Mission Storytelling: How Your Story Can Become the Community's Story
Tell me a story. I love to hear that from my grandkids. Story time is not just for kids, though. I participated in the first Airshow: The Workshop with Horace Dediu where I learned to apply analysis, presentation, and technology and disciplines of peer review to improve my storytelling skills. It was very engaging. I blended the storytelling principles from Horace with my own work.
The Apostle Paul excitedly proclaimed the power of the story when he wrote, But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it? That’s why Scripture exclaims, 'A sight to take your breath away! Grand processions of people telling all the good things of God!'" (Rom. 10:11-15 The Message).
Storytelling is as old as language. I imagine you can recall stories from your earliest memories. We know how wonderful it is to tell stories. Songs, poems, and rhymes are delightful ways to share stories with our children. In the beginning, created in the image of God, we had our voice. God sent us on a mission so important, that images, symbols, music, and later, sophisticated writing, then tools, were all employed to help us tell God's story; our stories. Stories of hope, joy, and triumph. Stories of pain, sorrow, and death. Stories conveyed life, growth, and framed the emerging future.
God's story of life and purpose became a story incarnate in Jesus Christ. The logos of God became human. The story was visible, audible and transferable. Shared with the Twelve, the Seventy, and the thousands, Jesus' story became the empowered story built on the cascading events of Jesus' death, resurrection, appearances, ascension, and promised return. The Spirit's indwelling at Pentecost ensured that empowered storytellers would keep the story going.
We intuitively recognize the power of the story. Now, science is helping us understand why storytelling is effective. Dr. Keith Oatley, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Toronto, found that stories can produce a simulation of reality that runs analogous to simulation on computers. We know how the performing arts including theater, dance, and music can engage the audience. Visual arts like cinema, and digital gaming and social media can be so completely immersive that the messages conveyed in the stories have persistent stickiness. Effective storytelling engages people so completely that behaviors change, emotions change, and futures can change.
Jesus' story (like so many other stories int he biblical narratives) became the apostle Paul's story because it was transformative. It was conveyed to Paul on the road to Damascus through blinding light, dramatic voice, and immersive experience resulting in redirection. Paul was changed, and his story became the Roman's story, too. Paul persuaded the Roman's to keep the story going. Jesus' message of good news constituted a lifesaving relationship that changed lives. It was a story of impact, drama, and engagement. It was a story worth telling in every way possible.
The story is for everyone. The story must be deeply heard to be trusted. The story must be credibly told to be heard. The story must be clearly sent through a storyteller.
Our Presbyterian story had tremendous impact on the world because Reformation leaders harnessed the new technology of Gutenburg's printing press, for example, to tell their story on an incredible scale. Today, digital communication, social media, and mobile devices continue to be available to the church to increase the clarity, reach, and impact of the story God created us to tell. The Apostle Paul's vision is still being realized when he wrote of a, "sight to take your breath away! Grand processions of people telling all the good things of God!"
Storytelling is the task of the church. How can your story be more effectively conveyed to achieve measurable impact? How can your unique story become the story of your community, and the story of individuals and families across the street, and around the world?
Storytelling in Three Acts
When individuals gather as a congregation, the story of unique individuals becomes the church's story, too. How can we pay better attention to that story? Your church's story is more than theological or liturgical. It includes the story told through our building and grounds outside, and the feeling people get when they are welcomed inside. It is the story of satisfaction in ministry, energized to make the world different. To have life-changing impact, God's story cab resonate deeply through your story using three components of persuasive storytelling: Empathy (Greek: pathos ), Credibility (Greek: ethos ), and Logic (Greek: logos).
Act One: Empathy
Empathy is rooted deep within the DNA of your church, but it can be developed, and improved, through learning. Understanding and clarifying your church's values and priorities, and also understanding others values and priorities is essential to effective storytelling; storytelling that can transform lives. When the story is all about the storyteller, little empathy is expressed, and impact on others is marginal. Self-referential storytelling is rarely interesting and usually ineffective. However, when the storyteller pays attention to others, and captures the experiences, emotions, and context of the hearers within the story, empathy rises which empowers life-changing behaviors.
"Don't talk to their minds, talk to their hearts." -Nelson Mandela
Congregational Empathy in Practice: What is going on in your community? What do you see, and hear? What are young people concerned about? What are business leaders concerned about? Gaining understanding, seeking answers to these kinds of questions, can increase the empathy expressed in your ministry. From the perspective of others, what one change or improvement would offer the greatest benefit that your church's ministry could be engaged with?
Act Two: Credibility
Credibility is mostly learned and acquired, but is connected to the church's experience. Some churches have credibility accrued from their historical community relationship. More than a few congregations are depicted on a town's official seal, or represented on physical and digital community marques. Though historical integrity is critical, it raises the bar of expectation. If a congregation's recent credibility is not congruent with its reputation, significant challenges must be addressed.
Credibility refers to the church's character. Character is what we do when no one is looking. It is the story that is told when we aren't trying to intentionally tell a story. Credibility expresses itself in-between the lines of our mission narratives. Obtaining credibility is one thing. Projecting it authentically is another. A church's credibility speaks louder than words.
"Preach the good news. If you must, use words." -St. Francis of Assisi
Congregational Credibility in Practice. How would you describe the internal pulse of your church? What is the level of satisfaction experienced by those individuals who are gathered and sent every week? What is the energy level of your leaders? What are the forces that motivates your behaviors, informs your decisions, and is reflected in your worship and mission? In thinking deeply about your responses to these kinds of questions, consider how your internal assessment matches the perception of others. How is your inner life conveyed to those outside? Learning from the continuities and discontinuities in your character story can improve your church's credibility in its mission.
Act Three: Logos
The Greeks highly valued logic, but their word Logos was much more than connecting the dots and completing a thought. It represented the essence of one's identity that pointed to a future destination, result, or outcome. The logos of a church represents its purpose and gives evidence of its direction. Understanding is important, and credibility is essential, but when a church demonstrates logos, it has a meaningful, aspirational, relevant, direction it is heading towards. Your church's logos addresses the Why? for your church. In the incarnation, God's logos, essence of intention, was incarnated (enfleshed, embodied) into our neighborhood for a particular purpose. God's story took up residence to accomplish something, in fact, many things. The incarnation was not a travel destination to our planet, but a relevant destination to redeem our planet.
"We should try to be the parents of our future rather than the offspring of our past." -Miguel de Unamuno
Congregational Logos in Practice. Why do you go to church? It may seem like an odd question to ask, but when you consider the energy invested into your ministry, and its outcomes, its important to connect the dots, and not just passively observe where they may be leading, but intentionally connecting and reconnecting dots so that your ministry achieves its unique purpose. Why do you serve in ministry? Why is your building on the corner? What does your budget reveal about what matters to you? Considering your responses to logos questions can help you connect the dots pointing to your preferred future. Understanding your church's purpose and the relevance of your ministry can inform your allocation of resources, align your priorities, and promote courageous storytelling.
There are many resources available to develop empathy, earning credibility through character, and ensuring that your story is relevant, aligned to God's Story, the greatest story ever told.
I am grateful to Horace for the inspiration and skills training to use analysis, cinema, and technology to tell compelling stories. Check out Perspective in the AppStore, the live storytelling tool I learned to use. Keep practicing your storytelling. Your message is worth it.