A Case for Story-Formed Discipleship

After telling the biblical story of Noah to our Missional Community, I noticed that Ayrann wasn’t her normal, boisterous self. We had recently baptized Ayrann. Toward the end of our discussion, Ayrann told us she was utterly wrecked by Noah’s story. All she previously knew of the story was there had been a big flood, a guy named Noah, and pairs of cute animals boarded a boat. She was unprepared for the sadness of the story. The flood wiped out all of humanity, save eight people. Ayrann was sobered by God’s just response to our fist-waving rebellion. As she listened to the discussion, she wrestled with how this was good, right, and perfect. In the end, the depth of her own sin became more real to her, the holiness of God more visceral. The cross that bridges the gap between our sinfulness and God’s holiness just grew much larger in her perspective. That week, she read the story in Genesis for herself, and asked Stephanie questions about it, taking big steps forward in understanding God.

Of course, I could have taught directly on God’s holiness and our sinfulness as concepts and given verses from the Bible as support.  But I don’t think it would have been as effective. Let’s explore why good stories are so powerful…

We’ve all been storyformed from birth. We learn about our nationality, our family history, how our parents met, how our dad always had to walk to school when he was a kid (and how it was inexplicably uphill both ways in the snow), how our brother got that scar on his forehead… all through story, long before we could read.

In fact, many scientists believe a large part of our personalities and the way we look at the world are formed by the time we are four or five. How many of us could read well enough at that age to form our opinions and worldviews through reading? Even the experiences that shape us we seem to remember as stories. By God’s design, we are products of story. Every culture passes on its history and values through story.

Story is our heart language, our native tongue. Though we become literate (which is a gracious gift from God), we don’t loose our heart language of story. Ayrann experienced a teaching and learning method in the language that spoke directly to her. It’s no surprise she was so deeply grieved and motivated to learn.

The Bible is a story—the Story. God, in his sovereignty, made most of the Bible narrative—between 2/3 and 3/4 depending on how you count it.  He even allowed much of the story to be passed on for hundreds of years orally before it was ever written down.  Tim Keller once said,

“Many people think of the Bible as a book of moral teachings with stories sprinkled through to illustrate the teachings. But it’s a lot better than that… the Bible is a single true story with teachings sprinkled through to illustrate the story.”

How should the fact that the Bible is a single true story authored by God affect the way we use it to make disciples?

All the stories we love are inspired by and point to God’s story. Why do we repeatedly go see movies and read books in which good triumphs over evil, victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat and heroes sacrifice to bring life out of certain death? At least in part because they echo the great story of the gospel. Whether we know it or not, our hearts long for that story to be true.

Stories have the power to attract our attention.  A friend once told me that when you are speaking to a crowd, it’s as if everyone in the audience has an internal attention span timer. If you go too long, they begin to tune out. But every time you tell a story, it resets the clock. Has that been your experience? Stories grab our attention in a way other deliveries don’t.

Community promotes storytelling. Think about your conversations with friends after coming back from a vacation. You don’t simply list facts for them, “We stayed at the Hilton. The average high temperature for the week was 95 degrees…”  You tell them stories, “You won’t believe it! It was like an oven outside and this guy came by and…”

Storytelling promotes community. When we know each other’s stories, we feel more connected to each other. And to help people find their place in God’s grand redemptive story, we’ve got to know their stories—we’ve got to know what God has been doing in their lives.

Stories are participatory. They involve us in profound ways. Have you ever found yourself with a knot in your stomach during a movie? Or, do you find yourself talking to the characters in a movie?  “No! Don’t go in there…” Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message Bible, wrote,

“Stories, in contrast to abstract statements of truth, tease us into becoming participants in what is being said. We find ourselves involved in the action. We may start as spectators or critics, but if the story is good (and the biblical stories are very good!), we find ourselves no longer just listening to but inhabiting the story.”

Isn’t it essential to discipleship that we understand we are part of God’s grand story? Not just to imagine ourselves in it but to believe we are in fact part of God’s unfolding redemptive story so that “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Cor 10:31 (ESV)

Stories indirectly challenge worldviews. Stories create a non-threatening way to present and ponder challenges to the way we make sense of the world. We often have our guard up against people and ideas that challenge us directly. Stories invite us into something larger than ourselves and allow us to imagine what was previously unimaginable.

Stories help retention. Weave facts into a great story and people will remember the facts—especially if they retell the story. Stories are much more sticky than lists. Which is easier to remember, the three alliterative points from last Sunday’s sermon or a story the preacher told? We often remember a story told as an illustration but not the point. What if the point was embedded in the story?

Stories create structure. Stories set vocabulary, context, categories, and key ideas. Many have a picture of God as a vindictive tyrant waiting to pounce on those who break his commands. However, after seeing God pursue rebellious humanity over and over through the Story-formed Way, no one leaves with that impression.

The Story-formed Way is an experience of narrative and dialogue that Soma’s Missional Communities use in making disciples. It’s built to show the grand redemptive arc of the biblical narrative and to prepare for ongoing discipleship by at least introducing if not exploring major topics we believe all disciples need. The Story is the framework on which all of the concepts are hung.

Jesus was a storyteller. Once, the disciples approached Jesus and asked him, “’Why do you tell stories?’ Jesus replied, ‘You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. When someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understanding flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight.’” (Mat 13:10-13 MSG)

On the seven mile walk to Emmaus, Jesus talks with two men.  “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself… They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:27,32 NIV)

How did he “open up the scriptures?”  Was Jesus pulling a cart of scrolls down the road with him? Of course not. Jesus likely never owned a copy of the Old Testament—there were very few copies and they were kept exclusively in the synagogues. He told them the Story starting in the beginning. And their hearts burned within them.

Stephen’s speech before he was martyred is another great storytelling example. He retold the Story in his own words to highlight certain facts. Moses, David, Luke, Paul and others told stories to communicate truth about God. We're on good footing to use the Story orally as a way to lay a discipleship foundation.

Most of us learn best through non-literate means. I was shocked by these stats for the US population:Literacy Pie Chart

  • Nearly 50% of people over age 16 have very limited literacy if any at all.
  • 58% of adults never read another book after high school.
  • 42% of college graduates never read another book. 
  • Each day, people in the US spend over 8 hours consuming media via TV, radio or internet.
  • Up to 80% of adults prefer learning through nonliterate means.
  • (Many of these are “secondary oral learners”—they are literate but learn best when information is presented in story form.)

Someone who prefers oral learning…

  • Forms opinions from conversations with friends, film, TV, radio, etc.
  • Learns through stories, anecdotes, proverbs, songs, and practical experiences.

If all we do is hand out books, write blog posts and teach in outlines and lists, 80% of our people won’t really get it—they don’t have the skills or they are not wired that way or both. (Even presenting this information in an article is not nearly as powerful as first experiencing the Story in the context of a gospel-centered community on Jesus’ mission.)

So should we continue to use means that most of our disciples won’t hear because it’s what is most comfortable to us or what we’ve always done? How would the gospel apply to that? Jesus, who considered equality with God not something to be grasped, gave up the comforts of heaven, took on the form of a servant and gave his very life for us.

If the sovereign God who made us in his image, created us story-formed from birth…

If he delivered his Word to us as a single true Story…

If Jesus, the one we are making disciples of, “said nothing to them without a parable.” (Mat 13:34 ESV)…

If the gospel we herald is itself the true story all other stories aspire to…

If all of us learn well, and most of us learn best, through story…

And if by God’s design, stories affect us on every level…

Is there any good reason to not give God’s Story a primary place in how we make disciples?

i Eugene H. Peterson, Introduction to the Book of Jonah, The Message Remix, 2nd Edition (NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2006), 1352.

ii National Assessment of Adult Literacy: A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century.  p. 4. http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2006470 For our purposes, we add into the calculations those who are nonliterate in English who could not complete the assessment.

iii This and the preceding statistic are from Making Disciples of Oral Learners. Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and International Orality Network. Elim Publishing Lima, NY USA. p55.

iv Alex Mindlin. “More Media Time, on Various Screens.” New York Times. Published: April 10, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/11/business/media/11drill.html?_r=1&ref=media

v International Missions Board. Orality Assessment Tool. http://media1.imbresources.org/files/84/8483/8483-46329.doc


Justin Kuravackal leads a Missional Community and is one of the elders of Soma Communities in Tacoma, WA.  He had the privilege to help develop the Storyformed Way and continues to equip MC leaders and others in using the Story of God in making disciples.