Most leaders communicate with teacher/preacher voices, which can cause a listener's attention to wander. But when we tell a story, people listen differently.
As the pastor started the sermon one recent Sunday morning, I began fixating on my shoes. Why did I choose them this morning? Why are they even in my closet? And what about my shockingly white ankles? Really, I should not go out in public unless I use that self-tanning lotion. What is the one my daughter uses?
I was totally absorbed in my critical self analysis… until the pastor began telling her story about trying to climb Half Dome in Yosemite. Within seconds, I was drawn into her narrative with funny descriptions about how unprepared she was, how little she knew about the journey and her regrettable decision to turn around just short of the summit because she didn’t know what awaited her at the top. I could smell the pine trees and feel the burn of her aching muscles.
Skillfully, she wove spiritual truths into this story that turned out to be a description of her faith journey, and I left church that day—not thinking about my shoes or ankles—but motivated to learn more about the summit of my faith: heaven.
I also felt more connected to my pastor because of her revealing honesty, which gave me permission to be equally honest regarding my own lack of knowledge and doubts about heaven. I was not alone. Her story triggered great conversations with my husband and friends, not only on the way out of church, but throughout the next week. I remembered her story.
Most leaders are used to communicating with teacher/ preacher voices, especially in Christian settings, which can send a listener’s attention straight to her ankles. But when we tell a story, people listen differently.
Story has the power to motivate and engage. Story helps us to know God, ourselves and each other more intimately. The word story actually means “to know.” And we all have an insatiable hunger to know and be known. Surely God breathed that need into our souls at creation so that we would seek to be in close relationship with him and each other.
We see this hunger lived out in our culture today. We are experiential people who want to know how others face challenges, make choices and experience the consequences. That’s why reality TV is so popular. That’s why Oprah plops people down on her couch to tell their bizarre or heart- wrenching stories. It’s what makes us sneak People magazine off the rack at the checkout counter to quickly catch up on the details of some celebrity’s experience.
The power of stories is nothing new. God tells us about himself through stories. In fact, seventy percent of the Bible is made up of stories. Jesus told stories about ordinary things such as shepherds and farmers, lost sheep and a lost son. As postmodern people, we demand communication that is both experiential and authentic.
“Experience is one of the primary languages of postmodern culture,” writes Mark Miller in his book Experiential Storytelling. “This has vast implications for the Church. Spiritually, it means that people are more open and ready than ever to experience the mystery and awesome power of God.”
Stories have the power to make God and faith more real to us. Intellectually I might know that God desires good to grow out of every difficult circumstance, but that truth becomes more real when I hear a story of someone who survived a painful divorce and discovered she was capable of far more than she ever imagined. The message becomes, “if she can find good in hard things, maybe I can too.”
Stories have power because they motivate us to change. They package life lessons in narratives that are easily remembered. While many forms of communication tell us what to think, stories allow us to draw our own conclusions. And we are most motivated by what we discover for ourselves.
No wonder stories have gentle power with not-yet-believers. Regardless of where someone is on a faith journey, a story is non-threatening. It doesn’t ask anything of the listener except to listen. No one can argue the truth of a personal experience. Stories also connect us with each other. They become windows into each other’s souls.
Written by Carol Kuykendall