The Practical Power of Telling Stories

“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” –Matthew 13:34, NIV

Suppose a teenager turns to you and asks a hard question. “When the Bible talks about the kingdom of God,” she says, “what, exactly, does that mean?”

If you’ve been to seminary or read enough blogs, you might say something like: “That’s a fascinating question. That phrase appears over 60 times in the Synoptic Gospels. Of course, there’s disagreement about whether the kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven are synonyms or whether they point to separate realities. Some would say that any eschatological thoughts associated with those expressions are tied to Jewish apocalyptic thinking, but I believe that argument really addresses the ‘husk’ and not the ‘kernel’ of Jesus’ teachings.”

But Jesus, when faced with the same question, simply told a story: “The kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows—he knows not how. The earth, by itself, produces first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once the man puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26-29). Other times, Jesus spoke about a merchant who found a pearl of great price, or told a story about a mustard seed. Simple, uncomplicated, powerful.

What did Jesus know that we don’t? People innately understand stories. They get excited when they hear the words, “Once upon a time...”

Peter Guber is a Hollywood producer who was behind movies like behind Rain Man and Batman. He knows that if your movie doesn’t have an engaging hero, dramatic tension, and a surprising resolution, you’ll lose your audience. 

But Guber was in his 40s—with a history of hit-and-miss business pitches behind him—before he realized that the formula that made his movies great could make his studio great, too. Even when pitching ideas, you have to affect your audience. “You have to reach their hearts as well as their minds. And this is exactly what story telling does.”

A lot of pastors and church leaders are in the same boat. We know the power of telling a good story when we’re teaching and motivating our small group. But we often set that powerful tool aside when we try to raise money, recruit volunteers, or ask a board of deacons for permission to paint the walls. Just like Jesus’ audiences, deacons, boards of elders, and parishioners are predisposed to lean in when you say, “Let me tell you story…” If you want to remodel your children’s department, don’t complain—find a way to tell a story. If you want more volunteers, don’t beg—tell stories of the experience of past volunteers. 

For telling a compelling story, Guber suggests the following four tools: Hero, Challenge, Struggle, and Resolution. The hero can be a kid, a volunteer, or the listener—but it’s not usually you. The challenge should be surprising and compelling. Be careful—the challenge isn’t that you need a bigger budget. Instead, your story should focus on a more compelling problem that the bigger budget would help solve—like lonely teens or a hungry child. Next, the struggle should “give your listeners an emotional experience by narrating” how to overcome the challenge. Lastly, the ideal resolution will satisfyingly “galvanize your listener’s response” and “call them to action.”

“The story doesn’t have to be long,” Guber says, “but it needs to be compelling.”

You will eventually share the facts and figures, too, but in the primary stages of a project, your audience is still in an emotional context. They won’t just sit there like they do for a Powerpoint or report.

Youth pastors especially should take notice. Often, they are the underdogs when asking for their fair share of the church’s attention and resources. The associate pastor has more respect, the music director has more seniority, and even the quilting circle has more clout. So, to move a person’s heart— and eventually their feet and resources—go with a compelling story.

Contributor: Jeff Dunn-Rankin
Presented by: The Institute for Youth Ministry

Jeff Dunn-Rankin is the Director of Family Ministry at Christ United Methodist Church in Venice, Florida, where he also served as the Youth Director for 16 years. He is also the Vice President of Consulting for Ministry Architects. Jeff has consulted with large and small youth and children’s ministries from California to Florida and is a frequent speaker at events from the Group/Simply Convention to KidMin.

Jeff is a regular columnist for Group Magazine, and has co-written three books with Mark DeVries: Before You Hire a Youth Pastor, The Indispensable Youth Pastor, and Training on the Go (volume 2) (Group Publishing).

Before beginning church ministry, Jeff was managing editor of the Charlotte Sun newspaper. Jeff is a graduate of the Sewanee: The University of the South and has a Masters in Business Administration from Vanderbilt University. He lives in Venice, Florida, with his wife Mary Lou, and they have two grown children.