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Session 3: Formative Elements and Themes

In session 2 you saw how past experiences and relationships can affect a Christian’s current life. In “Life Story: Step B,” you identified and recorded the significant experiences and relationships of your past. You will now seek to interpret the data you recorded.

This interpretive process begins as you identify your most formative experiences and relationships. You’ll then examine the concept of theme. To contribute to an authentic community, you need to tell your story not just as a series of facts but also as an account full of meaning and God’s purposes.

Session Aims

Individual Aim: To identify formative experiences and relationships and to identify major themes in your life story.

Group Aim: To discuss how to discern the most formative experiences and relationships in a story and determine the theme.


Complete Life Story: Step B beginning on page 73.

Read Session 3: Formative Elements and Themes.

Read Life Story: Steps C, D, E, and F beginning on page 77.


David didn’t suddenly achieve prowess with a slingshot on the day when he met and killed Goliath (see 1 Samuel 17). God had allowed David years of experience in sheep pastures, where he learned skills he could use for God’s purposes. Likewise, David was probably as incredulous as his father was when Samuel anointed David king of Israel (see 1 Samuel 16). But God had long been at work behind the scenes in his young life. Years later, David reviewed elements of his life story in his psalms. David saw God’s hand at work throughout his life, even in the darkest moments, and he used his own story as an act of worship.

This connection between worship and “Life Story” is crucial. You’re going to organize the formative elements of your life into a story that recognizes God as the key figure, the One who brought you to this point. Your story will be a hymn of praise. Your group’s hymns will draw your group together into community in an extraordinary way.


You can view your life story at two levels. First, you can see the fine detail of times when God seemed particularly and intimately involved. Second, you can step back and recognize God’s overarching plan, the broad strokes of His work in your life. Those broad strokes involve themes and trends.

God’s intimate involvement usually appears in your formative experiences and relationships. Work with these first because they are the building blocks of larger themes.

Formative experiences and relationships are those that have had lasting effects—they have molded and shaped you. Last week you compiled an extensive list of experiences and relationships. Now you’ll distinguish which of those events and people have had the most significant effects on you.

formative: 1. giving form or shape; forming; shaping; fashioning; molding 2. pertaining to formation or development

Many of your most formative experiences and relationships may be ones you least enjoy thinking about (stressful times, relationships with conflict, or tragic losses). Others may be your most enjoyable and exciting past relationships and experiences. And you shouldn’t overlook those formative experiences and relationships that developed through mundane circumstances. The key issue is the lasting effect these people and events have had on you.

What makes an experience or relationship formative? It has one or more of the following traits:

  •  You can see a significant meaning or purpose in it—it seems to have happened “for a reason.”
  •  You know it has shaped who you’ve become even if you can’t see why God allowed it to happen. By faith you trust that God is using this experience constructively in your life or other people’s lives, even though it has been painful and you don’t yet see the fruit.
  •  It stands out to you as a pillar of God’s faithfulness in your life.

For further explanation of these three traits, see their descriptions in “Life Story: Step C” beginning on page 77.

meaning: 1. that which is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated; signification; import 2. the end, purpose, or significance of something

purpose: 1. the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc. 2. an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal

Once you’ve identified the specific experiences and relationships that have shaped you, you can step back and look for themes and trends that arise from the whole picture.

theme: In literature, the central or dominating idea, the “message,” implicit in a work. The theme of a work is seldom stated directly. It is an abstract concept indirectly expressed through recurrent images, actions, characters, and symbols, and must be inferred by the reader or spectator. Theme differs from subject (the topic or thing described in a work) in that theme is a comment, observation, or insight about the subject. For example, the subject of a poem may be a flower; its theme, a comment on the fleeting nature of existence.

For example, success might be a thread running through your story. Your mother talked about the importance of financial success. You experienced your father’s long hours at the office when you were growing up and the financial rewards that eventually came to your family. You had to work hard to attain good enough grades at school, but the effort seems to be linked to the career you were able to launch. Those are the facts of your story. But the meaning you attached to your father’s absence from home during the evenings was not “The pursuit of financial gain weakens family bonds.” Rather, through your mother’s influence, you attached the meaning “Success comes through perseverance.” You attached the same meaning to your school experience and later to your career experience. Thus, as you look at the broad sweep of your story, you can see this idea emerging as a consistent theme: “Success comes through perseverance.”

Other examples of themes include: “Contentment is a product of contemplation,” “Discernment attained through counsel can conquer confusion,” and “Deception will reap personal destruction.” A theme evaluates how an element (such as success, contentment, discernment, deception, or education) affects that person’s relationships, perceptions, and decisions.

Theme is the consistent pattern of how an issue is addressed as a story develops. As you step back to consider how events and relationships in your life connect to provide meaning, one or more themes likely will emerge.


Now that you have addressed some basic issues for discerning the most formative elements of your story, you are equipped to finish the preparation of your “Life Story” presentation. We hope this discussion of what types of content you ought to address will help you share the most meaningful parts of your story with your community.

The upcoming sessions will begin to discuss other qualities that contribute to an authentic Christian community. These principles will be fundamental building blocks for your group to experience a healthy community.


Complete Life Story: Step C beginning on page 77.

Read Session 4: The Art of Speech.

Read Life Story: Step G beginning on page 95.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life, Spiritual Formation

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