A Better Story: Telling Stories to a Story–Hungry Culture

Editors’ note: 

Telling stories is a really powerful way that our culture transmits morals and norms. They communicate the experience of people and engaging our emotions

Child Story Flickr Elliot Margolies

The notion of story-telling in evangelism has been a growing focus in evangelical circles in the UK and Australia for the last few years. The first time I remember reading about it was in ‘Everyday Church’ by Tim Chester and Steve Timmins.

For a long time, and probably for a lot of people still, when we think about evangelism it has been more about apologetics to rationally answer questions about Christianity and the Bible, and learning how to recite the ‘Two ways to live’ and other neat gospel outlines. These are great things to be familiar with, and especially in my area of ministry working with students these are useful tools in answering objections of logic and rationality. Christians need to know why they believe what they believe and how to communicate that to others. It’s very important!

Yet, two weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to The Evangelism Conference at All Souls in London on the topic of ‘A Better Story’. The talks were based on the idea that telling stories is a really powerful way that our culture transmits morals and norms which is what the main speaker Glynn Harrison explores in his book A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing.

In his opening address, John Stevens introduced why this is an issue for the way that we talk about the gospel. It basically comes down to the power that stories have in our culture to communicate the experience of people and engage our emotions. We empathise and identify with stories, which can mean that thinking critically and objecting to things expressed in them becomes—not just rejecting ideas and choices, but the people described in those stories. 

An Emotional Plea

This is a special concern for evangelicals because evangelical Christianity is partly a product of the enlightenment, and so stresses rational and logical thought. Because of this heritage, we have failed to respond to the romantic impulse that has been a big part of our culture since Victorian times. We are really good at rationality, but we can be suspicious of emotions and this plays out in the way we do church and evangelism.

Stevens went on to show how stories are really central to the way the Bible is written, and how the gospel is presented in it. Scripture engages the emotions, but also requires emotional engagement by calling us to accept or reject the claims about Jesus. Stevens ended with an encouragement to tell the gospel story as a story. He challenged us to admit to those times we have been more interested in how the Bible works rather than what it is saying, and argued that considering the Bible’s story will help us to engage with it better.

In the keynote address, Glynn Harrison went on to explore these ideas in the context of how we and our culture talk and think about sex. He started with the sexual revolution, and how the story of freedom it told has made it so compelling to so many people. That story said we could find our true selves if we looked at our inner self and expressed it. It was a compelling moral vision because it promised freedom and authenticity. He challenged us, as Christians, about how we will respond to this attractive story being told to every person in our culture.

The Story of Sex

Harrison suggests that Christians have been very good at communicating what we’re against when it comes to sex, but not great at articulating what we are for. I think many of us can relate to this. Even if we ourselves have grown up being told that sex as God designed it is a good thing, we probably know many people who are under the impression that the God of the Bible hates sex. That sex is a dirty, necessary evil for the purpose of reproduction. But this is far from the story the Bible tells. We see a beautiful narrative across the Bible of God as a creator and a lover of his creation, and the metaphor of husband and wife is used throughout the Old Testament to describe God’s love for his people. In the New Testament, Jesus is talked about as the bridegroom, and the church as the bride. Throughout the Bible, marriage is used as a picture of the gospel story, of God and his people. It’s such a beautiful understanding of our God, and the way he has made us as men and women to have these marriage relationships which, when they are good, give us a taste of God’s love for us.

A Compelling Vision

It’s this understanding of the Bible’s vision for sex and marriage that I find the most compelling when we’re talking about what Christian marriage looks like. That it’s a man and woman, living as image bearers of God, showing this picture of God’s love for us. Of course as sinful humans living in a broken world we often don’t experience sex and marriage in the way it is designed. But what a greater reason it is to long for the perfect relationship with our God in the new creation where everything will be as it was designed to be. We have a story that ultimately give us the freedom and flourishing that our culture is so hungry for.

Harrison gave some great applications of how to tell our stories to others in way which connects the gospel vision of sex and marriage to people’s experiences of it. I would outline them here, although I suspect that it would spoil reading his book, so I won’t.

I found thinking about story telling again at the Evangelism Conference very compelling. I think there is a lot we can learn from telling the gospel story as we connect with the story of others, and our own personal testimonies. It’s no surprise really, since God is the ultimate author. He wrote the story of the world, and he has had the story of salvation planned since the beginning. Let’s share that story with others.

Photos (from top): kateperegrinate, Elliot Margolies; flickr