Like many church kids I grew-up listening to Bible stories. From the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, to Samson ripping off the city gates with his bare hands, from David killing the giant Goliath with just five smooth stones, to the apostle Paul breaking out of prison in an earthquake, I knew all of the stories, including (of course) the stories of Jesus. I knew these stories not just because I would inevitably hear them every week in Sunday school, I knew them because I really love stories. I don’t know how many times I read through my Picture Bible as a kid, but I read it until the cover fell right off, and then kept on reading it. In its pages I discovered again and again that the Bible is full of great stories that need to be told.
Something changed when I became a teenager though. It’s not just that I didn’t have pictures in my Bible anymore, more and more it seemed like the stories were missing too. Maybe it started in youth group, or maybe it was what I heard when I started going to the “grown-up” service, all I do know is that the older I got the more people seemed to treat the Bible like an instruction manual, rather than a story book. It’s not that the Bible didn’t have good things to say, it’s just that nobody told the stories anymore, something was missing. Without telling stories the Bible didn’t make as much sense to me, all that was left were pithy statements, some ideas about God, and a lot of rules.
I think that Eugene Peterson would remind us that “story is the gospel way,” and yet many Christians neglect the telling of stories as they grow up, perhaps because they view them as childish. For me, as an actor and aspiring playwright, telling stories has remained an important part of my life, but only recently have I really been able to articulate what the kid in me sensed all along: why stories and storytelling are vital to the church and to our faith. I am convinced, now more than ever, that if we are to faithfully pass on the Gospel then the Church needs to be good at telling stories, and I have three simple suggestions of where we can start.
#1 – Learn to Read Scripture Aloud
I have no doubt that in the average Evangelical church scripture is read aloud every single Sunday. My question is, are we really getting the whole story? While some churches/pastors are better than others, I often find that Scripture is treated in a such a way that risks pulling it out of context – out of the story – and distorting its meaning; we are often only presented with a snippet that the pastor can use to make the point in his sermon. People have no problem hearing a half hour sermon, but we seem scared to read more than eight consecutive Bible verses. For this reason we rarely get to hear the whole of any story presented to us in Scripture, and I think this does the Bible, and our understanding of it, a huge disservice.
I also think that many people do a disservice to the Bible in the way they treat the reading of it. A pastor will spend hours in a week preparing his sermon, the worship band will take time to practice and rehearse their songs, but how many people actually prepare to read scripture? It’s no wonder that we can barely sit through eight verses of Bible reading when 99% of the time that person hasn’t put any thought or work into reading the passage well. Unprepared people tend to read scripture like they are reading a shopping list, just trying to get the words out without mispronouncing any names too badly. It’s not that we need a professional actor to read the scripture every Sunday (though that would certainly be an improvement), but every church certainly could invest more thought and energy in making sure that people who read scripture to take time to prepare the reading so that the passage (and the story) will come alive for the congregation. The importance of storytelling for the church starts here:
read scripture often,
read more of it,
and read it well.
#2 – Take Time for Testimonies
Many of us grew up in churches with a tradition of sharing testimonies. Maybe it only happened during summer camp, or perhaps it was a special Sunday evening service every few months. Regardless, there is a sensibility rooted deep in the Evangelical tradition which tells us we need to hear what God is doing in peoples lives. Of course, there are all sorts of ways that testimonies can go wrong. You never quite know what someone is going to say from the front, or how people might react. It could be boring, or awkward, or just plain bad theology. Because of these sorts of challenges churches/pastors may shy away from testimony, but that would be a huge mistake.
Theologian Simon Chan says that “without telling the story of the Church, which is the story of the Spirit in the Church, we have an incomplete gospel.” This bold statement drives home the real importance of sharing our histories, both big and small, knitting together our own personal testimonies with the stories of our broad and deep tradition. Bible tracts and witnessing tools may play a part in bringing some people to Christ, but I am willing to bet that a personal testimony of how the gospel story has transformed someone’s life plays a vital role in how most people come to know Christ. We can share the Gospel story only because we know how it has shaped our story. The church needs to cultivate people who have learned to share their testimony, because sharing our story is essential for how we all understand the power of the Gospel.
#3 – Let Stories Be Stories
One of the best things that happened in the church I grew up at was the Easter musical that we would put on every year. A lot of time and energy was invested in telling the Gospel story well, everything from building an elaborate set to procuring the menagerie of animals that were meant to lend our ancient near eastern scenery an air of authenticity. I loved these musicals, and I loved them because it was one of the few times of the year in which I knew my church would actually focus on telling the story. Over the years, many people committed their lives to Christ because of those musicals, but as time went on something seemed to change. What changed was that my pastor’s talk at the end of the musical got longer and longer. What had started out as simple invitation to come to Christ eventually grew into a full blown half hour sermon. As a young adult I remember sitting through a particularly long post-musical sermon and thinking “you’ve killed it, you’ve killed the story by explaining it away. By reducing it down to it’s manageable pieces, you’ve drained it of it’s life.” What I realized was that telling the story of Jesus is powerful in a way that trying to explain that story never can be. This is something I think many pastors fail to understand, because stories are not just illustrations for abstract sermon points. No, stories are an irreducible form of truth, particularly those gospel stories that present to us God’s ultimate self revelation in and through Jesus Christ.
I recently had the pleasure of asking Eugene Peterson how the church could be better at telling story, and his answer was simple: “Humility.” It can be hard to let stories be stories, to let stories do the what stories do, because we have less control over how people understand a story than we do a sermon, we can’t narrow the definitions and parse the verbs enough to be sure we have everything clearly understood, but that’s okay.
We in the church need to be better storytellers because it will keep us humble and force us to trust in the work of the Holy Spirit rather than our own inadequate explanations.
We need to be better storytellers because it is the Gospel way, because we trust God’s word to really be God’s word, and know that He filled the Bible with stories for a reason.