community, but in their context, talking about faith experiences could sometimes be very challenging. The teens in this group adamantly resisted the idea that faith might be reduced to a set of beliefs. The problem was that even though they were quite articulate about what they didn’t believe, they had a hard time viewing their experiences through the lens of their faith community. How could this youth minister help his group to experience themselves as persons of faith as they authentically experienced connection, shared stories, served disadvantaged communities, and discussed the dilemmas of their lives by reflecting on the resources of their faith tradition? This youth minister was more interested in a process of formation than in a video, but was willing to give digital storytelling a try.
Neither of these youth ministers was interested in new technologies; neither was looking for some new one-time program. Each wanted to provide a space for their young people to develop the ability to articulate who they were in relation to each other and to God. Digital storytelling was the means by which they were able to address this heartfelt need.
Digital storytelling is therefore not a “new program;” it is a catalyst, a cultural intervention that has resonance and congruence with young peoples’ everyday experiences even as it also prompts engagement with a larger community. It is what Kenda Creasy Dean has termed a “practice of illumination,” an important part of formation designed to “help the believer to recognize God in unexpected, even mundane places.” It assists young people in the important process of articulation, giving teens an opportunity to practice talking about and expressing what it means to them to embrace an identity as a child of God. Such work is important, for “articulacy fosters reality,” as Christian Smith writes in his argument for greater opportunities to practice such talk.