Monday, May 5, 2014

Rethinking How We Teach: The Importance of Story

Over the last 14 months I have been working with middle and high school students on a weekly basis--teaching them, discipling them, trying to cut loose and have fun again. (It's amazing how a steady diet of academics can really turn you into an old man at heart!) For the first nine months, I had a curriculum that was topical and teen-centric, but I discovered that my youth were having trouble putting it all together (or remembering what we talked about for that matter).

The difficulties I find with teaching an unending stream of topics--regardless of whether or not they are "relevant"--is that we, in the church, often fail to lay a good foundation of meta-narrative, the over-arching story of scripture. It's like pulling a bunch of lines and scenes from a movie in random order when you've never watched the whole movie. Pieces and parts are very important, but when we loose the forest for the trees we giving people "twelve baskets of fragments." Information in and of itself is rarely inspiring. Stories are inspiring.

As a guy with a BA in English, I am well acquainted with story. I love stories. I try to read 15-20 fiction books a year. When I get tired of reading, I watch TV (I know, I know! Not very intellectual, but I can't get enough of my favorite characters). The Bible is chocked full of stories. The great stories of the OT, such as creation, Noah's flood, the tower of Babel, Abraham, Joseph, the exodus from Egypt, Joshua leading Israel into the promise land, etc. etc. The synoptic gospels are jam-packed with stories of healings and miracles and conflict with the religious leaders. Plus, Jesus loves answering questions with parables. In his excellent but highly academic book, The Faith of Jesus Christ: the Narrative Sub-structure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, Dr. Richard B. Hays and Scot McKnight in his less dense book, The King Jesus Gospel, have made a strong cases for "the Gospel" at basic level simply being the story of Jesus and the cross--even when someone like Paul seems to be writing a totally different type of material all together. When the gospel is referenced in most of the NT, it points back to basic plot points of a narrative...and narrative equals story.

God is clearly not afraid of stories. But stories can be messy. Story can be vague or unclear in what they ask us to do. Stories can require us to think creatively, so we skip story and Biblical narrative and meta-narrative and give people information dumps followed by three imperatives for the Christian life. Next week, when we ask what we learned about last week, we are greeted with crickets. We tried to inspire people with information, but information does not equal transformation. Transformation occurs when our minds are changed by the Holy Spirit through the Word. Transformation happens when our old sinful and fallen scripts for seeing the world and ourselves are called into question and replaced with a new narrative--a narrative of the cross.

Recently, I have been on a mission to discover how to better communicate with teens, or adults for that matter, by capturing their imaginations and inspiring them to grow in their knowledge of God and the scriptures. Many weeks I fail. Oftentimes I slide back into delivering content devoid of story. I tell myself that building a theological framework isn't sexy but it is necessary. Teaching people a difficult concept such as the Trinity is vital. Teaching them that Christianity is grounded in a historical reality is imperative. Teaching them that God has called His Church to be One as He is One is critical for developing disciples that will cross party lines to work together, "so that the world may believe" that the Father has sent Jesus to be the Savior of the world. I do believe this; however, I don't want theology to become the replacement "topic" to topical lessons and sermons. I want to capture people's imaginations for Christ.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, and any stories you might share about your experiences in teaching and preaching. Have you found ways to teach theological lessons that inspire and spark imagination in your audience? Please share these with us in the comments below.


  1. I found myself agreeing with many of your points and disagreeing with others. Your statement "Transformation occurs when I change the way I think and act and stories are usually the vehicles that get us there" was confusing to me as I disagree with the first half about transformation being on us, but can agree that stories can be a means that get us to transformation only if they are found in scripture. Your statement puts the onus of transformation on us instead of upon the work of Christ. I would agree that stories (as found in scripture) are the means of grace that bring transformation as stated in Romans 10:17. Since faith comes by hearing, conveying scripture to your youth is very important; infinitely more important than topical “relevant” programming. I agree with your synopsis of piece milling scripture to develop relevant topics is a disservice to your students and their lack of interest only proves it. You’ve found the symptom (uninterested youth) and disease (relevant pop culture Christian materials/information dumping) and are looking for help with discerning the appropriate medicine. That medicine is found by not co-mingling law and gospel. Your statement “Stories can require us to think creatively, so we skip story and Biblical narrative and meta-narrative and give people information dumps followed by three imperatives for the Christian life” is sadly true and a perfect example of what co-mingling law & gospel does to our youth (and beyond). When we give people “information dumps” within the context of Christian orthodoxy (where we are correctly taught that works aren’t salvivic) and then give them 3 imperitives for the Christian life, we are being hypocrites. An imperative necessitates a “have to.” When people hear that they are saved by Christ’s merit alone, and then they “have to” do these things or they are not a Christian, it’s a damning paradoxical situation. The weight of incidentally insinuating that we have to play a part in our own salvation is not only confusing, but causes many modern youths to point out the paradox presented and flee the church. For some this is a mental fleeing and others it is a physical fleeing. My thoughts and encouragement would be to teach them from a position where the law is the law and the gospel is the gospel. The purpose of the law is to curb (punish evil in the world through laws), mirror (compare myself to Christ which will expose my sin) and guide (give an example, not an imperative, for Christian living) while the purpose of the gospel is to receive what has been done for you in Christ. The word gospel itself means “good news.” I cannot do “good news” I can only receive it. The gospel is not an imperative. I think your idea to teach them true biblical accounts including the narrative and meta-narrative are great. I would encourage teaching them by using the law/gospel paradigm as a way to continually call them to repentance. The other issue that all who teach youth face is the fact that parents are completely shirking their biblical duties to disciple their children at home. Teaching, at its core, is the parent’s responsibility. When we send our kids to School (public, private or even Sunday school) we are responsible for what our kids are learning and must help them discern what they are being taught. This also means the head pastor at the church must also correctly instruct the adults about their God given responsibilities to disciple their children. The problem is systemic, but I think you are on the right track with teaching them the true biblical accounts (stories).

  2. Hey, Jonathan. Thanks for your feedback. It pointed out a couple of points that I left unclear. I will be editing this post to reflect the changes. The first of these points is that that story sticks and carries information in a way that bare facts do not. From a communication stand point stories resonate with people better than non-narrative material. However, I was not trying to imply that non-biblical stories were spiritually transformative in and of themselves. Secondly, I worded my sentence poorly when I stated, "Transformation occurs when I change the way I think and act..." You are correct to point out that the Word of God is a means of grace. The Holy Spirit is the One doing the transformation--not me. Thanks for helping me be more precise.

  3. You're welcome! Your edits made a world of difference in what is being conveyed to the reader. Looking forward to future posts.