What’s the Backstory?

“Bill, I’m going to be in town next week visiting my son. Can we get together?”

Eric’s email was a pleasant surprise. I hadn’t seen him for more than a year, so I was thrilled about catching up. When we met over coffee, Eric shared how this time away was a “mini-sabbatical” for him. He was tired and needed a few days off.

Eric’s tiredness and need for a break was the backstory of our meeting. I might not have caught this if he hadn’t revealed this background information. This discovery changed the course of our conversation.

Novelists and playwrights use “backstory” to describe the not-so-obvious but important theme of a novel, play, or movie. Much of a story’s action takes place in the prominent foreground, directly in front of the reader or viewer. However, this action is framed by a backstory, the less-prominent theme and tone hidden in the background of every play or novel. In the same way, each of us has a backstory to our lives.

Whenever we meet with someone, teach a class, or lead a small group, there is a backstory taking place in a person’s life. The friend in front of me may have just argued with a spouse, experienced a disappointment with a job, or found joy in a child’s success. This backstory may not be present in our conversation, but it’s framing my friend’s life.

I believe that true ministry happens when we connect to the backstories of people’s lives. They can be easy to miss. When I do miss the backstory, I lose an opportunity to connect in a heartfelt way.

How am I learning to connect with a person’s backstory? On the wall in front of my desk are three actions I want to take in every conversation.

Listen intently. I connect by hearing people’s hearts. (James 1:19)

Question deeply. I connect by asking thoughtful questions. (Proverbs 20:5)

Speak cautiously. I connect by speaking less, not more. (Proverbs 10:19)

When I focus on another’s backstory, the conversation is no longer about me but about the other person. Conversation becomes an act of dying to self.

My prayer is that I will listen intently, question deeply, and speak cautiously to the variety of people who daily come into my life. I want to connect with the backstories of their lives.

Conduct a quick self-assessment. How are you at reading the backstories of people’s lives? 

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