Storytelling: Missions and Warfare

I’m currently editing a manuscript about effectively planting churches in other cultures. The author deals a lot with oral cultures, and she points out the power of storytelling: more than preaching a three-point sermon or presenting doctrine in abstract form, […]
on Jul 20, 2011 · No comments

I’m currently editing a manuscript about effectively planting churches in other cultures. The author deals a lot with oral cultures, and she points out the power of storytelling: more than preaching a three-point sermon or presenting doctrine in abstract form, storytelling reaches the hearts of oral learners with the power to lead them to God and transform their lives.

Ultimately, it has the power to make disciples, not just students.

This has me thinking about the power of story in our own culture. We don’t live in an oral culture, and we do think in abstracts. Yet, storytelling is still powerful. Movies (the story kind, not the informational kind) bring in billions of dollars every year). The big surprise of the e-book revolution is that fiction is outselling nonfiction. And even though many people tend to dismiss fiction as having any real effect on our lives, it’s clear that it does. The stories we take in shape our perception of the world and of ourselves. (This is true of storytelling nonfiction as well–biography, history, Bible stories, etc.)

For us too, stories invite us to participate in something, not merely learn about it. And while that process may start in our imaginations, it tends to spill into our lives.

The author of the missions book I’m editing points out that it doesn’t work, in an oral culture, to tell a story and then “dissect” it–extracting lessons and abstract principles. At the same time, I’m reading a book on the historicity of Adam and Eve that points out that the Old Testament tends to “show,” not “tell.” For example, the story of the Fall never uses words like sin, guilt, disobedience, or fall. Yet it clearly shows the story of all those things, and that story shapes the rest of the biblical narrative.

Jesus also resisted pulling apart his stories for the sake of sermonizing. His stories certainly had morals and truths embedded in them, but he let them speak for themselves.

In our own culture, the most powerful stories operate in the same way. The movie I saw most recently, X-Men: First Class had lots to say about power, alienation, and human choices. But it didn’t need a post-story lecture in order to get those things across. Its truths (or at least, what its makers perceive as truths) are embodied in the story itself.

And ultimately, that might be WHY storytelling is so powerful. Rather than teaching us something, a story engages us in vicariously living it. We come away with an understanding of truth that has involved our minds, yes, but also our emotions, our spirits, our hearts. In some sense, we come away feeling that we have lived a truth, not just heard or critiqued it. And the best stories challenge us to continue living them.

As a Christian storyteller, operating through the medium of writing, I want to use that power well, writing stories that will help people experience righteousness, experience God, experience grace. We are not the only ones in this game: the enemy is actively using stories to shape the people of our culture. (And speculative fiction is a more and more influential genre.) By writing the best and most truthful stories we can, we can step into battle and strike a few decisive blows for truth, challenging people to become disciples.

E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. Fred Warren says:

    Very true, Rachel. In our culture, we often seem hard-wired to the lecture, or the sermon, or the rant.

    One of the things I love about stories is that they can provide such a powerful shorthand for very complex ideas. We can bloviate all day about compassion and mercy overcoming prejudice, or how lies undermine credibility and make it harder to recognize truth–people’s eyes will glaze over after a minute or two. Mention “The Good Samaritan,” or “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and people instantly know what you’re talking about, and will probably be more excited about discussing it.


  2. Patrick says:

    It seems in our culture there is no trust in the story to convey it’s messages. Maybe there’s an underestimation of the ability to think for ourselves, or of our intelligence in general, but  there seems to be an expectation to be spoon fed “what it really means” instead of applying our own thought process to a story. Many honestly think themselves too ignorant to understand the Bible, and are even taught that they need a priest or preacher to interpret it for them. Our English teachers seem to do the same with literature- telling students what the story is “really” about instead of asking what this story meant to them. There is too much fear that someone will misunderstand to let people figure things out for themselves. Experience is a much more effective teacher than any lecture will ever be.

  3. Keanan Brand says:

    Excellent post, Rachel. 

    As a kid, I read eclectically — still do! — but one thing that annoyed me about Christian fiction was the sermonizing. If there was a church scene with a lengthy sermon in it, I tended to skim or skip it. Of course, there was a limited availability of Christian fiction compared to the wide variety available today, and I’m glad writers are increasingly seeing the value of letting the story do the talking rather than the writers interjecting an obvious (and usually clumsy) moral or object lesson.

    As Patrick mentioned above, there’s this urge to pull out the “real” meaning of something rather than letting it just be.  The readers will “get” it, much as students grasp the meaning of a word, phrase, or sentence given the correct context; they infer definitions or meaning from the surrounding material. We writers need to afford our readers the respect of believing them to be intelligent.

What do you think?