Tag Archives: Narrative

When our heroes have become too small

Every culture, organisation and church has a prevailing myth that tells the story of who we are and what we value.  And every myth is held up and carried along by its heroes.  These are the human vessels that carry our ideals, our dreams, our aspirations.  These are the men and women who put flesh onto our values.  They are the ones who have succeeded in living the ideals and the dreams we hold to in some significant way.

What is the prevailing myth in your church?  Who are the prevailing heroes in your church? Meditate on this for a while.  The question is not what should be the prevailing myth in your church or who should be the heroes in your church.  The question is; what IS the myth and who ARE the heroes?

We say mission drives our church but yet we spend most of our energy and time on maintaining our existing structures and programmes.  We say we want to see our community reached for Christ but yet we employ numerous staff members whose primary responsibility is to care for us and our needs through teaching, youth work or kids programmes.  We say we serve Jesus and not money and yet we create an elaborate system of church which requires a large amount of money to keep it going.  We create a system that actually hinders us from mission rather than propels us forward into mission.  We speak about what we think ought to be the prevailing myth but yet so often our lives are driven by a darker, less obvious shadow myth.

Who are the heroes in our church communities?  The dashing youth leader?  The talented musician?  The eloquent preacher?  The brilliant exegete? The successful business man? Any defining myth we create is carried forward by its heroes.  If you truly want to know what the defining myth of your community is then ask yourself who are your heroes?

The bible teacher as hero betrays the myth that knowledge about God is our functional salvation story.  Bible college is seen as the ultimate experience for young Christians.   The worship leader as hero betrays the myth that the high that shared experiences bring is our functional Saviour.  The successful business man as hero betrays the myth that we will find happiness or significance through money and success.  The family man or stay at home mom or home-school parent as hero betrays the myth that family is the most important thing in the world.  All these heroes and myths contains some truth but as is the case with all great lies, the object of truth has been stretched to breaking point, beyond it’s ability to hold the disproportionate value we have placed upon it.

What if the myth that defined our church really was the gospel.  The gospel of Him who left all the security, the pleasure and the comfort of heaven to lay down His rights, his preferences, His desires in order to serve us.  To become one of us.  To die for us.  What if the myth that defined our values, dreams and aspirations was this gospel story?  What if our goal was sacrifice and not comfort?  Risk and not security? Service and not pleasure?

What if our lives were defined not by our rights or our pleasures but instead were marked as those who joined their story with the great Story, who laid down their lives for the True Myth, who become heroes in the Ultimate Adventure and who risked it all for a share in the Kingdom of our Great King.  What if we really were known as the friend of sinners, the defender of the vulnerable, the light in the darkness, the peacemakers, the kind and the just?

What if we really did believe that a man’s life did not consist in the abundance of his possessions?  What if we really did believe that it is more blessed to give than to receive?  What if we really did believe that our Father in heaven will clothe and feed us as he does the flowers of the field and the birds of the air?  What if we really did believe that our God is a good God and that his Kingdom is better than all the pleasures and joys the kingdom of this world has to offer? What if we really did believe that the gospel is true?

I am not reaching for some utopian ideal of church.  I know that anything we touch this side of Jesus’ return will be marked by our brokenness and sin.  What we need though is honesty, an honesty robust enough to admit that our defining myths are too small.  We have shrunk the kingdom vision into easily containable chunks that we can use to control our lives.  Our heroes have become too small and our dreams are too reasonable.

We have shrunk the Kingdom to a coke lite, kid friendly version of the world, without the sex, drugs and swearing.  We need an honesty that leads us not to self-inflicted lynchings of guilt but an honesty that admits that we have been living for the wrong myth and inspired by the wrong heroes.  Our myth is sadly most often the coke-lite version of the world, without the sex, drugs and swearing.

We need an honesty that inspires us to join our story with the Great Story, to give up our small ambitions and our small dreams.  We need heroes that inspire us not to greater church attendance but who lead us to far wilder, less safe and more beautiful places where only our faith and our hope in the Great King can ever hope to sustain us.  For it there that we will win glory for His Name and find the life we so desperately crave.  “ For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35)

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The Story of God, The Story of Us

the-story-of-god-300x450I loved Sean Gladding’s “The Story of God,  the Story of Us.” Firstly it was well written, this is a big plus for me.  I am seriously surprised at how many badly written books there out there.  People who are good speakers or who have good things to say should not necessarily write books.  Sean Gladding I am glad(ding) to say can most definitely write.

The Story of God, the Story of Us is a creative and mostly faithful retelling of the Biblical narrative.  The Story is retold from within two other stories.  The narrator who himself narrates a story is a clever literary device, which Gladding uses well, to enable the author to compress the story, provide bridges between disparate parts of the story, move out of chronological sequence and insert editorial comments.  All without breaking from the fictional-historical story context.

The Old Testament story is set in the context of the Babylonian exile.  The people are angry, confused and questioning God.  The old storyteller, a member of the first group of exiles, has not forgotten the Story of God and he now retells it to a people struggling to understand who they are and why their God has abandoned them.  Each chapter is set a week apart on the eve of the next Sabbath.

The New Testament story is told by a leader of a Christian household church, in an unnamed city to her own church as they struggle with the persecution and economic marginalisation that their Christian faith has brought them.  They have also just witnessed the public martyrdom of one of their own.  Central to this story is a wealthy non-Christian merchant who has been invited to share a meal and listen to the story.

I loved the freshness of this approach.  I loved the human element that Gladding weaves throughout the story.  Gladding is not afraid to weave lengthy portion of Scriptures throughout his narrative, and this gives the book real depth to go with Gladding’s obvious ability to craft narrative.

The only criticisms I have is that (1) for the New Testament sections, Gladding chooses to quote extensively from The Message, which I do not always find that great from a stylistic point of view.  Sometimes Eugene Peterson tries too hard to be creative.  (2) Gladding obviously holds certain views very tightly, like egalitarianism for instance.  At some points in the narrative Gladding forces these view into the narrative, giving them an emphasis that is out of proportion to their place in the story.  It feels forced and is below a writer of Gladding’s skill.  It has the feel of one who does not trust either the biblical narrative or his constructed narrative to say what it wants to say.

Some Favourite Quotes from Experiential Storytelling

ImageI previously posted this review on Mark Miller’s Experiential Storytelling: [Re]Discovering Narrative to Communicate God’s Message.  While the book left quite a bit to be desired, Miller can be quite quotable, and includes some great quotes from others too.

“Storytelling is powerful because it has the ability to touch human beings at a most personal level. While facts are viewed from the lens of a microscope, stories are viewed from the lens of the soul. Stories address us on every level. They speak to the mind, the body, the emotions, the spirit and the will. In a story a person can identity with situations he or she has never been in. The individual’s imagination is unlocked to dream what was previously unimaginable.” (33)  (While this may be overstating the case and creating a little bit of an unhelpful dichotomy between facts and story, nevertheless it does capture the value of story well.)

“People can argue doctrine and theology.  They can even sit with arms crossed listening to someone’s convincing reasons why they should believe.  But when powerful stories begin to be told, and when a person can identify with another person’s journey, the arms drop, the defensiveness wanes, and a receptive ear is gained.” (37)

“Stories can hold the complexities of conflict and paradox,” Annette Simmons (38)

“A sermon tells people what to think.  A story forces people to do the thinking for themselves.  It can feel dangerous because it allows for interpretation.  But one of the adjectives used to describe the Holy Spirit is “counsellor.”  Do we trust our people and the Holy Spirit enough to allow them to think for themselves?  Can we leave something open-ended, knowing that conclusions might not come until later that day, week, month, or year?  Can we allow people to own the stories?  Or do we do all of the interpretation and leave nothing to the imagination?” (41)

“Regardless of whether one considers this good or bad, for this generation, aesthetics counts more than epistemology.”  William Dyrness (55)

“The imagination is among the chief glories of being human.  When it is healthy and energetic, it ushers us into adoration and wonder, into the mysteries of God.  When it is neurotic and sluggish, it turns people, millions of them, into parasites, copycats and couch potatoes.”  Eugene Peterson (Under the Predictable Planet) (63)

Mark Miller: Experiential Storytelling

ImageAt the back of Mark Miller’s “Experiential Storytelling: [Re]Discovering Narrative to Communicate God’s Message” was a link to a website for further resources, ideas etc.  When I pointed my browser in search of said website I was informed that I was now free to purchase this domain name, which I took to mean that the website was now defunct.  What I did find however, was a review by Steve McCoy, so I thought I would have a quick peek to see what he said before I posted my own thoughts.

How annoying to find that not only did Steve say everything I wanted to say… but I am sure he said it better.  So rather than clog the already crowded internet with more of the same I thought I would rather cut some thoughts from Steve’s review and point you to the rest of the blog post if you want more.

“I expected more.  It was a fast read, with not a great deal of content.  The book did spark some interesting questions in my head and I learned a few things along the way, but by the end I felt like it never took me where I needed to go.  It never got me into “aha!” stuff.  It never solidified anything I was already thinking. 

It’s possible the issue is partially with me, but the book is explained as a book about “rediscovering narrative,” and I didn’t read it that way.  I felt the point the book ultimately made was to emphasize “sensory” stories over “verbal” stories.  Verbal has a role for Miller, but for this book at least it’s a diminished one.

I think the book serves better as a tool for helping a handful of youth leaders supplement their normal communication of the truth with creative experiences.  Because of the work it would entail, these youth leaders would probably need to be in large churches with lots of youth and a sizeable budget.”

You can read Steve’s whole review here

What is Storying?

Previously I wrote about why I thought story was a key missional practice in reaching and effectively discipling both traditionally oral and functionally non-literary hearers.  In literary societies the priority lies mainly with the teller, we read books and attend lectures or sermons by experts.  However in a non-literary context, “The missional mind-set places the priority on the hearer, not the teller.”[1]

This is not to discount the role of the storyteller or relativize all truth to purely subjective experience.  There is objective truth but there is also a subjective interaction and appropriation of that truth to the individual and a community.  Storying invites an interaction with an objectively true biblical story in such a way that those who participate are learning, discussing and engaging with the story firstly at a subjective level that invites them to consider whether this story fits with their experience of the world.  If it does they must then consider whether it is objectively true.

But what does it “look like” to do Biblical storying?[2]

REWRITE the biblical story keeping close to the biblical details but looking to simplify (e.g. remove details like place names, less significant people etc) and highlight repetition, turning points, tension and eventual resolution.  This is not a creative retelling (e.g. modernised setting), although this type of story may be helpful in itself; negatively it detract from the biblical text and limits reproducibility.  The average story ought to be about three minutes long.

REVIEW: Begin each storying session with a review of the previous story or stories as a group.  “Who can remember the story we did the last time?”  Try not to move on to the new story until everyone is up to speed.

TELL: Tell the story from beginning to end, resist the temptation to stop and add extra information or explain something. Stick to the story!  Be real and natural.  Be yourself, relax and have fun.  Use your voice to “explain” the story- change the tone, pace, volume as the story requires.  Do not read the story- tell the story.  Storying works best when the storyteller memorizes the story.

RETELL the story as a group asking everyone to participate in the retelling.  You could also retell it in pairs or smaller groups, or even have one person attempt to retell the story with help from the group.  To literary learners this may seem redundant and they may be tempted to skip this step.  Oral learners are comfortable with repetition and this is a key step for aiding memory and creating a reproducible story culture.

REFLECT: The storyteller leads the group in a time of dialogue and reflection on the story. This is not the time for the teacher to preach or for the expert to engage in a Question and Answer time.  This is a time to guide listeners to discover the truths in the story NOT from YOU.   For those of us who are teachers, this requires us to let go of our need to be the expert and allow the Bible story to do its work through the group’s reflection on the story. The teacher will aim to direct the group with a few well-chosen thoughts or questions.

The leader will always simultaneously look to direct questions back to the story and redirect questions back to the group.  Learning to ask the right kind of questions is a key skill for this to work well.  Learning to be patient is also key; allow time for people to process, for differing opinions, tensions, questions and wondering.  This is not a curriculum; this is not a rush to see who learnt the most from the story and who can get the right answers.  Storying is an invitation to reflect, to meditate, to wonder and to enter the world of the story and explore it, pick it up, turn it over, take it apart, put it back together and as we do that to God’s story, the Holy Spirit does the same thing to us.

Mark Miller says it well:

“A sermon tells people what to think.  A story forces people to do the thinking for themselves.  It can feel dangerous because it allows for interpretation… Do we trust people and the Holy Spirit enough to allow them to think for themselves?  Can we leave something open-ended, knowing the conclusions might not come until later that day, week, month or year?  Can we allow people to own the stories?  Or do we do all of the interpreting and leave nothing to the imagination?… In our attempts to make the Gospel clear, we have often squeezed the life out of it.  Jesus’ parables were intriguing, open to interpretation, playful, interesting.”[3]


[1] Mark Miller: Experiential Storytelling (Zondervan: 2003); p45 cited in Tim Chester: “Bible Teaching in Missional Perspective” Porterbrook Network (Advanced Year Module); Unit 6: Introducing Storytelling, p54.

[2] Drawing from Tim Chester: “Bible Teaching in Missional Perspective” Porterbrook Network (Advanced Year Module); Unit 6: Introducing Storytelling, p61.  And Caesar Kalinowski: Story of God Training

[3] Mark Miller: Experiential Storytelling (Zondervan: 2003); p37,41 cited in Tim Chester: “Bible Teaching in Missional Perspective” Porterbrook Network (Advanced Year Module); Unit 6: Introducing Storytelling, p63.

Why Story?

Storying is a well-established practice used by missionaries in the non-Western world.  In non-literary or oral cultures story-telling is the normative manner in which information is taught and cultural and religious values and beliefs are transmitted.  Stories are simple, repeatable and often told.  In the last 100 years (as far as I can work out) there has been a growing realisation that this is the best form of discipleship and evangelism in these cultures.

In the last 20 years or so there has been a growing realisation that story and story-telling is a methodology not just for the non-western world but one that is equally at home within a changing western world.  And we have seen the rise of storying within the post-modern, young, organic, emerging, cynical western church.  As with all movements storying is a mixed bag- some use it as an alternative to objective truth, Biblical inerrancy or authority of elders.  But I am an evangelical, comfortable with objective truth, subjective interpretation and hold to the Bible as the inerrant, sufficient, authoritative and inspired word of God.

Here are a couple of reasons why I think storying can work in our context:

1. The universal connection to story

There is something about story that has an almost universal connection.  Recently while discussing books and movies with the bartender at my local, I commented how he really knew his stuff.  His reply; “I just love narrative!”  Story rather than bare facts connects us to other human beings and opens us up to events and experiences bigger or other than ourselves.  Stories capture the imagination, fuel our dreams, break our hearts and help us to understand our world.  When old friends get together they normally tell the same old stories (with much embellishment), everyone knows what happened, how they end and who did what but everyone is caught up in the same old stories- laughing, correcting, denying details.  It is the stories that bind the group together and give them a collective memory and a collective identity.  Donald Miller notes; “I don’t know why we need stories but we always have.”[1]

2. The Bible is full of narrative

Approximately 70% of the Bible is narrative.  Furthermore although the Bible is undoubtedly a written work much of the teaching described in the Bible is non-literate in form.  When their children asked about the meaning of the Mosaic law the Israelites were told to tell them the story of the Exodus (Deuteronomy 6:20-25).  God built story-telling into the fabric of Israelite society (Joshua 4:4-7).  Jesus himself taught primarily it would seem through stories.  “If we are to allow the genres of Scripture to shape our teaching then stories will be a significant part of our communication.”[2]

3. The Bible is a story

Although the Bible contains different genres and many different human authors it all works together to tell one story.   The Bible clearly attempts to give us a meta-narrative (big story) through which we may understand our own place in the big story.  It has a clear beginning and moves throughout a drama set over thousands of years to a climax with the coming of God’s King towards an as yet unresolved but anticipated ending with the renewal of all things.  Interwoven into this big story are hundreds of little stories, laws, poems, songs, sermons and well thought out rational discourses, which all find their context, depth and significance when they are seen within the big story of the Bible.

4. We are in Africa

Much has been written of the success of storying in non-literary (or non-literate) oral cultures.  The majority of people in our country are non-literate learners; they are oral rather than literary learners.  Oral learners learn best through stories and proverbs.  They enjoy learning in groups, reason intuitively, think holistically, are comfortable with repetition, value traditional knowledge sources (such as community elders) and integrate their learning relationally.[3]

For non-literate and oral learners even an interactive Bible study can be intimidating and feel like an English comprehension exercise.[4]  The majority of theological education in South Africa is conducted in a highly literary context in order to equip for ministry to an assumed literary (or even literate?) people.  If we wish to reach and disciple effectively in our country we have to reconsider the primary learning styles of our context.

5. We are in westernised Africa

Increasingly the western world is becoming functionally non-literate, particularly among younger people and non-university educated people.  The functionally non-literate are those who can read and write but who rely solely on non-literary sources for their information and everyday functioning.  The technology explosion, and in particular the internet and social media has created a new non-literate people group.  They get information from television, Youtube and social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter.  When they do read it tends to be online through blogs, news sites or web pages.  Storying has the potential to connect with both the more traditional African culture as well as the new technologically driven functionally non-literate westernised culture.

6. Story disarms hostility and scepticism

Cape Town has a strong Christian culture and almost everybody has been exposed to some form of Christianity and heard something of the Christian message.   For many this has served either as an hostile inoculation or as a fluffy over-familiarity that has no grounding in real life.  Storying invites you in to participate, explore, meditate on and discuss the Bible stories in a way that gets behind your preconceptions.  “Stories convey truth in a way that transcends what can be said in simple prose.”[5]

Great stories disarm you, get behind your prejudices and carry you along to an ending that dumps you on a foreign shore re-evaluating all you once held dear.  We have lost the wonder of story because we are surrounded by too many non-stories.  We are to once again proclaim the great story and call others to come and join their story with the Great Story.  We have lost The Great Story and so have lost our own story.   We have grown used to asking “Where does God fit into the story of my life?” when the real question is where does my little life fit into His Great Story.[6]


[1] Donald Miller: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (Thomas Nelson) p80

[2] Tim Chester: “Bible Teaching in Missional Perspective” Porterbrook Network (Advanced Year Module); Unit 6: Introducing Storytelling, p40.

[3] J.O. Terry: Basic Bible Storying (Revised Edition) (Churchstarting.net: Fort Worth: 2008), p16

[4]  Tim Chester: “Bible Teaching in Missional Perspective” Porterbrook Network (Advanced Year Module); Unit 6: Introducing Storytelling, p46

[5] Tim Chester: Lord of the Rings: A Splintered Fragment of the True Light (Part 1) http://timchester.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/lord-of-the-rings-pt-1-a-splintered-fragment-of-the-true-light/

[6] Christopher J. Wright: The Mission of God (IVP: Leicester: 2006) p534