Last year, I was down in Ecuador filming some stories from our church’s ministry there. We met up with two of our missionaries who I’ve known for several years. While we were catching up over lunch, discussing our plans to film, one of them leaned over and asked me, “so Brian, what’s your job title again?” I told her, “I’m the Pastor of Storytelling.”
She busted out laughing so hard, she nearly fell out of her chair. “Storytelling? Is that a job?” I might as well told her I was the Curator of Rainbows and Feelings.
The thing is though, I get it.
Everyone is a storyteller now. Churches encourage us to share our story, live a great story, engage the story (whatever that means). We might roll our eyes at all this, but it’s actually good news. It means that churches have recognized the power of a story. The challenge is that some church words don’t have to make much sense as long as they sound good. As long as we can agree with the word in theory, then cool. But words like this tend to float away and get replaced after a while.
Is storytelling a church fad? I personally don’t think so. Story is how the human mind processes information in an effort to find meaning. Research in neuroscience indicates that our minds constantly use narrative, even telling us stories while we sleep. Most of Scripture is in narrative form. Jesus taught in parables. Storytelling is here to stay, but it risks becoming a punchline if we can’t demonstrate what a storyteller actually does and why it matters.
So what exactly is storyteller? Here are a few thoughts.
A storyteller is someone who connects a story to an audience in a meaningful way.
There are all kinds of storytellers, but our primary task as storytellers is to foster human connection. And the primary goal of that connection is to share something that carries significant meaning for an audience. No matter how we choose to go about it, this is the essence of storytelling - meaningful connection.
When a storyteller considers how to share a story, she immediately starts thinking on behalf of her audience. Will people track with this? Will they stay interested? Will they empathize with the main character and root for them? Will this resonate? Where does God impact this story, and what does that mean for the character? What does it mean for our audience?
This task of connection is woven into the entire storytelling process - from finding and vetting a story to prepping for an interview, from capturing a story to editing and Post-production. Every element of our creative process is meant to strengthen a meaningful connection between the story and our audience.
A storyteller is someone who recognizes truth.
Emotional honesty is a key element of any great story. And storytellers tend to instinctively scan potential stories for truth. Storytellers also realize that when spiritual truth is rooted in a human story, it becomes easier for an audience to engage with.
Pain is universal, so is disappointment, disillusionment, frustration and fear. Some churches might prefer to brush past the dark mess of sin and brokenness, but a storyteller’s instinct is to tell the whole truth. This is because darkness and sin are real. Life seems cruel and unfair sometimes. Unresolved conflict is easy for our audience to relate to because, if we’re honest, we all have some of our own right now.
The best stories tell the truth. They show life as it really is, without hiding the imperfections we’d rather filter out. In many ways, this is the confessional part of storytelling.
A storyteller is someone who seeks out beauty.
If truth lies in the conflict of a story the beauty lies in the way God begins to resolve it. A rescued life, a renewed perspective on suffering, a transformed situation, a healed marriage - this is the restorative beauty of our Designer.
These are beautiful glimpses of the Kingdom Jesus taught about, a picture of the eternal hope we have in Christ. And just as we search for honest moments in our stories, we look for beautiful ones as well. We show the darkness but also let the light shine through it - through a photograph, a child’s eyes, a piece of music, a cinematic landscape. These moments remind of us of our own rescue, the truth that God is better and more loving than we’ve ever imagined.
Stories won’t be a passing fad in the church if we pursue connection and meaning. If we tell the truth and reveal God's beauty, He will speak powerfully through the stories we tell.