by Nate Butler
(Editor’s note: This is the 6th post in an 8-part series called “What’s Your Evangelism Style?“)
As I have proffered in my previous postings, I’m your classic shy, introvert artist. Face-to-face witnessing is petrifying to me, so my goal is to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ through pictures, primarily by instructing others in how to do so.
While my own background and experience in creative evangelism is almost exclusively in the areas of comics and animation, the following will have some application for all communicators, particularly those engaged in visual storytelling.
As with other forms of evangelism such as crusades, as outlined by our brother Will Graham, planning is extremely important in the development stage. I’m like most artists and want to get right into the visuals. However, the most important thing to do first is to define your audience and plan your story accordingly. (In our seminars, I usually ask, “Who are you trying to reach?” and then, as hands start to shoot up, I add, “And just so you know, ‘everybody’ is the most common and incorrect answer.” At which time most hands drop.)
The Bible gives us examples of how the messenger had a target reader and/or matched the approach to the hearer (Matt. 4:17, 1 Cor. 9:19-21, Luke 1:3, etc.). Let’s follow the Best Guide there is.
Therefore, be as specific as possible about your intended viewer. Know what kind of response you want and determine what sort of presentation will best convey the message.
There are significant differences in perceptions between cultures and among people within cultures (young/old, male/female, city/country, etc.), so do some research before attempting to communicate cross-culturally.
Fiction or non-fiction? Some cultures consider fiction to be lying, so true-life testimonies are best in those settings. (True stories are generally stronger anyway in relating the gospel.) A humorous or serious story? Again, learn the culturally-conditioned perceptions and worldview of your intended audience. Research and even field testing may be necessary to find the answers, but look to the greatest cross-cultural communicator ever: Jesus Christ. He had to communicate what the Kingdom of God is like to simple, earth-bound folks. Study His example!
In particular, it is our solemn responsibility as Christian communicators to relate biblical stories as accurately as possible. If we are sloppy with the history and science, then people have the right to question the spiritual accuracy of our work.
Let me share a historical example: Anyone with a search engine can find examples of Egyptian hieroglyphics that actually portray Philistine soldiers. One key distinctive is the “spiky headdress” (sometimes referred to as “hedge-hog helmets”) which may have been made using feathers, stiffened reeds, horsehair, or perhaps even bent metal sticking upward, out of the helmet (the Bible says in 1 Samuel 17:5 that Goliath had a helmet of bronze).
Philistine soldiers also appear as largely clean-shaven people in these hieroglyphics. Yet we often see the Philistine warrior Goliath portrayed as a hairy hulk with a fanciful helmet—bullet-shaped, with Viking horns, etc. Yes, the evidence of these hieroglyphics has been disputed, but the majority of biblical archaeologists have held this view of the Philistines since the mid-1800s.
Next, let me share a scientific example: Genetically, Adam had to be created totally heterozygous (meaning, he had to carry the dominant and recessive gene for all human traits). Since Eve was made from Adam’s genetic material, she had to be heterozygous, too. This has to be true if they are the original Father and Mother of all humans. So Adam and Eve themselves would have displayed all the dominant genetic traits—darker skin, dark hair, dark eyes. So, please, no more comics or films with blonde, white-skinned Adams and Eves. Thank you.
Indeed, there are some challenges in trying to do evangelism creatively, but there are far more upsides.
First, visual storytelling can be a neutral source of information, used to introduce Christianity to a large number of people in a culture. It can politely open the subject to public conversation, making it a legitimate topic of discussion. This has been done with numerous comics and tracts and through movies such as The Jesus Film.
Second, visual storytelling is ideal for communicating the gospel with clarity and simplicity, in an engaging format that makes the message more memorable and understandable. In Karuizawa, Japan, a Japanese storeowner had a number of missionaries witness to him over the years. They spoke to him about the Lord and gave him text-style tracts, Bible portions, and even a Bible. But the storeowner never got it. Then, someone handed him a copy of MANGA MESSIAH, a graphic novel that combines the four Gospels. After reading it, he said he finally understood what people had been trying to tell him.
Third, visual storytelling is excellent at conveying information, carrying more data to the viewer than either words or pictures alone. It can be useful for discipling and training in almost any subject, providing the follow up needed after people come to Christ.
There are a lot of other great stats that support the use of visual storytelling: we retain 80% of what we see versus 10% of what we hear; 90% of information to the brain is visual, and the other four senses account for 10%. Let’s integrate creative evangelism whenever we can. It could be the very tool that leads another person to Jesus.
Nate Butler (@NButlercomix35) is a former Henson/Marvel/DC/Archie writer and artist now coaching and consulting on creative ways to use the visual storytelling medium of comics as a tool for evangelism and discipleship. He is president/CEO of COMIX35.