by Laurel Bunker
“Over the years I have become convinced that we learn best—and change—from hearing stories that strike a chord within us.” – John Kotter, Harvard Business School
In my parent’s living room, tucked tightly between dated Encyclopedia Britannicas, old record albums, athletic trophies, family photos, and other childhood memorabilia, stands a torn, tattered, regal, and splendid treasure.
The four-lettered titled treasure, with its bold and black and brown typography, demands my attention each time I glance in its direction. It calls from the shelf as if to say, “Do not forget me! I am your history; I, too, am your story.”
Alex Haley’s epic, award-winning book, ROOTS: The Saga of An America Family, was published in 1976 and became a made-for-television mini-series, debuting in January 1977. Haley’s chronicling of his journey to trace his ancestry through the brutal slave trade all the way back to the shores of The Gambia, West Africa, where he found his family (the ancestors of the great Kunta Kinte), marked my childhood forever and sparked in me a love for and understanding of the purposefulness of story.
More than 40 years after meeting Mr. Haley, I can still remember his kind face and thoughtful demeanor. A black-and-white photo marking that moment shall always be undeniably significant.
I am no Alex Haley, but as a communicator, and as a lover of the word of God, good books, and great sermons, I understand the incredible power that story holds in and over our lives. The word of God is replete with examples of how Christ, the disciples, the prophets, and the apostles all used parables, poetry, and other illustrations to draw people into a deeper understanding of God.
One of my favorite examples is found in 2 Samuel 12:1-13, where Nathan the prophet uses a story to confront King David regarding his infidelity with Bathsheba. Appealing to King David’s sense of fairness, which had apparently been impaired by lust, Nathan tells David a story of a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had everything that he needed and wanted, while the poor man had one small ewe that was significant to the poor man and his family.
When a traveler from out of town needed to be fed, the rich man took the ewe of the poor man and sacrificed it, rather than taking from his own abundant flock. The word of God says that David‘s anger was aroused by Nathan’s parable and commanded that this man, who was so cruel and selfish, be put to death. Nathan then said to David, “That man is you.” David acknowledged his sin and was spared from death, although his life and ministry were forever impacted.
This is a powerful example of how—in the right time, with the right spirit and proper motive—a story can be used to bring truth to light. I am not suggesting that one so serious be used unless the Lord, through much prayer, is leading you to do so, but I do believe it makes its point clear—stories can present a pathway to the gospel and ultimately to repentance and salvation.
With this in mind, let me offer three practical ways to use story as an entry point to deeper conversations about faith:
- Personalize your story. There is never a better story to tell than one that you tell about yourself. I often share with people something of my own testimony of how I came to know Christ, how I overcame hardship or dealt with disappointment on my faith journey. People tend to value transparency and honesty rather than perfection. So, rather than beginning from a place of expertise about what they should do, I give honor and glory to God by declaring what He has already done for me. It breaks the ice, opens the door to questions, and points to God’s faithfulness and abundant love.
- Paint a picture. Jesus was the Master storyteller. He often used examples from daily life in order to help His listeners, who were often simple folk, understand deeper principles. Paint a picture with stories, as you would apply paint and brush to a canvas. Illustrate a situation in a way others will understand, and when appropriate, use humor. Daily chores, cooking flops, child-rearing snafus, decorating mishaps, and family stories (both serious and funny) all provide rich content for painting pictures on the canvas of someone’s imagination.
- Prepare in advance. As easy as storytelling may seem to you or me, good storytelling is more of an art form. Either way, practice and preparation are important. We must remember that we are not telling a story for stories sake, but to bring a person to a point or moment of clarity and confession of Christ. Ways that I have prepared myself for encounters include spending time in the word, reading devotionals like Guideposts, Our Daily Bread, and Chicken Soup for the Soul, as well as other sources of inspiration such as children’s books, blog posts, and sermon sites. More than any of this, keep praying. He will guide you
Laurel Bunker is dean of campus ministries and campus pastor at Bethel University. Laurel’s mission is to radically impact the lives of individuals through empowered teaching and preaching and through mentoring others to be influencers of culture through Christ-centered leadership development.