The Science & Art of Story: New Possibilities in Ministry

Posted on June 14, 2014 by

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I’m not an awesome storyteller. I know it’s important, but admittedly it’s a tool I have had to work on. And every time I teach students or preach in my church, I have to remind myself of its value.

It’s not that I don’t value a good story. It’s just that I don’t intuitively know how to tell them well, and I get so excited about content that I forget content often gets lost outside of narrative.

I was reminded recently of this truth through an HBR blog post on storytelling. Contrasting Dead Poets Society’s John Keating (one of my all-time favorites) with novelist Kurt Vonnegut (who you likely have never heard of), HBR’s Andrea Ovans wonders what we can learn from actually graphing out classic storylines.

I’m not one to graph a story, but this is pretty amusing:

Vonnegut’s “good fortune/ill fortune” axis approach yields fascinating insight into the stories we love to love, and love to remember. Someone gets into trouble, then gets out of it. Something wonderful happens, then all is lost, then they get it back again. The third and most popular Western story, however, is the Cinderella story. Here’s a graph, thanks to HBR:

But the post goes on to point out that “…Vonnegut’s delivery matters as much as his ideas. His timing is perfect. His language is concrete and unexpected. He’s showing you the simplicity that underlies apparent complexity – that’s what data are so good at doing. But he’s just as concerned with making sure you’re paying attention — since no one is persuaded by something they don’t remember.”

And this is where John Keating is so impressive. A good story involving ripping pages out of a textbook. What could be more compelling for high school students in a stuffy prep school? Watch this scene again, especially if you need the inspiration to rip a little J. Evans Pritchard
today:

Unforgettable.

It was no accident that one third of Jesus’ teaching is recorded for us as storytelling through parables.

As Jon Huckins reminds us, there’s both a science and an art of storytelling. A good fiction story creates a suspension of belief that opens up new possibilities for understanding and exploration. It’s part of the science of what happens in our brains. And it requires the art of crafting a narrative that catches and holds the attention of those squirrely middle schoolers who show up in your youth room on Wednesday night.

So as you’re thinking about your next teaching series, those summer camp talks, or this week’s Sunday School lesson, don’t forget the story.

I’ll close with a few concrete suggestions from Jon’s article excerpt based on Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling:

  • Instead of preparing a three point propositional teaching, begin to build an outline of your story as a modern day parable, while taking into close consideration your audience and context. As a 1st century Rabbi in the Roman Empire, Jesus was exceptional at this.
  • Create characters, a setting and plot that integrate scripture and illuminates your topic. Try to develop characters and setting that your teenagers can relate to and have fun with it!
  • Prepare follow-up discussion questions that unpack your story, which ground it in the everyday realities of your teenagers.
  • Tell your story with confidence and conviction!  You can tell your whole story in one night or you can tell it over the course of a few weeks and build momentum by ending each session on a cliffhanger. Your teenagers will hardly be able to wait to come back and hear the rest of the story!
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