Sharing our faith with millennial generations: The power of storytelling
Nico, have you seen my headset?” I asked my son as I prepared for my work trip.
After finishing the normal carry-on-only packing drill, I was looking for the final and indispensable two items: my neck pillow and sound-canceling headphones—old traveling companions for long-distance flights.
“No, Dad. I have no idea where they might be,” Nico answered. I could not find them, and I had to leave immediately for the airport.
On my trip to the airport, an image flashed in my mind. A week before, on the returning flight, I had placed my headphones in my seat-front pocket, and, yes, I myself had forgotten them.
Since I was now going to the same airport, when I got there, I called the Lost and Found department and told my unfortunate tale to the woman who was on the other end of the line.
“Did you have your name on your headphones?” she asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Everything we had with no identification was sent to the hub in Houston two days ago. I’m sorry, but it is impossible to find your headphones now. Have a good day, sir.”
Did she need to say “impossible”? I wondered.I dialed the frequent-flyer phone number with the naïve expectation that a gentle individual would answer. Someone picked up. After telling her the whole story—including the “impossible” component I had just heard of—she told me to hold on.
There I was, standing in the corridor by the baggage claim area, now listening to what seemed to be the whole piece Rhapsody in Blue. Twice!
Just as I was about to give up, the airline representative asked, “Mr. Gonçalves, what color is your headset?”
“Black!” I replied with no hesitation.
“I’m so sorry, but the only ones I have been able to locate in the system are dark-gray—”
“Well, mine were kind of black. But not that black.” Then I quickly mentioned the only thing I was really sure about concerning the physical appearance of my headphones: “They have big blue letters R and L inside the earpads.”
“Wait a minute.” Then I heard the typical click-clacking on a keyboard that airport personnel know how to do so masterfully.
“Where are you right now?” she inquired.
“Outside the Lost and Found office, by the baggage claim area.”
“I think I have found your headphones. Please, don’t move. An airline employee will meet you right there.”
In quasi-disbelief, I stammered, “Wow! Thank you somuch for your help,” and then I hung up. To my despair, two and a half seconds later, I realized I had not asked her name or that of the person supposed to find me!
So, what did I do? I remained exactly where I was—waiting for someone I had never seen in my life who, in turn, had no clue who I was.
Then, in the distance, I saw a woman in a navy-blue uniform coming in my direction with something black (sorry, dark gray!) under her arm. She approached me with a smile and asked: “Are you Mr. Gonçalves?”
I replied, “Yes, that’s me!”
“This is yours,” she said, handing the headphones to me. “I really do not know how we were able to find the owner of something like this with no identification. This is something really special!”
And sure enough, they were my beloved head-phones. And there I was, feeling as if I were carrying the one-hundredth sheep in my hands, ready to call my family at home to announce, “Rejoice with me. I have found my lost headset!”
Now, let me ask you a few things. As you were reading my brief account of a real situation, did you imagine some of the scenes as I described them? Did you perhaps remember similar situations you have experienced yourself? Did you want to know whether my story would have a happy ending?
If you had any of those feelings or reactions, you were caught by the power of storytelling.
Storytelling through history
Throughout human history, the use of narrative— stories—has been one of the most crucial elements in our effort to shape life. We have used stories to express how we view ourselves. Furthermore, we regard stories as a communication process deeply connected with our past, present, and future.
That is one of the main reasons that for several hundred years, Western culture was developed upon Christian traditions and guided by God’s actions in human history, as described in the biblical narrative. But not anymore.
With the rise of secular worldviews, historical narratives—including those found in the Bible—have drastically lost their importance in bringing meaning to people’s lives. The secularization of historical narratives, however, brings even more disturbing consequences in post-Christian cultural contexts. For many, it seems that we no longer have a central narrative able to explain every aspect of human life. On the contrary, many assume that there exist only innumerable contradictory stories, none of them more valid than any other.
Nevertheless, since human beings have a strong sense of curiosity and a deep personal need for meaning, our desire to comprehend the big questions of life has opened the door to new opportunities for the use of storytelling as an effective method in reaching the millennial generation with the eternal gospel. Why? Because life, especially for younger people, is a drama or narrative in itself, in which one of the major problems is to define their identity and find the purpose for their existence. People want to be proud of their lives, to feel they are important. Longing to be connected with others, they want to have their hearts touched at the deep-est personal level. Stories can do all these things. That’s why we should turn again to the importance and power of storytelling.1
The science of storytelling
Scientific studies confirm that storytelling is one of the fundamental instruments of human thought with the power to engage our minds, especially because our existence is organized in time and narrative. In other words, storytelling is a human necessity. Part of who we are depends on the stories we hear and tell.
Findings on the neurobiology of storytelling go even further in helping us understand its power and importance in our lives. A neurochemical called oxytocin is the key player in the process. This powerful hormone regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction, playing a major role in labor and breastfeeding. Our bodies produce it when we face situations that demonstrate trust, kindness, or empathy. As a result, it enhances our ability to experience other people’s emotions and feelings. For instance, when we hug or kiss someone we love, our levels of oxytocin increase.
But what does oxytocin have to do with storytelling? A study led by Dr. Paul J. Zak, and funded by the US Department of Defense, found a way to “ ‘hack’ the oxytocin system to motivate individuals to engage in cooperative behaviors” with one another.2 Dr. Zak’s team tested how narratives presented in video format, instead of personal contact, could force the brain to produce oxytocin. After drawing blood samples before and after the “narrative experience,” they found that character-driven narratives steadily triggered the synthesis of oxytocin. Additionally, the same study revealed that the amount of oxytocin produced by the brain predicted one’s disposition to engage in sympathetic actions, such as the motivation to contribute to a charitable institution associated with the story watched. In subsequent studies, they found that, to stimulate the longing to assist other people in their needs, a relevant story must first keep the person’s attention through the intentional creation of “tension” in the narrative. If one can capture their attention, the audience will somehow share the same emotions of the characters involved and will most likely desire to emulate the feelings and behaviors they just saw.
In another study, Jennifer Aaker, the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at Stanford University, discovered that “stories [are] up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone.”3 The experiment gave a group of Stanford students a minute to present a persuasive argument. On average, they included 2.5 statistics in their presentation. Only 1 in 10 told a story. The result? Only 5 percent of those who participated recalled any statistic. At the same time, 60 percent remembered the stories told.
It is hard to argue against the fact that good stories stick in our brain! By the way, which part of the last sermon you heard do you remember?
The art of storytelling
As we have seen so far, study after study confirms what we have instinctively known for millennia: stories have a powerful influence on us. But what is a story? Different definitions abound. Some view it as an experience, a journey, something that deals with tension and conflict. Annette Simmons regards a story as a “reimagined experience narrated with enough detail and feeling to cause your listeners’ imaginations to experience it as real.”4 But how exactly can a story be a really good one? Communicator Rob Biesenbach presents six key characteristics5 of a powerful story:
1. Good stories touch our emotions. Somehow,they have the power to captivate and change our feelings. Appealing narratives spontaneously produce empathy in their audiences.
2. Good stories put a “face” on an issue. When we can associate an idea, initiative, dream, or vision with an attractive character, the probability that the message conveyed will reach us becomes much greater.
3. Good stories connect with our humanity. Great narratives help us relate with one another in ways that we may not even suspect. Why? They reveal our similarities even in the midst of our differences.
4. Good stories show who we are. Our narratives often give us the opportunity to see who we are and what our real value system is, something especially important to those in leadership positions. People are willing to be led by those whom they trust.
5. Good stories raise the stakes. Stories have the power to remove us from the daily routine, from the ordinary, and make us aware of a higher sense of our universal, shared values.
6. Good stories “show,” not just “tell” what to do. It is always safer and better to demonstrate who we are and what we believe than tell other people about hidden assumptions.
Another crucial aspect of the art of storytelling is the structure that stories should follow. Most people would agree that an engaging story must have a beginning (the setting or context, scene, and characters), a middle (the struggle, problem, or conflict), and an end (the solution, resolution, or answer). Usually, stories follow this pattern, but they also involve much more than just this basic approach. Nevertheless, in a nutshell, the best structures of an irresistible story usually present a character who faces a challenge in pursuit of an objective. How the character tries to resolve that challenge is the driving force behind the narrative.6
Why is all this important? Of course, we all love to hear a good story. But those who intentionally learn how to tell moving stories will have the unique ability to touch, inspire, influence, and move other people.7 Above all, knowing the basic assumptions, techniques, and structure of powerful stories will help us to present the greatest narrative of all—God’s story, with its power to transform human minds and hearts.
The transforming power of God’s story
To effectively communicate the eternal gospel to the millennial generation, we must develop the ability to think creatively and adapt wisely. In today’s changing cultural environment, new approaches become imperative. To this end, storytelling is even more necessary to effectively encourage decisions for Christ. Storytelling is a natural bridge to the post-Christian mind.
Younger people place a high value on the power of stories, especially real ones. Storytelling creates experiences that will more effectively address the concerns of human life. It invites those who share such experiences to a real and active involvement in the story told. Thus, experience and storytelling go hand in hand in developing confidence in younger people, something that, in most cases, more traditional forms of communication cannot accomplish.
We should, therefore, provide opportunities that allow individual stories to be compared with and transformed by God’s story, the narrative of the Scriptures. This may happen when our churches intentionally assist millennials in understanding the bigger picture of God’s actions in history and how it interconnects with their own stories.8 When exposed to the biblical narrative in wise and relevant ways, they will be able to see a story larger than their own. They will discover a God who decided to intercede in our story with the purpose of rescuing a lost world.
When God’s story begins to challenge the personal and local stories of millennials, it will touch minds that previously rejected cognitive information and facts. Not until post-Christian people can identify the great Storyteller (cf. Matt. 13:34) and align their own story to His purposes can we challenge the underlining assumption, that so many have, that metanarratives are invalid.
By telling God’s story, millennial generations can experience the only narrative that transcends and makes sense out of all other stories. It is best to let God’s story gain credibility for itself as the Holy Spirit works to bring the millennial heart to the point of serious reflection about the Christian faith.
One thing, though, we must never forget: people do not need more information. What they lack is faith. But they do not know this yet. How can we help them see their need? Narratives are the path to creating this faith. Sharing a meaningful story—especially our own story with God—has the potential to lead our listeners to reach the same conclusions we have arrived at relative to faith and a real relationship with God. Let them evaluate the stories and decide for themselves to accept and believe what we do. But make no mistake, they will only develop faith in what has become real for them. When they make God’s story their own, they have started the journey of transformation.
Are we willing to trust millennials, under the power of the Holy Spirit, to think for themselves? Can storytelling not simply be “sermon illustrations” but the prime approach to explain biblical narrative in meaningful ways? These are serious questions we must be able to answer if the focus of our mission and ministry is indeed to reach the millennial generation for Christ.
By the way, just in case, now I always keep my business card inside my headset cover!
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1 See Annette Simmons, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate With Power and Impact, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: AMACOM, 2015).
2 Paul J. Zak, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Stories,” Harvard Business Review, October 28, 2014, hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling.
3 Jennifer Aaker, “Harnessing the Power of Stories,” Vimeo video, 0:01 of 8:36, accessed July 15, 2019, womensleadership.stanford.edu/stories.
4 Simmons, Best Story, 22.
5 Rob Biesenback, Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results (Evanston, IL: Eastlawn Media, 2018), 15, 16.
6 The following resources bring out important aspects of powerful storytelling structures: Akash Karia, TED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques From the Best TED Talks (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015);Annette Simmons, The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling (Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2006).
7 Ty Bennett, The Power of Storytelling: The Art of Influential Communication (American Fork, UT: Sound Concepts, 2013), 68.
8 Peyton Jones, Reaching the Unreached: Becoming Raiders of the Lost Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 67