Whisperers and Storytellers Part - 2

From Whispers and Storytellers Part 1: "The traditional method of reaching not-yet-Christians has been to bludgeon them into a recognition of how broken they are. To crush their spirit. To tear them down and bring them to their knees. There’s very little genuine friendship happening. When churches do befriend unbelievers it’s often so that they might become Christians. And it’s assumed that the way to become Christian is for them to see how truly bad they are. Surely, not-yet-Christians see how disingenuous this is." 

So how can we whisper into the deepest longings of not-yet-christains?

We can do this by exciting curiosity through storytelling…. 

In Jesus's parables he didn’t seek to explain the words of previous prophets or teachers. There was often no reference to Yahweh. What kind of biblical teaching was this! Stories about a father who welcomes his wayward son back, a woman who turns her home upside down looking for a lost coin, references to shrewd business managers, foolish farmers, and wise investors.

The parables were very surprising forms of religious communication indeed. So surprising were they, in fact, that their meaning was often lost on many, especially those schooled in traditional religious speech. In Matthew 13, his disciples approached Jesus after he had told a story about sowing seed. They asked him, not the meaning of the story, but why he used these quaint stories at all. Jesus replied, “This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing they do not hear or understand’” (Matt. 13:13). In other words, he used parables to veil his meaning, not to make it clearer! Jesus understood that his ministry was fulfilling the prophesy of Isaiah 6:9 that foretold of a time when Israel’s heart would be calloused and her ears clogged and her eyes closed to the truth of God’s grace.

Jesus’ teaching ministry was purposefully cryptic, allowing those who sought answers, rather than those who “had all the answers,” to access the surprising truth of grace. So then he went on to explain the parable of the seed and the sower. By outlining the different types of soil that the seed fell on (the path, the rocky places, the thorny soil, the good soil) he demonstrated something about the different ways people would access his stories. Some would openly dismiss them as silly children’s stories (particularly the Pharisees and scribes), others would be slightly interested for a while, and still others would be tantalized by these strange but wonderful tales.

They would be so intrigued that they would have to enquire further. And as Jesus had already told his disciples earlier, it was this kind of genuine enquiry he was seeking to evoke: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). In our attempts to make the gospel clear, we have often squeezed all the life out of it. Jesus’ parables were intriguing, open to interpretation, playful, interesting.

They provoked people to search further for the truth. Elie Wiesel tells about an editor who once told him, “If you want to hold the reader’s attention, your sentence must be clear enough to be understood and enigmatic enough to pique curiosity. A good piece combines style and substance. It must not say everything—never say everything—while nevertheless suggesting there is an everything.”  

Parables, stories, will be more likely to excite curiosity than propositionally presented outlines of the gospel. In Faith in a Changing Culture , John Drane outlines the importance of storytelling in this day and age. He proposes the importance of using three kinds of stories. First, God’s story. He claims that God is present and actively involved in our world and we should be prepared to tell such stories about him. By this, we take him to mean God’s prevenient grace. Tell your friends about a film you’ve seen where God’s truth was revealed in a particular scene or character. Tell your friends about sunsets, items in the newspaper, and so-called coincidences.

As Drane says, The Bible unhesitatingly affirms that God is constantly at work in the world in many ways, times and places. Evangelism is not about Christians working on God’s behalf because God is powerless without them. Effective evangelism must start with recognizing where God is already at work, and getting alongside God in what is going on there. God’s story, not ours, is the authentic starting point. Second, Drane recommends the use of Bible stories. This might sound like the ultimate conversation stopper, but we have found that at the right time and place, within the context of a strong friendship, the retelling of an ancient biblical story can evoke a great deal of curiosity. And third, he advocates the use of personal stories on the basis of 1 Peter 3:15, “Be prepared to give an answer . . . for the hope that you have.”

While propositions about Jesus are words on a page, stories are events in a life. Drane puts it well: Telling stories demands personal honesty, accepting our weaknesses as well as our strengths. It is only when we reveal ourselves as weak and vulnerable that others will readily identify with us and be able to hear the invitation to join us in following Jesus. Too often, Christian proclamation sounds like a patronizing sermon, in which we, the Christians, are the experts and all others are ignorant. As Karl Barth put it, “When we speak of our virtues we are competitors, when we confess our sins we become brothers.”  - Excerpt from The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch