There are, as we all know, many different types of evangelism. There is the straight didactic and kerygmatic proclamation of the gospel content with no frills of any sort added. There is issue evangelism, when we package the gospel around the addressing of an issue or use an issue as a pretext, once addressed, for bringing in the gospel. There is evangelism as apologetics, when we do the necessary intellectual jungle-clearing so that difficulties and obstacles are faced and dealt with, thereby paving the way for the simple proclamation of the kerygma. Evangelism can also be done as part of an expository exegesis of a biblical text or passage. There is also need evangelism, when we address a particular need such as guilt, emptiness, loneliness, or meaninglessness, and after or while doing so, we bring in the gospel and its relevance to that need.
While these and other methods of conveying the gospel and doing evangelism exist, there is one on which I want to focus here because I believe it has particular relevance in these post-modern times. It is a method I call story telling with the didactics of the gospel attached, included, or embedded in the story.
This is very powerful because most post-modernists, especially young ones, while they do not want argument, are nevertheless ready for demonstration. If we can tell them about something that actually works and makes a meaningful difference in life, people are interested. Thundering at them with the didactics of the gospel sometimes simply produces resistance. But if they hear a compelling story about what Jesus Christ has done in our lives, they not only find it hard to argue against, but are in fact positively interested in finding out more about how Jesus can work and make a difference in their lives as well. Their inner, even secret, question is: “Can you tell me about something which really works and makes a difference?”
My Story—His Story
In a mission I did some years ago at Michaelhouse, my old high school, I made the theme of the mission “My Story Meeting His (Story).” I invited a wide range of participants, including a businessman, an actor, a pop singer, a scientist, a farmer, an actuarial professor from a university, a couple of sportsmen, and so on. I told each of them to simply speak on that one subject on which each was a world expert, namely themselves! In other words, “Just tell your story and weave in the gospel as you are led and able.”
The whole exercise worked like a charm. As the boys heard story after story, with each life testifying to being changed and transformed as it connected to Jesus’ story (his-story), the lads found themselves astonished at the way “the dice seemed to roll six all the time,” and that all these lives were changed and transformed as the individual story of each person intersected with the story of Jesus Christ.
Since that time, I have conducted several university missions using that same technique, a technique very different from earlier university missions, which were more strongly focussed on historical or philosophical apologetics.
It is also instructive to register how Paul used his own personal story first of all in Acts 24 when he was before Felix and then in Acts 25 and 26 when he was before Festus and Agrippa.
In Leighton Ford's fine volume The Power of Story (Rediscovering the Oldest and Most Natural Way to Reach People for Christ),1 he writes:
Our goal is to uncover the crystalline simplicity of God's Story (with a capital S). Once we see how we have become a part of that Story we will better understand how to tell and model our own story (with a small s) to others….Conversion, in a true sense, is a collision of narratives. God's Story touches my story and your story, and a collision takes place. As people encounter stories they call their own stories into question, and they are forced to consider: What if my story isn’t the whole story? How should I respond? In the process of reconsidering their own lives, they become caught up in the Story of Jesus, and they are changed.
Leighton goes on to say that his book is not one of
…grand strategies for converting the world. This is a book with a very simple theme, a very basic strategy. It is written to encourage the average lay person to tell his or her story, and in the process, to help spread the Story of God. This is a book for the person who says, “I want to be a more effective witness”; and it’s also for the person who objects, “but I can't be an evangelist! I don't know how!….If you have become a part of the Story of God, then you have a story to share with the people around you. They are eager to hear it. They are dying to hear it. Any Christian can be a witness, an evangelist. And every Christian should. My friend, you have a Story to tell.”2
People Love Stories
A number of factors point to the need to recover this story in preaching.
- People love stories, whether in movies, on television, or at the theatre. Everyone loves a story. Even little children endlessly say, “Tell me a story.”
- One finds the scriptures endlessly laced with stories, whether in the Old Testament or the New. Embedded in them are profound theological truths and lessons and very often directly the evangelistic content of the gospel.
- The story has appeal because it is like real life. Most people do not experience life as a set of ideas or abstractions, but live out the lives they have to, having experiences, and then thinking about them. Our listeners will identify with such stories and say, “Yes, that's just like me.”
- Story in preaching is important because our communication theories demand new ways of breaking through to the minds of moderns who are over-stuffed and glutted with mere information.
- People in our times have become accustomed through the media to a world of story rather than didactic teaching. Whether a soap opera is on video, television, film, movie, or radio drama, they all come to us through story and their messages are brought through story.
All this reminds us that we have to look at our communication methodologies to ensure that we are not dull, predictable, or plain irrelevant.
Jesus—The Master Storyteller
All that I have said above highlights the importance of the kinds of illustrations we use to bring home abstract ideas or truths which are part of our preaching and teaching. The moment we say midstream in our sermon: “I remember when …,” the attention of the audience picks up. Thus, when preaching on tragedy and suffering, one can inject the line: “Let me tell you the story of my friends, Jack and Mary, who had a deformed child …” Immediately, attention is riveted.
At this point it is instructive to register afresh Jesus as the master storyteller. Apart from the fact that each of the four Gospels is a story or biography of Jesus himself, within each of the Gospels we see our Lord constantly using stories located in the worlds of his listeners.
Talking about having the right spiritual foundations in life, Jesus tells a story of two men, one who built his house on sand, and the other on rock. Neither the story nor the point of the story can ever be forgotten. Showing how people have different responses to the preaching of the word, he tells the story of “a sower who went forth to sow …” and whose seed fell on four different types of soil. This story is really more about the seeds and the soils than the sower, but the import of the parable, only a few words in length, has ricocheted profoundly down the corridors of time.
Then, when he had lots of lost people around him, he spoke one parable/story in Luke 15 on the subject of lostness. The sub-story is focussed into three subplots about a sheep lost by nature, a coin lost by circumstances, and a son lost by choice. Charles Dickens, in fact, said that the story of the Prodigal Son was probably the greatest short story in the history of the English language.
In Matthew 13, while explicating the very theological content of the Kingdom of God, Jesus told stories about the sower, the grain of a mustard seed, the leaven in the bread, the treasure in the field, the merchant in search of fine pearls, and the fishing net which gathers in fish of every kind, some of which are thrown out as bad and others kept as good. All his listeners would have gone home and discussed those stories that night and over the next few days or weeks.
So it is in our context that we can preach Jesus’ stories and make application of them to modern times. Or we can combine the exposition of scripture with real stories out of our own lives or the lives of friends or colleagues.
Simple, Direct, Personal
We must also mention the plain, simple, and direct personal testimony. Africa—the continent where I was born, live, and have exercised my ministry for nearly fifty years—is, of course, a continent of story. The elders sitting around the fire, the ndaba (or consultation) of the chief and his elders, and the oral traditions relating to the lives of tribesmen are all embedded into the way Africa thinks about itself. Not surprisingly then, the testimony form of preaching is very powerful and common here.
So whoever or wherever you are, do not minimise the power of sharing your personal testimony, regardless of how intellectually or theologically sophisticated you understand yourself to be! Don't be nervous or fearful of bringing in what Jesus has done for you personally. It will often be the most powerful thing you say, even in the course of a powerful theological exposition. When we can say, “One thing I know, whereas I was blind, now I see,” we have our audience’s rapt attention and often powerful reception.
I remember many years ago seeing one of the early Billy Graham films called “Souls in Conflict.” Some of you fellow old-timers will remember it. The story told of a British Airways pilot who had been converted at the Harringay Crusade in the USA. He had all sorts of sceptical colleagues around him. But I will never forget the final punch line of the film as the pilot questioned the sceptics around him asking, “What argument have you got for a changed life?”
The central idea of this article could hardly be simpler. It is simply reintroducing the notion of story, a testimony and biography into your preaching, teaching, writing, and personal witness. In these post-modern times, when people are less interested in argumentation than demonstration, and when they resist the dogmatic but are open to the personal, we must reinvestigate the place of story in our ministries generally and in our evangelism specifically.
1. 1994. Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA: NavPress.
2. Ibid, 14-15.