The power of story

Our centenary theme, ‘Sharing the story’, includes the Bible story, the BRF story and the stories of hundreds of individuals whose lives have been changed through the ministry of BRF. Stories are also at the heart of BBC One’s long-running, much-loved Songs of Praise, as researcher Sam Lumley explained to our press and media officer, Eley McAinsh.

20 February 2022

Meet Sam Lumley

Sam read English at York University and went on to work for St Thomas’ Church in the city where, for four or five years, he did community outreach and worked with the probation service based next door to the church, doing mentoring and support work and running drop-ins.

The work was rewarding but Sam knew he wanted to move into the creative industries. He was keen to get into TV, but first he answered an SOS from a friend:

‘My friend went out to Ethiopia to teach theology and ended up sort of accidentally running the whole college because it was quite a difficult place to live – Gambella, right out in the sticks on the border with South Sudan – and lots of the other teachers left. He was shouldering a lot of responsibility, so he invited me out to teach English and try to help support the students.

‘After I’d been there a week, a big ethnic conflict kicked off. It meant that we had to teach on two different sites because it wasn’t safe for one set of students to come to the college. I never really felt I was personally in danger, though looking back I did some stupid things that might have put me at risk. I was trying to make a film as well and probably went into parts of town I  shouldn’t have. Sadly, I haven’t yet managed to do anything with all the footage.’

From Gambella to Songs of Praise

When Sam returned to the UK he started applying for TV jobs and says, modestly, ‘I guess I was just in the right place at the right time’, because quite quickly he got a job with a company called Full Fat in Birmingham. His first contract was on a programme called The Bad Skin Clinic, which he enjoyed ‘because it followed people’s stories. It’s a real feel-good programme.’

When that contract finished, Sam moved to another ‘feel-good programme’, Songs of Praise, where he’s been working for about nine months. ‘That doesn’t sound very long,’ he says, ‘but in TV that’s like a lifetime – contracts are often only for one or two months and you move from show to show. There are four teams, so we do roughly one programme a month. It doesn’t always work out like that and sometimes you end up doing more.’

When the Songs of Praise production team was considering whether to include BRF in an edition of the show, Sam worked closely with BRF’s Karen Laister, head of marketing, communications and strategic relationships, to identify captivating stories and ‘wow factor’ locations. When the programme was given the go-ahead, they both went into overdrive to finalise all the details.

The episode, entitled ‘The power of the Bible’, was eventually aired on 23 January 2022 to a fanfare of excited posts on social media and a flood of appreciative emails and calls.

‘The BRF episode aired on 23 January to a fanfare of excited posts on social media and a flood of appreciative emails and calls.’

Sam’s BRF highlights

What, I wondered, were the highlights of Sam’s BRF’s experience?

‘Everything that we did with BRF was great, really. So we did Messy Church, and it was great to see how vibrant and full of life that was.

‘And I was really inspired by the Anna Chaplaincy story. I think often, when people are elderly, our society sometimes forgets about them a little bit and they’re hidden away in care homes. But they have such a wealth of wisdom and life experience which in other cultures is revered and respected in a way it isn’t here. So the fact that Anna Chaplaincy is highlighting that wisdom and experience, and the great value of spending time with elderly people, is brilliant. The phrase that sticks with me from that part of the programme is “It’s ministry with old people rather than for old people.”’

‘Everything we did with BRF was great, really. It was great to see how vibrant and full of life Messy Church was. And I was really inspired by the Anna Chaplaincy story.’

Songs of Praise – more than ‘just’ a job

Is his role in the Songs of Praise team simply an interesting job for Sam, or is it a job plus vocation?

‘It does feel a little bit like that. I’m a researcher, and it is an amazing job because a big part of it is finding the stories which go into the shows. That involves a lot of just chatting to people on the phone, people who’ve got really inspiring testimonies, people with amazing faith. I guess because I’ve grown up in the church maybe I can bring some of that experience to those conversations and to the programme – little details that help make the whole thing more authentic maybe.’

The power of stories

Stories are a kind of constant thread in everything Sam has said, so why are stories so powerful?

‘I just love stories. I think part of it goes back to studying English because, of course, literature is all about stories and you have to study the theory behind them. One of the reasons I think stories are so powerful is that you can almost get closer to the truth than if you were just presenting someone with a straightforward series of facts. If you’ve got a narrative, because you’re taking a slightly roundabout route, you can somehow get closer to the heart of the matter.

‘And I think as a Christian as well, stories are very important. The way the Bible is laid out, it’s a story; it’s telling God’s story and through this story, you learn truths about who God is, and what God is like, what God’s love is like. There’s something intrinsic, within all of us, which needs stories and stories speak to us very powerfully. It’s probably something that can’t quite be fully explained because there’s a slightly mysterious element to it.’

The long-lasting appeal of Songs of Praise

Songs of Praise is such a long-running strand, and yet it’s changed so much over the years. What does Sam think is at the heart of its enduring audience appeal?  

‘I’ve only been on it for a short while so I’m not sure I can answer that, but I do know that one of the things people seem to really appreciate — and something that definitely draws me to it as well – is that in an age obsessed with celebrity culture and shiny stories, Songs of Praise is full of humble, ordinary people who, when you chat to them, have totally extraordinary stories to tell. To hear these stories about what God is doing in everyday lives is to show that God is still alive and active right now, today.’

‘In an age obsessed with celebrity culture, Songs of Praise is full of humble, ordinary people with extraordinary stories to tell.’

BRF centenary stories

Reflecting Sam Lumley’s interest in the inspiring stories that older people have to tell, you might enjoy reading the stories of some of our longest-standing supporters.

Our featured title this week is Believe in Miracles by Carmel Thomason, who welcomes her readers with these words:

‘If you’ve picked up this book I’m guessing you’ve got a heart for God, but sometimes life can get in the way of your best intentions. We all want to experience love, wonder, beauty, joy and creativity, yet our reality is often something very different. We would like to feel more connected to ourselves, to God and to other people, but often we can’t see how this could be possible. Wherever you are in your spiritual journey right now, it’s Okay. God meets us where we are; all he asks is that we show up for our part. The miracle of the day is already yours; the adventure begins when you’re open to experience it fully.’