There was a time when Britain was the murder capital of Northern Europe. Missionaries from what would become the Western wing of the Church (the Roman missionaries) and those from what would become the Eastern wing of the church (the Celtic Apostles) traveled via the European continent and Ireland (respectively) tasked with converting the heathen of Britain and transforming the culture.
In the space of little more than a generation the task had been fulfilled and Britain began to take its place as one of the strongest missionary centres of the world. What was the tranformational tool, the secret weapon that these evangelist of the Dark Ages had up their sleeve? The power of story telling!
Paulinus of Rochester
When kings and nobles threw parties in the dark ages, music and storytelling were a vital part of the entertainment. With no sound systems, movies, downloads or TV the live musician and the live storyteller were the stars of the day. Missionaries like Paulinus made themselves supreme storytellers and thereby found themselves hotly in demand.
The popular Saxon sagas were all about suffering and heroism, cosmic struggles of good against evil, of men against monsters, tales of evading curses and death, fables of super powers and miracles. Paulinus knew that in the Gospel he had a story that covered all those bases and trumped all others in every stake!
King Edwin of Northumbria
At a banquet held in Norfolk in 627AD, Edwin, the king of murder-central, Northumbria, sat and listened to Paulinus’ Gospel saga. He and his barons were moved by the telling and were made reflective by it. In the silent afterglow of Paulinus’ recital, one of the barons spoke for all when he said,“We have never heard a story like this. This story shines light on our lives. It gives answers to our questions…”
The aftermath of that story was that the king gave his life to Christ and decreed Northumbria open to other Gospel storytellers to come and repeat what Paulinus had just done. So it was the conversion and transformation of that vital kingdom began. (You can read more about this in my book Be Thou My Breastplate.)
That is the power of the story. The hearer sees his or her own life differently in the light of the story and finds inspiration and strength to chart a different path. That’s why the power of storytelling has been vital in at least two areas of my own journey in ministry.
Hearing the stories of Francis of Assisi and the Mendicant Orders of the C13th inspired John Wesley’s initiatives as a Student in the C18th. Hearing the stories of John Wesley in the C18th inspired William Booth for a fresh departure in the C19th
Through the twelve years of Jesus Generation those who became part of the community did so not because of a mission-strategy statement, but because of a canon of stories. Each potential new member would hear stories from our canon of exemplars – forbears who had previously charted the path of intentional community. This was the vital part of our postulancy process. Those who joined us were the ones who listened to the canon of stories and said, “Those stories make sense of my context. I want to be a part of those stories!”
In intentional interim ministry stories are told – firstly to give light to the hearers’ immediate situation. Secondly stories are told to pull the imagination of the hearers out of their immediate situation and into a realm where God is working and good things are happening. Again the hearers will spark with one or other of the stories and say in effect, “I want to be part of a story like that,” and when there has been a little more healing, “I want our church to be part of a story like that.”
In my experience this works when, like that of Paulinus, the stories are true stories – stories of God’s power at work in the world today.
A third reason to tell stories in our churches is to enable God’s people to see themselves differently. I believe our churches are full of people who do not appreciate the value of what they themselves are doing towards the Kingdom of God. Often the “hero stories” we tell are about contexts and consequences so far removed from the hearers’ own situations as to make the hearer slump back into a funk of feeling powerless and irrelevant to the work of the churches of God. But when a believer hears a story that ennobles and energizes their own sense of significance and call then you’ve got dynamite.
This is why I love the great cloud of witnesses represented by 2000 years of apostolic history. That’s why their testimonies are woven through every book I write! In the stories of our forbears lies the potential for successive generations of individuals and groups to find spiritual friendship, vision, inspiration and strength for charting paths in the present that have roots in the past and mighty potential for a fruitful future. If we are to be paradigm-shifters, we who pastor-teach must, like Paulinus, learn to become supreme story-tellers.
What are the stories that energize you? Who are the storytellers in your world?