By Denise George
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
Jesus knew firsthand the incredible power storytelling had upon His listeners. He communicated God’s truth, love, care and redemption through fascinating narratives. Jesus was never without a story to teach or preach.
In His stories, He most often used everyday concrete objects His audience could understand. He told them about a farmer planting seed, a woman making bread, a vineyard owner taking a trip, a persistent widow demanding a judge’s justice, a rebellious son, a woman’s lost coin, a Good Shepherd’s missing lamb.
Rather than use abstract concepts to explain and teach God’s love and care, He told stories of birds of the air and lilies of the fields.
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear … look at the birds of the air … your heavenly Father feeds them … see how the lilies of the field grow” (Matt. 6:25–28). His listeners could see, hear and touch birds and lilies unlike the intangible, invisible, abstract mental concepts of worry and trust.
“With many stories like these, He presented His message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity,” according to The Message translation of Mark 4:33–34.
We live in a storytelling culture where books and films are eagerly consumed, touching the human heart and making difficult concepts understandable and often leading to life changes. Through Scripture, Jesus Himself teaches Christians how to share the gospel through stories. Why do stories communicate so well?
• Stories are hardwired into our human DNA.
Throughout history generations of people have communicated through narrative. Stories are a natural part of life. Even when people sleep, they most often dream in stories.
The Bible itself is a story — the story of Christ and redemption — and Scripture contains many stories within this greater story. A well-told narrative holds a deeper message than what’s merely on the surface and stories communicate those lessons well. If all history were taught in understandable narrative format, the multitudes would be eager and excited learners.
• Stories create readiness to receive God’s Word.
When His disciples asked Jesus, “Why do you tell stories?” He told them, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight … that’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight” (Matt. 13).
Stories gently open the listener’s mind and heart, blasting through steel-strong mental and emotional barriers that can cause information to be unheard and rejected. Stories help people make sense out of life and its meaning.
Narrative connects with the eternity God has placed in human hearts.
• Stories communicate to all ages and stages of life.
Narrative reaches all age groups from young to old. Everyone loves a good story and each person interprets the story’s message according to their chronological, developmental and spiritual maturity. For instance: A child reads C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” series and is captivated by the professor’s magical wardrobe and the children’s adventures in the make-believe land of Narnia. But a spiritually mature Christian adult reads the same series and immediately understands the intense theological significance of Christ’s sacrifice and redemption. Stories meet listeners’ ears and they absorb the messages on levels each can understand.
• People remember stories.
After a pastor’s sermon, people often remember the preacher’s stories better than three points of abstract concepts. Stories endure from age to age, told and retold, and are rarely forgotten. The stories Jesus told 2,000 years ago still communicate to us today and continue to teach us significant lessons about God and His plan of loving redemption.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Denise George, author of 30 books, is co-author of the new Penguin Random House book “The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Brutally Massacred in World War II.” She is married to Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham.
How can Christians share God’s story?
1. Know your audience. Use concrete examples your listener will understand. Keep abreast of trends and remember that examples change over the years. Tell stories your listeners will identify with — life happenings they have experienced and values they themselves struggle with. Use stories to show the consequences of both bad and good choices.
2. Draw your listeners in. Begin your story with an object or event that will capture your listener’s interest. Jesus sparks undivided attention when He begins the parable of the Good Samaritan. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30). We grasp the story and hold on tight, eagerly wanting to know what happened to the man. “Did someone find him?” “Did he die?” Anticipation is built and we wait on tiptoe to find out.
3. Give listeners a dramatic takeaway ending and message. Jesus boggled the minds of His listeners when the dying Jew’s rescuer was not a priest or Levite but a Samaritan who “took pity on him” (Luke 10:33). Jews and Samaritans hated each other yet the Samaritan showed compassion that neither priest nor Levite extended. No doubt, the Pharisees who heard Jesus’ story never forgot it. When Jesus asked them the meaning of His story saying, “Who is my neighbor?” they explained the message to Him accurately: “The one who had mercy on him” (Luke 10:37). Their answer gave Jesus the opportunity He had waited for, saying, “Go and do likewise.”
4. Study the stories Jesus told in Scripture. Jesus’ stories had a captivating beginning, a serious lesson-teaching middle and a surprising (but logical) ending with a deep spiritual takeaway message. We can learn from Him how to creatively tell the gospel of Jesus Christ through story. (Denise George)