Jesus and the Art of Storytelling

by Ken Baker

effective evangelism, Ken Baker, parables in scriptureJesus was an artist. He painted pictures through parables—stories, rooted in daily life, which function as extended metaphors that forge meaning out of the mundane. The power of parables resides in these metaphors—mini-stories themselves (‘the elephant in the room’, ‘I’m getting cold feet’, or ‘a sower went out to sow’) which use analogy to set the course of a narrative.

Metaphors function as a hook which grabs a listener’s attention (e.g., ‘a master went out early to hire laborers’), creating a tangible connection with common life. Riffing off these metaphors, parables generate a riveting quality. We can’t resist their invitation because the setting is so familiar, encouraging us to long for more and leaving us emotionally invested in the outcome.

Effective evangelism uses the power of story to create a gospel opportunity.

We are familiar with many New Testament metaphors that Jesus used so naturally—salt, light, lamp, or leaven. He skillfully lifted these items out of their daily existence and staged them as actors in his kingdom message. Parables allowed Jesus to traffic in that which was concrete and accessible in order to transport his audience into unknown territory. He challenged listeners to see anew what was familiar and ordinary.

Effective evangelism connects where people are and moves them to consider unexplored vistas.

While parables may take a listener to familiar places (a vineyard, a wedding, a field, a house, a tree), they gently deposit us in unfamiliar surroundings. This is because parables often carry an element of surprise—a ‘hold-on-there’ aspect— which seems out of place (what self-respecting person would build a house on the sand?), but which drives home surreptitious truth by introducing a totally unexpected element (a Samaritan to the rescue?).

Familiarity with a parable’s setting creates an abiding narrative from which escape is nearly impossible. The story lingers, turning over and over in one’s spirit, daring us to forget, while slowly gathering momentum toward understanding and effect…always hoping that the seed may take root.

Effective evangelism gives people the space to absorb and ponder the truth they’ve encountered.

Even so, Jesus used parables to intentionally invade and unsettle—to force a reckoning. His stories shook what was conventional to create discomfort, pushing common situations toward jarring conclusions. The contrast was so sharp and penetrating that no one could continue to sit on the fence—choice was unavoidable.

Effective evangelism invokes a reckoning—like the incompatibility of new wine and old wineskins—insisting that we confront the status quo.   

Parables were a sweet aroma of promise to seekers but mostly perplexing to the indifferent.  Unfortunately, despite the mastery of the Storyteller and the absolute truth they conveyed, Jesus’ parables usually resulted in unbelief, “because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matt. 13:13). In the same vein, evangelism often falls short of its ultimate intent, not necessarily for its lack, but due to blindness.

Yet, let us not be discouraged; rather, may we be found faithful in the example of our Lord, for the art of story allows us the privilege of engaging as humans to humans in this earthly drama for the glory of our King.

Ken Baker (@KenJBaker) is the international ministry training facilitator for a global organization and is currently on assignment abroad.

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