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ANALYSIS: Don’t underestimate the power of stories

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Find the common thread in the following items:

— The numerous “newsmagazines” on American television carry little actual news, but attract legions of viewers with their dramatic stories of real people in crisis.

— “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” helped start a war — and end American slavery.

— The “Left Behind” end-times novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are huge bestsellers, drawing millions of readers to consider biblical themes.

— When a teen-age gunman walked into the Columbine High School library last year and asked if anyone believed in God, 17-year-old Christian student Cassie Bernall reportedly replied, “Yes, I believe in God” before she was shot dead. The story of her brave response has sparked a national revival among her generation.

— Kids everywhere still plead nightly: “Mommy, tell me a story.”

What unites these fragments? Stories. Be they simple or profound, fictional or factual, stories retain their age-old power to enthrall. Great stories do much more: They enlighten — and motivate. Children need stories to develop young minds and moral senses. Adults need them to make sense of a seemingly random world.

God’s Word contains the greatest (and truest) story ever told: His saving love for the nations, culminating in the coming of His Son. It continues to transform lives the world over.

It’s no surprise that chronological Bible ‘storying’ — the teaching of God’s salvation through simple Bible stories from Genesis to Jesus — has become one of the most effective modern mission methods in oral cultures that revere storytelling.

Americans respond to stories, too — however sophisticated we think we have become. And when it comes to communicating a message people will embrace in confused postmodern culture, “He who tells the best story wins,” Al Janssen of Focus on the Family told a Christian writers conference last spring. “We have the best story, but we’re not telling it very well. Tell it compellingly and the world will come hear it. … That is our challenge today, to master story.”

Award-winning Christian TV/film producer Phil Cooke had similar advice for listeners at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

“The filmmaker Ingmar Bergman said, ‘Facts go straight to your head. Stories go straight to your heart,'” Cooke recounted.

Yet most Christian television still consists of static, headshot preaching loaded with lingo that only long-time Christians can understand. Likewise, he added, every Sunday “thousands of pastors will step into the pulpit without telling a single story.”

Cooke issued a challenge: “Learn to tell stories that will change people’s lives.”

That’s good advice for any gospel communicator. It’s also wise counsel for mission mobilizers. Gen X missions leader Michael Schwartz explains why today’s young adults respond so positively to missionaries and other Christian servants of their grandparents’ generation:

“Those folks have been trained in telling stories, and we love storytelling. We love them to sit down and tell us their lives and give us great stories of faith, things that are real that happened with them.”

That’s nothing new. Missionary stories of generations or centuries past have long inspired the young to follow their elders’ footsteps into the world. But we need to realize it anew, and tell those stories again.

Reporting about the lost millions is essential, says Florida Baptist Witness editor Michael Chute, formerly the International Mission Board’s missionary correspondent in Asia. But talking about the masses only, he cautions, “tends to dehumanize. It allows audiences and readers to become detached, to look at the ‘forest’ without seeing the ‘trees.’

“The story of missions is not a story of ‘forests,’ but one of ‘trees'” — of people transformed by God.
Read the story of missionary Lottie Moon at: http://www.imb.org/ime/LMCO/LottieBio.htm or http://www.imb.org/IME/lmco.htm.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges