The Power of Story: How to Find Them, How to Tell Them
What did Jesus mean when He talked about the ethereal “Kingdom of Heaven” He came to bring to earth? The unschooled fishermen didn’t understand nor did the rich-robed religious leaders. To help them understand, Jesus explained through stories.
“My kingdom is like . . .” The rich kid who squandered his life and his fortune and, much to his surprise, found his father waiting with open arms to welcome him home. The shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep in the fold to look for the one who wandered away. The wheat field with lookalike wheat and weeds growing together. The farmer sowing seed with four very different results. Jesus used images from their everyday experiences.
Nearly two millennia later, evangelist D. L. Moody reflected on the power of story to open eyes and hearts. Moody said, “Men will listen to a story when they won’t listen to Scripture. The moral of a story remains with them a long time and often sets them thinking along lines they refuse to consider in sermon form.”
For over thirty years, I have shared the Gospel, on a four-and-a-half-minute radio program, across the United States and around the world. I can attest – with so many lives changed – that the best way to tell His story is to wrap it in another engaging story. But just having a story to tell is not a guarantee it will be powerful. It has to be the right story, rightly told, and rightly applied.
Where to Find Them
We all see, hear, and experience spiritual stories and illustrations all the time. The key is to write it down– whether or not you can share the story immediately. If you record it and save it by subject, you can build a “go to” collection of illustrative gold. Those who know me joke and say, “He never leaves home without his 4×6 cards!” The truth is, for those who keep their eyes and ears open for them all the time, life is filled with analogies.
Stories tend to come from four basic sources. First is the news– especially stories about rescue, heroism, disaster, the emptiness of life. The second source is media. I don’t have much time for movies, but I read reviews and listen to my family or friends’ who tell me, “Ron, you need to see this one.” Stories from reading about the Titanic, for example, have proven to be some of the most hard-hitting of my ministry. When it comes to certain movies, I’m pretty sure I’m the only guy in the theater writing on cards in the dark! Today’s memorable scene or line is tomorrow’s spiritually rich story.
Obviously, life experiences yield some of the best stories. Recently, my daughter-in-law wrote a moving blog post, inspired by the words of her eight-year-old son in the midst of a noisy arcade where yelling was the only viable form of communication. Distressed and covering his ears, he said through tears, “Can’t you just talk quieter?” She skillfully spun that into a parallel of our own feelings in a world where everyone is “yelling.” She went on to explain our need to “draw close to each other so we can hear the whispers from the hearts of those around us,” as well as our own hearts and God’s heart.
Stories drawn from relatable real-life experiences are the best!
Another source for a great story is from personal “Stories of Hope” of lives rescued by Jesus. It can come from a live interview or on video. But if you know someone whose Jesus-story matches the theme of your message, let their story validate the life-changing power of a living Savior.
How to Tell Them
A story is like an airplane – it can carry people where they otherwise might not go, but only if you successfully land the plane! And “landing” an illustration or story is the difference between “tickling ears” and opening a heart.
It is mission critical that the communicator spend time planning how their story will be bridged into and out of their message. Otherwise, it will come across as a curious abruptness to your message. How will I move seamlessly from a content point into my illustration? More importantly, what am I going to say immediately after to nail the spiritual point of the story?
For example, I have a lot of fun sharing stories about our goldfish— the little guy in a little bowl. I share about my skepticism of ever seeing an “alleged” foot-long goldfish. But then I learned that goldfish can actually grow to be a foot, even two feet long, if you take them out of the bowl and put them in a pond. The planned bridge to my point is when I relate what I’d like to tell our fish back home: “If you only knew what you could be if you could only get out of that little bowl!” Then comes landing the plane, I tell the audience, “That’s what God wants to say to someone here tonight.” At this point in my message, you can hear a pin drop.
In addition to pre-planning your bridges, there are a few basics of engaging story telling. Use your whole body– your face, your voice, your gestures, your volume, your tone – to bring a story to life. Learn to insert these themed bridges between blocks of content that can cause an “interest spike” to bring back attention-challenged listeners. Include enough specific details to further animate the story.
History’s greatest evangelists have led the way by using stories to carry people to a place they might otherwise never go.
Ultimately, there is no life-changing, soul-saving power in our stories– unlike His Story– the Gospel that is “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). It is only an encounter with Jesus Christ and his life, death, and resurrection that can change an eternity. Our stories are only the window through which someone can see the Savior dying on the Cross for them. But in a world that is looking everywhere else, a story may get them to finally turn their eyes upon Jesus.