The Power of Story

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Recently, I read an interesting question: “What is the difference in our picture of God when we read stories in which God acts, as compared with theological statements about the nature of God?”

Think of Jesus, standing in a half-swamped boat, at night, in the middle of a storm, rebuking the powers that are causing the fierce wind, as his students look on, their faces filled with fear. Compare that scene with this statement of fact: God is sovereign. Is there any difference in your picture of Him?

How Does God Communicate?

Could God have given us a picture of Himself using mostly factual statements about His nature? Certainly. Yet He chose to present 75% of the Bible in narrative form. I’m not discounting the remaining 25% (15% of which is song and proverb, 10% of which is expository teaching). But the fact that God could have flipped the numbers and given us a picture of Himself using mostly factual statements, and chose not to–could that show us anything about God?

What about Jesus? How did He communicate? Many times with stories. He asked hundreds of questions. He engaged in real conversation. Was that because He knew these were powerful techniques? Maybe. Maybe not. What if He wasn’t motivated by a desire for effective tools? What if Jesus chose to tell stories and ask questions and have conversation simply because He wants to know us, and He wants us to know Him?

What’s the Goal?

Francis Chan says, “Making disciples isn’t about gathering pupils to listen to your teaching. The real focus is not on teaching people at all—the focus is on loving them. Jesus’ call to make disciples does include teaching people to be obedient followers of Jesus, but the teaching isn’t the end goal.” When we ask questions and have conversations about a story, something powerful happens, because listening to someone is a way to know them. It’s a way to love them.

Listening and Responding

I’m so excited about the way Heroic Life Discipleship curriculum provides these relational opportunities for God’s Spirit to transform hearts. Each lesson focuses on one story, where our picture of God is enriched as we watch His actions, and listen to His words; these things reveal His heart. The discussion questions for each story create opportunities for teachers to listen—to their students and God’s Spirit.

Listening well is not a human specialty. Our first parents received simple, clear instructions: “Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or you will die.” They ate from the tree.

God, on the other hand, has been quick to listen and slow to speak from the beginning. “Where are you?” He asked in that same story. “Who told you that you were naked?” “What is this you have done?”

Jesus continued this tradition of listening and responding. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” “But who do you say I am?” Again and again, Jesus used stories and questions the way a surgeon uses a scalpel, to delicately enter a deeper layer of understanding God and ourselves.

The Challenge

I’d like to challenge teachers and parents—myself included—to increase our focus on loving people by developing the art of listening. The next time you discuss a Bible story, listen more than you speak, and be willing to follow someone else’s train of thought, even if it diverges from your outline. When students have questions, point them back to the story to look for clues: allow God’s Word to speak. Answer a question with another question, or ask the rest of the group what they hear the story saying, without sharing your thoughts. Step back, and trust God’s Spirit to guide the group into all truth (John 16:13).

I realize this can feel very risky and very scary! What if the conversation totally derails and people walk away with wrong conclusions? Think about these two questions. How powerful is your God? How powerful is His Word? He sounds pretty adamant when He says, “My Word will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).

For sure, that verse applies to lecture and factual statements, too; there is place for these styles. But without conversation, can you know that everyone who heard your statements actually understood them? Can you know that they will remember your statements? No matter how true and powerful your material is, if people don’t understand or remember it, how will it change them, and how will they be able to share it with anyone else?

May our picture of who God is grow ever clearer and more alive as we listen and respond to His story, His Spirit and His questions. It’s a way to know Him. It’s a way to love Him. He invites us to follow in His steps.

Lauren Ottwell lives in rural Illinois, where she tells stories and listens to a small group of amazing unchurched children in a weekly after-school Bible Club. She is a storyteller with Simply the Story, a ministry that equips Christians to evangelize, teach and disciple through story, questions, listening and responding.

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