Storytelling has become a buzzword in the business community as well as the Church. Buzzwords come and go as the corporate prophets proclaim the latest and greatest ideas to create wild profits and gigantic growth. In my humble opinion, storytelling for the church is more than the latest “fad” and should be the foundational concept for building our communication and discipleship strategies. Jesus was a great stortyteller, not because he painted colorful word pictures or presented them with masterful style and flair, but because his stories came alive with God’s truth.
What made Jesus’ storytelling so effective? Here are 3 PRO tips we can learn from Jesus about telling our stories:
1) Jesus kept his stories simple.
As we all know, most of Jesus’ stories were told as parables. In fact, Matthew tells us in his Gospel that “Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables.” (Matthew 13:34) If we look closely at his parables, we see that they were usually brief. But I think a subtler aspect of the parables that may not be as obvious at first glance is that Jesus used very few, if any adjectives to describe the scenes, objects, or people in his parables. For example, the parable of the farmer scattering seed in Matthew 13: 3-9 makes this point:
“Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seeds. 4 As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. 5 Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. 6 But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. 8 Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! 9 Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”
What kind of farmer? What type of seeds? Where is his field? What were the plants that wilted in the sun? What crop was produced from the fertile soil? These are all descriptors that we would build into our story if we were writing it for presentation to an audience. Jesus understood that these adjectives and descriptors were not necessary to the important teaching point he was making, thus his audience didn’t get lost in the “weeds” of unnecessary fluff.
Later in this same chapter, the disciples asked Jesus why he used parables when he talked to people. In verse 12 Jesus responded, “To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.” Jesus didn’t give a lengthy explanation of the parable as a literary device; but responded with an absolute truth about those who listen to his teaching and those who do not.
TRANSLATION FOR THE CHURCH: Don’t overpower your message or overtell your story with flowery images and language when simple statements or pictures can make a big impact.
2) Jesus doesn’t explain everything.
The example of the farmer and the seeds is one where he explained the lesson and in a few other instances, the disciples asked Jesus for help understanding a parable. But, in most cases, Jesus tells his parable and figuratively “drops the mic” leaving his audience to decipher the meaning of his story.
Why does he choose not to explain all his parables? Jesus is sharing God’s truth with his audience and we all can apply this truth to our own lives in different ways. Jesus gives us room to understand and interpret the meaning for ourselves and how we will apply the truth to our own lives. As he stated in verse 12, those that are listening will be given more understanding, and I interpret this to mean that as we seek to understand, we will find it. You see, Jesus taught with a sense of urgency because he knew his timetable was limited. He wanted his audiences then and now to seek understanding in their own hearts through regular prayer and reading of scripture because he would not be around to interpret the stories for them. Frederick Buechner said it best, “with parables and jokes both, if you’ve got to have it explained, don’t bother.”
TRANSLATION FOR THE CHURCH: Give your audience room to learn and grow on their own but with a sense of urgency.
3) Jesus understood his audience.
One huge advantage Jesus had over us is that he not only understood his audience, he could see into the depths of their hearts and souls where their darkest secrets and pain dwelled. I think this is another reason why Jesus kept his parables simple; the impact of the underlying truth cuts straight to the hearts of the people listening to him. Again, in my humble opinion, the real power of Jesus’ teaching is that his story connects to the stories of everyone who hears it and that through him, all our stories are connected. This is the biggest challenge for today’s church, to connect our stories to individuals and to connect these individuals through common stories.
I hear a lot of jokes in the church about Chick-Fil-a and their “Christian chicken.” The reality is that Chick-fil-a does “church” better than we do in many cases; and they aren’t even open on Sundays! One example that ties into our thoughts on Jesus’ ability to understand his audience is seen in one of their training videos. It was created to make Chick-fil-a associates aware that everyone they come into contact, whether a customer or a co-worker, has a story which gives them an opportunity to create a remarkable experience. Notice in the first 5 seconds we see their product, a chicken sandwich, and then spend the next 2 ½ minutes traveling through store viewing stories. Here is the link to Every Life Has a Story. What if we as church leaders were tuned into finding life stories in our church and community and connect those with Jesus’ story?
TRANSLATION FOR THE CHURCH: Make sure we are connecting Jesus’ stories with real-life stories of people that are seeking answers, healing, and hope!
Even though Jesus didn’t leave us a manual for “shepherding his flock” he did model for us in great detail how we should interact with his people. Jesus the Storyteller gives us many lessons for sharing his story and our stories with the people that cross our paths that have stories of their own. Stay tuned to ChurchCMO for more insight and help into connecting your church’s stories with the people that need to hear them.