The Story of Rev. Gupta
Rev. Gupta was a well-loved pastor in his rural community for many years. He brought together his friends Raju and Geeta to help build the church and these people became life long friends. The community was being reached with the gospel, people were being baptized every week, and the church was growing. Rev. Gupta was able to get further study in a neighboring city. As the church started to expand and new ministries were being added, several things began to happen. Raju and Geeta were concerned by the changes they were seeing in Rev. Gupta (or, rather, as he now wanted to be referred to as Dr. Gupta). As the ministry grew under Dr. Gupta’s leadership, he was invited to travel and teach and, in the process, became a sought-after conference speaker. It wasn’t long, however, before the early signs of “big boss sickness” began to appear. He began to take control of every aspect of the ministry. In some ways he had become the traditional power leader like some of his contemporaries. He had started well, but he was finishing poorly.
For many of us, this story is all too real. We could probably identify a “Rev. Gupta” in our lives. Or maybe we have been “Rev. Gupta” in our own stories. If we leave it at this, though, how much is the story really impacting us? We catalog it away and move on to the next story.
Storytelling Comes With Questions
The use of storytelling in communities today is having an increasing impact- not just on Majority World cultures, but even within our own American culture. Books and articles and mission strategies are constantly putting forth “storytelling” as a primary means of communicating. This has been coined “orality.” In Freedom to Lead we call this “storycentric.” Whole books are dedicated to teaching people how to “tell your story” well. All too often, however, we stop there.
Telling a story is just as much as the story itself as it is about asking the right kinds of questions in order to engage the story.
We need to get better at asking the questions.
Going back to the story of Rev. Gupta above, our Western minds veer toward the analytical thinking we’ve all been trained from our youth. We ask questions like, “How can you apply this story to your life? What does this story say about ministry and the role of the church? What role should we allow God to play here? Have you ever been tempted with the same things that Rev. Gupta was?”
These are all fine questions. However, in shame-based cultures we’ve already alienated our entire group of story listeners before we’ve even started.
Asking the Right Questions in Shame-Based Cultures
In a collective shame-based culture, we represent a whole lot more than just our individual selves. Our individualistic minds can’t quite comprehend this. We say we do when we point to the importance of our families, but when it’s all said and done we stand before a situation alone and seek to absolve our guilt. In shame-based cultures, on the other hand, whatever you do and say and however you act impacts the entire community. Drawing attention to your shortcomings and your successes is to color all with the same shortcomings and successes. In order to preserve shame (or “face” as some cultures refer it) requires an indirect way of communicating. Our “yes” may not actually mean “yes.” An indirect approach to situations means I’m not going to tell you directly, especially if you are my leader.
Rev. Gupta Comes to Life
So, back to the story of Rev. Gupta. In a shame-based culture how would we ask the questions? We might ask the questions this way, drawing directly from the story itself:
- Can you retell the story of Rev. Gupta in your own words?
- What were Raju and Geeta’s concerns?
- In what ways did Rev. Gupta “start well”?
- What happened when the church began to grow?
- In what ways did Rev. Gupta “finish poorly”?
Now, in a shame-based culture we ALL know that we (leaders in our own churches and ministries) are “Rev. Gupta” in this story. Or, at least, we have the potential of becoming him. We ALL know that we need to avoid the same kind of mistakes that Rev. Gupta made. We recognize the need to identify some Samuels and Sarahs in our own lives. But by staying within the context of the story we can engage more effectively and save face.
And just like that “Rev. Gupta” becomes a real person rather than an abstract character in a nice little story.