youth ministry student miinistry text teaching training large group

Beyond Storytelling

By Guest Contributor June 6, 2014

By Kyle Rohane

“Jesus just used stories to teach, so we should spread the gospel in the same way.” Sound familiar? I’ve heard similar arguments over and over recently, a fixation on the narrative approach to evangelism. “Don’t worry about the gritty details, just tell other people your story! Jesus taught about the kingdom of God using parables. If that was good enough for him, it’s good enough for you.”

But those examples are extreme. More often, youth workers just find it easier to let students tell their stories, rather than equipping them with a deeper knowledge of God’s difficult truths. We convince ourselves that the students can bring their friends to our ministries using story-driven evangelism. Then, once students are here, we’ll be able to answer their harder questions. But we should question the discipleship method we’re teaching if we, as youth workers, are becoming too big a piece of the process.

So is it enough to teach students to tell their faith stories? Or should we start broadening their apologetic skills?

I love a good story. Few things can hold my attention as well as an engrossing novel. Few things can evoke my emotions quite like a poignant film. I read articles every day that pound applications into readers’ heads in the literary equivalent of whack-a-mole, when they’d be better served by employing an evocative tale. Narrative is a spoonful of sugar in a digital landscape that prefers to feed its audience with a plunger.

But encouraging students to hone the craft of storytelling in lieu of other apologetic skills is like setting fire to your entire wardrobe because you found a single flattering outfit. If we let students think that storytelling is a skeleton key or universal remote, able open the door to any person’s heart, we should also prepare them to spend many long nights sitting on the cold front stoop. Story is an essential element in our mission to spread the gospel, but even a Swiss Army knife can’t help in every situation.

The worst part? This over-reliance on telling tales is based on faulty premises. Jesus employed parables on many occasions, but you have to work pretty hard to ignore the many didactic statements and performative utterances he made that weren’t in narrative format. Want to concentrate solely on Jesus the storyteller? Say goodbye to these statements:

  • “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven,” (Matt. 9:2).
  • “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” (John 15:12–13).
  • “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” (John 14:6).
  • “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” (Acts 1:8).
  • “The most important [commandment] is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these,” (Mark 12:29–31).

That’s right—Jesus conveyed what he considered to be the two greatest commandments in clear, non-narrative format.

But let’s look a bit at the way Jesus used parables. Jesus shifted his teaching style from straightforward instruction (as in much of the Sermon on the Mount) toward the use of parables as more people started gathering to listen. His disciples recognized this shift and asked why he used these stories to teach.

And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand,” (Matt 13:11–13).

On many occasions, Jesus waited to explain the meaning of the parables until he was alone with his closest followers. In a perplexing way, Jesus’ stories were meant to divide, even confuse those who refused to see him for who he was. Jesus’ parables are not exactly the support for evangelizing through story that many people think they are. When he told his followers to go and make disciples, it’s unlikely that he had in mind our scheme of story over statement.

That said, I still encourage you to train students in the art of storytelling. We should all learn to articulate our personal testimonies, both to better appreciate God’s work in our lives and to share those stories with others. But we should also prepare students to answer tough questions that are bound to pop up.

They can’t (and shouldn’t) have answers for everything. Teach them to honestly and humbly admit ignorance when they aren’t confident about a response. Then they should take the time to study the subject. But don’t train them to cop-out with a story-based apologetic: “I don’t know the answer to your question. I just know what happened to me.” That casts God’s truth in an overly subjective light that could actually encourage their conversation partners to disregard their testimony: That’s your experience, but it’s not mine. And I have to be true to my own story, too.

Much has been said about the limiting nature of statements such as “Share the gospel. Use words when necessary.” But we shouldn’t reject that philosophy only to teach students an equally limiting one: “Share your story. Make definitive truth statements when necessary.” So help students follow Jesus’ disciple-making example. Encourage storytelling. But also prepare them to pull out other tools from their apologetic and evangelistic tool belts.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More