What do you do when you get together with friends? You start with story. What do you do when you return from vacation? Do you pull out the agenda from the cruise and walk them through a list of what you did? No, you share story. How do you explain your childhood to your kids? Story. It is almost impossible to separate storytelling from the fabric of relationship. We like to tell stories and hear stories. Sharing them is the foundation of relationship. And yet, we often fail to share the story of the scriptures in the same natural way. If story is the way we share how our day went, why is it not the form in which we clarify the gospel? If story is the way we instruct our children in the way they should live, why don't we become storytellers to instruct disciples in the way of obedience. We like stories as illustrations in sermons to clarify meaning but fail to see the story of Scripture as the place to find meaning. I want to call us back to narrative. I invite us to become gospel storytellers. The Bible is nearly two-thirds narrative. It is the story of God. We ought to share it.
Stories are Where We Go for Meaning
"What is the meaning of life?" is the timeless question. It is the question asked in Micah 6:8: "What is required of man?" It is Aristotle’s question: "How should a man lead his life?" Historically, humanity has answered this question through philosophy, science, religion, and art. The first three have failed us or been disregarded. No one reads Plato outside of homework and cramming for exams. We are tired of science’s polished but empty answers. Religion is a place of hypocrisy, ritual, and superstition. The world of cynics has rejected all but the art and story is the dominant art form:
The world now consumes films, novels, theatre, and television in such quantities and such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source for inspiration. Robert McKee, Story.
Many of the stories we hear and tell fall short of the meaning of life. As a society, we are beyond the myth of progressive human progress. We have far too many evils to remind us we aren’t getting better. The depravity of the world is our base assumption and our human hunch is that life was not supposed to be this way. Stories try to explain the way forward through this mess. However, void of the gospel story, our neighbors hears some variation of this plot: you can fix your problems, if we are creative, courageous, and smart enough. The meaning of life in contemporary stories is: you are the center of the problem and the solution. The story, or life, is about you. However, the gospel is the story of God for you, for your life. The story of a gracious and just God who goes to great lengths to save and redeem those who don't deserve it. The story of God gives humanity a new identity, meaning, and purpose.
Stories are Where We Turn for Guidance
Kenneth Burke said, “Stories are equipment for living.” We model our own life choices on the stories we believe are best or the stories we wish to avoid. We hear how things worked and didn’t work in the years before and make adjustments. We learn from how our older siblings stories and model our own lives after them. Not only do my parents and teachers have major impact on forming the way I wanted to live, but so did Huck Finn, Bill Huxtable, the Box Car Children, and the group from Saved by the Bell. These stories and characters instructed and formed my proper view of living. They taught me how to live adventurously, with integrity, and even how to ask a girl out on a date. They do so, because we connect with the characters. We witness what they witness, we experience what they do. Stories are shaped in the reality of the world. They reflect what is true of us and our surroundings. As we listen to a story, it informs how we live. How does the story of the Bible inform how you live? What would it look like to have life shaped by the gospel story and bring others into that story?
Stories are the Glue of Community
Stories form and hold groups of people together. They are the folklore shared, the background , and the history of our greatest triumphs over our most challenging days. The inside jokes, the shared experiences turned lifelong memories, and anything that follows “remember that one time” binds communities together. The stories a community shares are the stories that define it. If the story is one of independence and self-reliance, the community will be shaped by this. If the common story is one of pleasure and riches, it will be defined by this, too. If the community's story is one of hope, grace, and love, it will be characterized by hope, grace, and love.
The Good Story
Robert McKee, the self proclaimed story guru of the 21st century, writes that "a good story tells the world something it wants to hear and it's the artists job to figure out what it wants to hear." The gospel is that good story. It is the story of what the world needed but didn't deserve being given by God through Christ. It is the story of true acceptance, adoption, belonging, gifts, overcoming the destruction and devastation of this world. Eugene Peterson explains this well:
Stories are the most prominent biblical way of helping us see ourselves in ‘the God story,’ which always gets around to the story of God making and saving us. 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.
The gospel is a story not a list of facts. It is the story about God redeeming, rescuing, and recreating his creation. The story of God taking it upon himself to save us from death and bring us to life. The gospel is the true story and only trustworthy account for what has been done to redeem the world. The story is good news. The gospel is the compelling story that doesn’t fall flat on meaning. The story that satisfies our longings for purpose and joy. It is the greatest story because it instructs us in how to live with faith and in close relationship with God. Furthermore, it creates a community. The story of God makes a new people characterized by grace, because the story is about grace. The community is centered around God because the story is about God. This is a story the world wants and needs to hear.
Her family tree mostly produced problems. Its fruit wasn't peppered with convicts or crazies, just disappointments: neglected homes, broken promises, and abandoned children. The residue of family pain was silent relationships. She knew at an early age that everything would be uphill for her and no one was going to carry her. Whatever she gained would be by her sweat. Whatever the costs, she would pay. She was raised religiously in what to do and how to do it. She knew the right things to do but was never told the story.
One evening, she came to our home for our community's weekly meal and story time. We shared and engaged the story of the early church (Acts 2). We shared the story of God's adoption of us and the creation of the church. It was story-time. In the middle, Sheryl asked, "I've never heard this story, but is the church a family? All I've heard is God wants us to do stuff for him and live right, this story sounds like God loves us like children." My wife explained, "Church is family. We are a family. Even when we are not together we are the family. But all good families get together, catch up, share stories, and live life together."
Sheryl was raised to know the right things to do and the bullet points of theology. She was never told the story of the Gospel. The story she had believed was one of self-reliance and moral behavior. She found meaning in it and had accepted this story for her life. But it wasn't the true story. We had the blessing of sharing the story of God with her. Unfortunately, most of the people we live around and work with don't know the gospel story, either. They may know some of the points, or some of the characters, but they haven't heard the story. Like Sheryl, they need to hear it and engage. Be a storyteller to them!
Become a Storyteller
How do you become a gospel storyteller?
- Begin by knowing it as a story. Read it, listen to it, and engage it in conversation with us. Place yourself in the narrative, not as the hero but as the everyman.
- Ask of the story? If this were true, how would it change my life, community, city?
- Participate in the Story-Formed Way created by Soma Communities.
- Speak it. The best way to learn is to share it and try!
- Share your life story and how it is really part of God's story.
Brad Watson serves as a pastor of Bread&Wine Communities in Portland, Oregon. He is also the director of GospelCenteredDiscipleship.com. Brad is the co-author of Raised? Doubting the Resurrection. His greatest passion is to encourage and equip leaders for the mission of making disciples. He is Mirela’s husband and Norah’s dad. Twitter: @BradsStories
Read more on story-formed discipleship: A Story of Gospel Community by Seth Mcbee.