A while ago I finished a book about the creative collaboration of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the other Inklings. It got me thinking about these authors and how their works have impacted me and others. I also started thinking about stories in general and their power at communicating truth in a way that reason and discourse do not. Because of the way stories connect with people and create understanding at a heart level, stories can be very useful in ministry, evangelism, apologetics and missions.
Stories immediately capture our attention in a way that the simple facts do not. Consider two takes on a recent Saturday yard project.
- On April 7, Salem, Oregon received 1.36” of rain along with high winds with gusts up to 45 mph which hindered the outdoor work I had been planning for several weeks, though I attempted the project anyway.
- As I looked out the window at the gathering clouds and checked the forecast on my phone, I wondered if it had been a mistake to rent the sod cutter to strip the grass from our backyard. Later that day, I manhandled the mud soaked sod cutter through a deluge of rain, through gusts of wind that blew over our fence, determined the finish the job.
Which version caught your attention? The first version, while factually true, was certainly not too engaging. Version two excluded the specific facts and yet I bet it was more engaging for you and did a better job actually helping you understand my Saturday.
Jesus was the master storyteller. The Gospels are filled with stories of people coming to Jesus, asking him questions, challenging him. Jesus often answered with a story or parable. In Luke 15, the scribes and Pharisees are grumbling amongst themselves that Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and other sinners. Presumably, Jesus heard them because he responded to their grumbling. Rather than rebuke them or given a reason explanation of his actions, Jesus told three redemption stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a wayward son. These stories cut straight to the heart of Jesus’ priorities and why he spent time with sinners. The stories speak to the reader (and hopefully the original listeners!) on a much deeper level because as stories they engage us and communicate truth at a heart level, not just a head level.
So how can Christians use stories to proclaim truth to those around us?
Tell the Bible as a story.
The Bible is filled with stories. In fact, most of the Bible is narrative and could be told in story form. Missionaries have used “Bible storying” very effectively to teach the Bible for many years. Many cultures are oral cultures, meaning they learn and communicate best orally. For most of the recent past, the Western world has been comprised of more text based cultures but as our own cultures are changing, evangelists, youth pastors, and others are finding that stories are engaging even Western listeners in new ways.
Tell your own story.
As a Christian, your testimony, or the story of how God has been at work in your life, can be powerful and engaging. I have heard it said that conversion is when your story and God’s Story intersect or join together. Try sharing your testimony or how God is at work in your life as a story, my guess is that it will communicate with your listeners on a deeper level. As an example which version below draws you in as a listener and makes you want to learn more?
- God has given me the strength to persevere through some really challenging times in my life and has taught me that my identity is in him.
- I had just received my umpteenth job rejection. I was living in Washington DC, a city where what you do and who you know is foundational to your identity. And there I was working a series of temp jobs, struggling to find full-time employment. I felt like a failure and I certainly was by the local standards! But God was using that time to teach me that my identity was not in a job or the people I knew or worked with, my identity was a precious and redeemed man of God.
Use your imagination to tell stories that reveal truth.
Even stories that are made-up can still communicate deep truths. Take Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a fictitious story about hobbits, elves, magic rings and epic quests. Certainly nothing “Christian” at all about the story. And yet the story communicates biblical truths that reach down deep into our hearts and the reader, Christian and non-Christian alike, can know and identify with that truth on a heart level. Truths like the existence of good and evil, betrayal and redemption, and the beauty and power of working toward a purpose that is greater than ourselves. Christian authors, musicians and other creatives can use their gifts and imagination to communicate biblical truth in a powerful way.
God has given us hearts and imaginations that crave stories. This seems obvious since we are created in the image of an amazing creator God. Using stories can be an amazing way to share your testimony and your faith, to teach about Jesus and to cultivate the soil of people’s hearts and prepare them to hear the Gospel. Go and tell someone a story today!
- Pick three Bible stories and illustrate key truths about Jesus, learn them by heart and be able to tell them as a story. Look for opportunities to tell them.
- Think about three specific times when God was at work in your life. Write them out as a story and practice telling them. Be ready to share these stories when the Lord opens up opportunities.
For more information about oral cultures and global strategies for reaching them with the Gospel, check out the International Orality Network.
For tips on writing your testimony, Cru has a helpful resource on their website to help you think through and write it down.
To learn more about the Christian imagination and using story to communicate truth you can read Dr. Holly Ordway’s book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination or her chapter in A New Kind of Apologist.