T he concept of storytelling has much longer legs than I would have ever guessed. I co-wrote Digital Storytellers in 2001, and over a decade later, the idea of using story (as opposed to proposition) to communicate an idea is stronger than ever.
The challenge is not belief but practice. How do you find good stories to tell? Consider this list of types of stories:
An iconic brand doesn’t need an ad campaign to tell a story. Brands tell stories, too. In a brand there is history, character, and a promise for the future. Consider the iconic local Atlanta brand, Coca-Cola. When you see the name, even in text form, you the reader automatically begin to associate a number of things: “I’d like to teach the world to sing”; The polar bear; perhaps sitting in a movie theater with a bag of popcorn; and so on. (If you’re so inclined, maybe you think of childhood obesity and diabetes.) Brands are stories wrapped up in icons.
Major initiatives in the life of your church or organization need brands. Passion City Church, here in Atlanta, recently created a campaign for a human trafficking awareness effort called “End It.” The image was a red, spray painted X. They encouraged people to wear a red X on their hands and place red X posters around town. They put big red Xs on black cars by the front doors of the church. They created Twitter hashtags and a website.
Organizations only have the energy for a couple of these things a year, when they’re done well. Peachtree, where I work, just finished a global mission awareness and funding campaign called Sprout. We made a site landing page, videos, print collateral, and did a few extra things such as start a garden on the front lawn.
Cultural stories are perhaps the second most familiar form of story in church. Cultural story simply means any reference to contemporary life. It can be fact or fiction, humorous like a recent comedy film or somber like a campus shooting. Cultural stories are recent and resonant.
- Look for ways to not just reference them but to make them real, by showing them, or offering some way to respond. It’s amazing what might happen. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT on a Friday morning, Peachtree’s executive pastor and I brainstormed ways to respond in worship. She suggested we offer people a chance to respond by writing a prayer on a large banner to send to the school’s office. We mentioned the banner in worship, and were surprised to see our community fill 24 feet of banners with personal prayers and condolences. Amazingly, a couple approached us and told us they’d moved to the area from Newtown last year, and knew a third grade teacher at the school. More than a nice gesture from a church in the South, suddenly our banners became a personal exhortation from one community to another.
- Run “b-roll,” my dated term for images on screen during a sermon that show what the communicator is talking about. This can be footage from a local event, a film scene without audio, a series of stills that match a topic – any number of things.
- Lead the sermon with a story – not one that captures the entire essence of the message, but just one that sets up the problem well. Hollywood has poor answers, but they rock at stating the problem. After the crash of 2008, the remake of Fun with Dick and Jane, starring Jim Carrey, captured the comical tragedy of the financial times. I once used a scene where, after losing his job, the protagonist goes to an all you can eat bar and walks away with a pile of food three feet high. The single image of Jim Carrey juggling a tower of food defined the angst we all felt.
Biblical storytelling is the idea that an entire biblical story, as is and complete, with no additions or subtractions, is sufficient for communicating truth and building one another up.
Of course, most of the Bible (I’ve heard 85%, but I’ve never counted the verses), is story, but ironically, there’s a tendency in many circles to reduce the Bible from story to prooftext – individual verses used to support theological propositions. Here’s a few ways to re-introduce biblical story in the message:
- Have someone tell a complete biblical story in the middle of the sermon. Not the preacher, but someone else. Yep, right in the middle. Stop the sermon, cue a lighting change if possible, and focus on a storyteller. Or put it earlier – but just add it in to the flow of worship.
- Have the storyteller memorize the story and offer it dramatically. Add sound effects, video and/or lighting if possible. I once told the story of Jesus calming the storm in the middle of a sermon. The preacher paused, the lighting dimmed, and storm footage came on the screens. The pianist played an underscore and I told the story. It worked.
- Create a series of stills to illustrate the biblical text, with a combination of word and image. Show them on screen and have the congregation recite the biblical story together while cycling through the images.
Each faith community has its own stories. Tell them, at various levels:
- Some stories are a core part of a church’s history. They capture the core values, like the trauma that accompanied a major church mission trip, which embodies the church’s commitment to mission, or a group of people that rallied behind a family in need. Make sure these core stories get told, and repeated over time. If it’s been five years, tell them again, so longtime people don’t forget and new people learn.
- Look for small examples that capture the core values, too. We often don’t tell “the rest of the story.” Recently, Peachtree raised funds to buy a new piano for a church and school in Jamaica. When the piano was finally delivered a year later, we retold the first part of the story, and then revealed the arrival of the piano and the mission’s celebration.
- Interviews with the local community can broaden the scope and reach of a message. If you’re doing a series with a metaphor of DNA, interview a local doctor on the specifics of genetic theory as a setup to the message.
Personal stories, or testimonies, are perhaps the most common understand of storytelling in church. Personal stories can be the most powerful kind, as they create legitimacy.
- Search out stories from people within the congregation. Every person in the church has a story, and, properly researched and culled, it can become a powerful way to embody a message. These are often passed from person to person in individual conversation. The best way to find them is to share your goals with everyone you meet, and let networking do the rest.
- Set up a form on your website to receive people’s stories. Invite them to share as text or with photos and videos, then convert the best into clips for group use.
How do you weave stories together in worship?