BY CANDACE ECHOLS
I was recently asked to serve as a panelist for a group of young adults. Everyone was seemingly engaged as I shared. But at one point in the discussion, an illustration popped into my head that I hadn’t thought of as relevant before. I took the risk and said, “Actually, I have a story to share that happened just this week.” At the mention of the word “story,” every eye in the place zeroed in on me with full attention granted. With childlike attentiveness, the group allowed quietness to settle over the room, and you could have heard a pin drop. I knew in an instant my story had better be good because my listeners were invested; whatever lesson I was about to illustrate was the one they would carry home. In a moment, the temptations faced by Christian storytellers of all sorts, including pastors and ordinary folks like me, became crystal clear. Storytelling seems to have exploded recently, and understandably so: it breaks down walls and builds empathy. It allows a level of vulnerability that is very attractive in today’s difficult climate. In addition, storytelling is the way God chose to orchestrate all of human history; he even calls himself “the Word” (John 1:1), which is the first building block of a good story. However, if we tell our own stories without clearly weaving in the electric truth of the saving gospel in a way that welcomes engagement from our listener, our stories lose their evangelistic power and purpose. No human story will ever save another human. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, God may use our stories to inspire, direct, or even convict others. But without the scripture-based truth of the gospel shining through, we may bump into one of the three risks common to modern Christian storytellers.
We risk becoming prideful.
God has graciously gifted us each a biography, and it brings him glory and joy when we share his work in our lives with others. However, when we too heavily depend upon our story—especially in order to avoid the awkwardness or confrontation that the gospel can sometimes bring— we find ourselves on a slippery slope of becoming the main character. One thing I’ve learned from memoir-writing is that every story ever told is shared with a limited perspective—and sometimes a distorted set of memories. My story runs those risks just by nature of being told by me. If my foundation is not set in God's Word, there is danger that I may become the star of my own adaptation and God becomes my best-supporting actor.
We risk stopping short of the real gospel.
Ronnie Stevens, a former pastor at First Evangelical Church in Memphis, once told the story of talking with a neighbor every day for a long time. Pastor Stevens regularly shared his own life story, but he knew that he needed to make the leap to sharing the story of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection. As months passed, it became a habit to linger in his own story— and he just never got around to the rest. One day, his neighbor died unexpectedly. Pastor Stevens shared a sober word with his church body: "I never closed the deal. I never actually got around to the gospel. Close the deal with your non-believing friends."
Obviously, we are not the ones saving people and closing any eternal deals, but his words still ring true. Pastor Stevens encouraged his listeners not to stay safe inside their own stories, but to make the bold jump to sharing the undiluted gospel. This takes wisdom because in many situations, building a solid friendship for the sake of the friendship is vital in order to earn space to share our lives. But without the Biblical truth of salvation breaking into our conversations, our stories are just that—stories. On their own, they don’t possess the power to save anyone. The gospel, in fact, does.
We risk becoming inaccessible.
It can be tempting to hide behind our personal stories in a self-protective stance if we think we might face confrontation or even persecution for sharing the gospel itself. “They can argue with scripture, but they can't argue with my experience,” is becoming a common refrain that’s not entirely wrong, but should raise some red flags. This mindset sets up our own human experiences as ultimate truth and risks sending the same message to others that their story is ultimate truth, too. This won’t eradicate their heartfelt need for Jesus, so they will just continue the search elsewhere. The cost here is far too great to take this path. The nuances involved in storytelling require wise and prayerful pondering.
Storytelling mattered to Jesus. The Bible is often described as one big storybook, and stories were a huge part of Jesus’ personal ministry as well. In Matthew 13, the disciples questioned Jesus about his use of parables, revealing that they noticed his frequent storytelling as noteworthy. It stood out. But Jesus always directed his listeners back to truth as it is shared in God’s Word. Our stories should have all the freedom to stand out as well, but it should be the golden theme of the gospel that catches the ear of our listener and gives our stories their purpose.
Be encouraged to continue using your life account to connect with those around you. It’s one of the best ways to do that. But remember that your story won’t save anyone. God’s story will.
**Should you need help figuring out how to weave your story in with God’s story in a more seamless way, the book God Space by Doug Pollock is by far the best resource I have ever read on this topic. I don’t know Mr. Pollock, but I have been grateful for his wisdom and I have felt empowered by his thoughts on engaging natural spiritual conversations.