Ways to Use Story in Worship

While exploring my hard drive tonight I stumbled on an old unpublished file, titled “from prooftext to story,” with a time stamp of May, 2002, one month after Digital Storytellers was released. I don’t remember when I first wrote it, but it may have been a brainstorm that was too late to make the book.

F or many, the contemporary worship service is doing okay, or even well, but not fulfilling its potential as a cultural connector. One of the basic premises of the book Digital Storytellers is (surprise) the role of story in worship. Most of us are still stuck in a rational mindset where we extract “principles for living” from a biblical text. Some have made it to the next step, and have learned how to present these principles using elements of the story process, or at the very least a nice stage display and a somewhat related song lyrics background. Or we have learned to de-emphasize the “3-points and a conclusion” reductionist tendency.

But the biggest leap is to thinking of worship itself as a story, by telling tales of hope, sacrifice, redemption, and resurrection, because they are part of the Jesus story and the story of Jesus’ early followers. For example, have you ever considered the transformation of the character Peter from weak and impulsive to courageous and steady during and after the passion narrative? His story gives us courage for our story – if Jesus’ hand-picked disciple, who spent years of daily life with him, held on to his personal baggage and issues for much too long, maybe we’re not beyond hope after all.


Build Worship Like a Story

Capturing the essential truth of Peter’s story means we must move beyond simply telling biblical stories in analytical ways–by text on the screen, for example. By constructing the whole of worship according to story forms, based on universal human experiences that tell the good news, story allows us to touch people in places that cerebral truth cannot. It connects us with an “emotional truth.” The liturgy of story is the worship practice of not reducing God to science or to a discipline (theology, or “God talk”) but rather offering an experience of God through emotional truth. In postmodern culture, the ability to analyze something is no longer a barometer of its veracity. For many people, including those of this culture, God may be more present and real in art and in story than in any sort of analysis or scientific method.

The basic, archetypical story themes capture the transforming power of the Gospel for this age more effectively than three points of failure and redemption. This doesn’t mean we abandon facts, but that we build on cerebral truth with heart and soul truth.

Consider Peter. The theme of Peter’s story is failure. Called to something great, he broke down when it mattered most, unable to summon the courage to risk himself in support of his teacher. He felt betrayed by Jesus’ unexpected decisions, and failed Jesus in return. What would it have been like to be buddies with God Incarnate–especially when you weren’t for sure if he was really the Messiah, or just a charismatic and cool but slightly deluded friend? Under failure, Peter struggled with faith and doubt.

Failure is all over contemporary culture. Consider the current song by Linkin Park, In the End: “I put my trust in you/As far as I could go/But In the end/It doesn’t really matter.” We each share the common experience of failure: in relationships, in our work, in our dreams. Where is God when we fail? Are we left alone? We fail, and we fear failure, so we cope in various ways- like Peter, lashing out.

Of course, that is not the end of the story. Like any good third act, Peter finds redemption. Jesus appears on the shore, where Peter and his friends had returned to their fishing jobs. They take a walk, and Jesus issues a life-changing challenge: if you really love me, then feed my sheep. Take over leadership. Become the rock of the early Jesus movement. Wow. Perhaps, it was only because of his failure and betrayal that Peter was able to come back and say yes with conviction. He finally understood the stakes, and what was required of him.

Failure and redemption is one of the archetypical themes. Other archetypical story themes include sacrifice, death and resurrection, love, respect and honor. Where do we find these stories in the Bible and in contemporary culture?


The Structure of Story

Once you have found such stories, you must figure out how to present them in the narrative of worship. One place to start is to understand the structure of story. Stories have a specific form. There are several such forms, actually, including Shakespeare’s form, and the rhythms of oral storytelling. The famous screenwriter and teacher Syd Field describes a setup (act 1), the confrontation (act 2), and resolution (Act 3), with a gripping  first ten pages (or 1/12th of film, which means about 2.5 minutes in a worship service). Like a film, good worship needs a single subject (or theme, or one idea), defined by a clear understanding of the need and the conflict. It needs a strong sequence, or series of scenes or elements that are connected by a single idea, with each element propelling the story. And it needs a plot point, or a “hook” that propels the story toward the good news of the gospel. Each of these concepts is worth further exploration.

Tell your story with a mixture of biblical and contemporary language, a mixture of biblical and contemporary story elements, and with a variety of media. For example, use biblical storytelling – old language, oral medium. Use contemporary storytelling, such as a rap poem – new language, oral medium. Find other old and new expressions of story elements, presented over a variety of media; some to propel the plot, others to add character or emotion or fill in the narrative. These pieces combine together to draw people to the content of the story itself.

This is how to begin to fulfill the potential of story in worship, and help the contemporary service reach its potential as a cultural connector.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).