Tag Archives: Storying

It seems like a lifetime ago… part two

In hindsight I am not sure why we started doing The Story at all… I had seen and read about story-telling a number of times before and always been intrigued by it.  So when we saw it how it was done in Loughborough I remember thinking… “This could actually work.”

 As a result when we came home we decided to give it a go.  Looking back I am not altogether sure who we thought would come or why?  But we got a few people who committed to coming along, at least for a couple of weeks…

16 stories later, we have had about 26 different people (including children) come to at least one evening, a core group of about 15, at least 5 different languages and 4 different nationalities, and an age range from 4 to 51.  We have had old friends come visit, spiritual seekers, people who have lost their way, people who are learning to find their way again, people who love Jesus and people who do not, homeless people, recovering addicts, cynics and saints.  We have shared food, strong coffee and something of our lives.

We have sung prayers, said prayers and listened to prayers.  We have questioned, challenged, rejoiced, got angry, got frustrated, laughed, and on more than one occasion simply sat in awed silence.  We have learnt how good and gracious God is, how rebellious we are.  We have contemplated the fruit of our ways and the fruit of His ways.  We have seen a God who despite the mess we make is simply not finished with us.  We have seen hope, we have seen grace, we have seen the good life and we have yearned for it.  We have been stunned by our inability to grasp it and left wondering what is God up to in this the greatest story ever told..

It was never meant to last this long but somehow the stories have pulled us in and we have stopped being in a rush to finish the whole story in 8 weeks.  Will we continue with this forever? Not sure… probably not.  Sunday night will morph and change and take on a new life and a new direction.  Possibly once we have finished the whole Bible story we will revert to a twice a year 8 week story set (Spring and Summer possibly)?  Maybe get an outside venue this? Maybe an Acts story set or a Luke story set or even more ambitious an Ecclesiastes reading (I’m thinking like a poetry reading) set.

I don’t know where it will end up but I rejoice that I no longer feel like I must have all the answers… as a community together we can determine where it is that God is leading us, as we grow in him and as we engage with our community on mission.

You can read part one here

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)

Some Favourite Quotes from a Million Miles in a Thousand Years

0785213066I previously wrote a review of Donald Miller’s book “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.”  You can read that review here.

Miller is always really quotable, here are a few of my favourites:

“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers.  You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen.  The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back.  Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.”

“But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful.  The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.”  (xiii)

“Without story, experiences are just random.” (27)

“I think life is staggering and we’re just used to it.  We all are like spoiled children no longer impressed with the gifts we’re given- it’s just another sunset, just another rainstorm moving in over the mountain, just another child being born, just another funeral.” (58)

“I don’t know why we need stories but we always have.”  (80)

“Here’s the truth about telling stories with your life.  It’s going to sound like a great idea, and you are going to get excited about it and then when it comes time to do the work, you’re not going to want to do it… People like to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen.  But joy costs pain.” (99-100)

“The mountains themselves call us into greater stories.” (159)

“There is an intrinsic feeling in nearly every person that your life could be perfect if you only had such-and-such a car or such-and-such a spouse or such-and-such a job.  We believe we will be made whole by our accomplishments, our possessions, or our social status.  It’s written in the fabric of our DNA that life used to be beautiful and now it isn’t, and if only this and if only that, it would be beautiful again.” (201-202)

“I don’t mean to insinuate that there are no minor climaxes to human stories.  There are.  A kid can try to make the football team and in a moment of climax see his name on the coach’s list.  A girl can want to get married and feel euphoric when the man of her dreams slides a ring on her finger.  But these aren’t the stories I’m talking about.  These are substories.  When that kid makes the football team, he is going to find out that playing football is hard, and he’s going to find himself fin the middle of yet another story.  And the girl is going to wake up three months into her marriage and realize she is, in fact, still lonely, and so many of her issues haven’t gone away… they thought the climax to their substory was actually a climax to the human story, and it wasn’t.  The human story goes on.” (202-203)

“There is a lot of money and power to be had convincing people we can create an Eden here on earth.” (205)

“Do I still think there will be a day when all the wrongs are made right, when our souls find the completion they are looking for?  I do.  But when all things are made right, it won’t be because of some preacher or snake-oil salesman or politician or writer making promises in his book.  I think, instead, this will be done by Jesus.  And it will be at a wedding.  And there will be a feast.”  (206)

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

Book Review: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years- Donald Miller

0785213066Dare I say, “Blue Like Jazz” was a once in a lifetime book? It was the right book for the right time with the right tone. A writer probably only has one such book in him, if he is lucky.  Donald Miller is on a hiding to nothing trying to write a follow-up.  Readers now come armed with those most evil of emotions for writers and film-makers  high expectations.  They are looking forward to more of the same experience that Miller previously delivered in Blue like Jazz.  And “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” does not deliver and in fact it was cruel of me to expect it to.

It is exactly this blight of “quick success” that has put Don Miller in the slump we find him in at the beginning of the book.  The book cleverly follows three inter-related threads- the nature of life as a story, Miller’s own search for a better story and the writing of “Blue like Jazz”, the movie script.  The main idea of the book is that each of our lives are a story, some of us live great stories and some of us live terrible stories or non-stories.  Throughout the book Miller explores this nature of story through the writing of the screenplay which is mirrored in his own search for a better life story that the slump he is currently in.  Miller is a great story teller and he had me cheering him on, laughing out loud, furiously underlining, inspired, frustrated and even shedding a tear at one point.

Miller’s search for a story leads him to hike the Andes, kayak the Jervis inlet, cycle across America, found a mentoring organisation for fatherless kids, find love and lose love again.

Story has been a theme I have been thinking about quite a bit lately and I picked up this book eager to see what Miller’s unusual way of looking at the world brought to this theme.  I must confess that apart from the chapter entitled “The Reason God Hasn’t Fixed You Yet” which is quite brilliant, I found the book “Jesus-lite.”  I am not sure what Miller’s reasoning behind this was, as he speaks quite clearly and unambiguously when he does speak of Jesus.  I found it particularly unusual given that the great story he seeks and which he speaks about is so clearly fulfilled in Jesus.  He briefly touches on this but I was honestly surprised he did not explore this more.  It would have given the book a greater punch and a greater depth.  In the end what could have been a really great book ends up being a bit fluffy with some great scenes without really going anywhere.  Dare I say that Miller fails somewhat to do what he explores throughout the book- write a great story?