A couple of the core competencies that I mentioned in the last post have provoked some comment. So this post will look at the first of these: telling stories.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich. When asked whether he would change society by revolution or reformation, he answered, "Neither of these. The best way to change society is to tell an alternative story." People love to listen to stories, and they will listen to our stories when they will not listen to us preaching. They also like to tell us their stories, and it is important that we develop good listening skills.
One of our favorite ways to start with a group of not-yet-believers is to ask them to tell us the story of where they are on their spiritual journey. It's a great open-ended question, and they will tell us a lot of things that we would like to know — do they have any kind of church background? Are they into some other religion?
I remember when we did this with a group of young people aged 17 to 25. The first girl to share her story told of a divorced background and how she had to leave her mother in California following an argument and come to live with her father here in Texas. It was in the middle of the school year, and some of her credits didn't transfer and she went from being the head cheerleader to a school where she knew nobody. She became more and more depressed, and eventually one evening found herself in the bathroom with all the medicines from the cabinet lined up in front of her. But before she attempted suicide she cried out to God, "God if there is a God, will you help me?" And God met her. A couple of days later she met on daughter, and now here she was in our living room telling us her story. The interesting thing was that there was not a dry eye in the room. All of us were profoundly moved by his story, and it provided a natural entree into talking about Jesus.
This is a concept known as prevenience: God is at work in our lives before we surrender to him, and when people tell their stories, we can see God at work even when they don't yet know him.
But now we need to learn to tell our story without it sounding like a sermon, or a "holier than thou" diatribe. Unbelievers are turned off by our use of Christian language and probably don't understand it. We need to learn to tell our story without using any Christian jargon such as sin, salvation, redemption etc. This is a skill that can be practiced. If you look at the times that Paul tells his story in the book of Acts, he describes his life prior to knowing Jesus, then his encounter on the Damascus road, and finally what God has him doing now.
You can develop stories for different situations too. Someone has financial problems; was there a time in your life when God came through for you financially? Someone has health problems; you have a story of when God healed you or dealt with the fears you had about your condition.
Suggested activity: Spend some time working on your story, getting it to where you can tell it in 2-3 minutes. Then find a friend who will listen to you tell it, stopping you whenever you use a word that is "religious."
[Note: There is an activity called Bible storying which is primarily used in oral cultures where Bible stories are told in chronological order. I believe this will become a skill used more and more in a Western context too, where people are increasingly becoming a-literate--they can read but choose not to. It is very effective. I remember demonstrating it once, and a couple of weeks later, found the story I told blogged about by someone two steps removed from the person I had told the story to.]