It was not always that way, but I have a love-hate relationship with evangelism. When I was only eight, my mom and I attended two sets of back-to-back traditional evangelistic meetings, and at the end, two things happened: (1) my mom decided to be baptized, and (2) a few months later, when I got my own Bible, I decided to be an evangelist. Mom helped me mark my Bible for basic Bible studies. I seated my dolls and stuffed animals in neat rows, and then, with my Bible strategically placed on a cardboard-box pulpit, I preached. That was the beginning.
Thanks to my mom, I developed an interest in mission as well. Every Christmas, she gave me mission storybooks, which I devoured. This led to a determination to become a missionary. The commitment continued into college, where I became a teacher, with a minor in religion.
As the new pastor of the Ubol district in northeast Thailand, I put these two interests from my childhood to the test. I was invited to a nearby village to meet with Buddhist men interested in knowing more about Christianity. Nothing I had studied through years of Adventist Christian schools had really prepared me for how to present the basics of Christianity to someone who had neither any background in the Bible nor any previous knowledge of Jesus or God. I realized that the proof-text method would not be meaningful to someone who did not know anything about the Bible.
Instead, I chose another traditional starting point—Daniel 2. It’s an ancient story involving a king. And a dream. And a mysterious prophecy. And it dates to the time of the Buddha. (Daniel and the Buddha were contemporaries.)
It did not turn out well. The names and dates of the kingdoms had no significance to these Buddhist men, educated to grade 6 or less, living in an isolated Thai village. I realize now that my love-hate relationship with traditional evangelism, at least in non-Christian settings, stems from experiences such as this.
After that encounter, I embarked on a quest: How can God’s universal message be given to people who have no common foundation on which to build and may even be resistant? Despite years of false starts and failed attempts, I eventually found in the Bible a new direction that provided answers to my question.
The Bible—God’s Storybook
The importance of stories is seen in the composition of the Bible itself. It is 75 percent stories!1 An additional 15 percent is psalms, proverbs, poetry, and prayers. Together these are the practical, personal, easy-to-remember parts of the biblical record.
In short, the Bible is a record of God’s story. The truth about God is revealed in more than seven hundred stories. His dealings with people reveal His character, attributes, and power. These narratives show His dealings with every possible type of person: the chosen people as well as strangers and foreigners; the faithful and unfaithful, repentant and unrepentant. God’s story includes everyone. It shows His power to transform anyone, any worldview. The Bible writers were inspired to record each of these pieces of God’s story. Some are encouraging. Some seem difficult to understand, even strange. Many are amazing, almost impossible to believe. Each story, however, is only a tiny piece of the big picture of God.
Jesus modeled how to share the good news of the kingdom with those who had hardened their hearts. The early church showed how to evangelize Gentiles who worshiped multiple gods and had no knowledge of the true God. Even the Old Testament provided guidelines of how Israel should witness to “the nations” around them who did not know God.
God’s original plan: “Tell My story”
When God called Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3, He specified that Abraham and his descendants were chosen especially to bless the whole world! As a nation, they were placed at one of the major cross-roads of the world so that they could be a light in the darkness, pointing people to the true God. How were they to accomplish this mission?
They were to live the message. Their lives, families, values, health, faith, generosity, compassion, laws—all were to bring glory to God and to testify to His greatness, compassion, and power. This would attract “the nations” to the true God (Deut. 4:5–8). Sadly, this did not happen. Their lives were frequently anything but a reflection of the true character of God. They regularly had to be called back to their purpose and reminded of their mission.
“Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!” (Psalm 96:2–4; emphasis added).2
Jesus’ method of teaching
Mark and Matthew summarize Jesus’ way of teaching very simply. “All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable” (Matt. 13:34). Parables. Word pictures. Stories. Indeed, almost everything Jesus taught was through story.
That brings us to the question, Why stories? Stories have universal appeal. Men and women, adults and children, educated and uneducated— everyone is captivated by stories. Author Ellen White wrote: “Parable teaching was popular, and commanded the respect and attention, not only of the Jews, but of the people of other nations. No more effective method of instruction could He [Jesus] have employed.”3
In addition, Jesus lived in a predominantly nonliterate society,4 and He chose ways of teaching that fit His audience. Literacy rates have risen considerably today; a conservative estimate is that approximately 50 percent of the world’s population are either only functionally literate or completely illiterate. In addition, a large portion of the literate population are “oral learners.”5 Today, as during the time of Christ, the majority of the population learns best through nonprint media, primarily stories.
Stories impact emotions
Jesus used stories because our Creator understood the brain and how people learn. In recent years, brain research has confirmed the power of stories for imparting information as well as being inspiring.6 The brain responds differently to a story than it does to abstract (factual) information:
- People experience a story. They do not just hear it; they get involved with it. It becomes their story, their experience.
- People experience the same brain activity as the speaker. They enter the pain, joy, or excitement of the speaker with a deeper level of involvement.
- Stories trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, which enables listeners to remember information better. This explains why most of us cannot remember the points of the last sermon we heard but can usually remember the stories that went with it.
Stories transform worldview
Jesus also understood the power of stories to bring transformation at the deepest level—world-view. Worldview is the most powerful part of culture, and even though it is largely subconscious, it controls our beliefs, values, and behaviors. However, because it is subconscious, it is frequently overlooked or ignored.
N. T. Wright states that worldview is constructed from all the stories of our lives.7 They define what it means to be human. Subconsciously, they provide answers to the universal questions of life: What is real? Who am I? Where am I? What has gone wrong? What can be done about it?
Each child grows up with a combination of their own life experiences plus all the stories they have been told about life and the universe. Together these frame their worldview. A child growing up in an animistic culture hears stories of the power of spirits or ancestors and the rites and rituals needed to protect him or her from malevolent spirits or ancestors. A child growing up in a secular, atheistic culture encounters information and stories that question anything supernatural and magnify human wisdom and power. Unless replaced, those stories will continue to be a significant part of their lives.
Addressing beliefs and behaviors while leaving the worldview untouched is like putting a bandage on a cancer, hoping it will go away if it cannot be seen. True transformation needs to happen from the inside out. The stories and experiences of the old worldview need to be deconstructed and then reconstructed with alternate stories—God’s stories.8
Telling God’s stories confronts the erroneous aspects of the stories that constitute each worldview.
Jesus told stories “to challenge the existing Jewish worldview and to provide an alternative picture of reality.”9 To challenge the erroneous “kingdom worldview” that controlled Jewish thinking and life, Jesus told dozens of parables that began, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” He usually did not explain the parable, neither did He confront their erroneous thinking head-on. Jesus simply told stories and parables, which gradually challenged their worldview at its core.
The apostles and the early church
The apostles and the early church continued this method. In the book of Acts,10 sermons to the Jews are focused almost entirely on two things: the Messianic prophecies and a retelling of the stories of God’s dealings with Israel in the past. The apostles’ teaching concluded with stories of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus.
Sermons to Gentile audiences,11 however, were different. The apostles began by taking the audience back to stories of the Creator, who has power over all other gods and who loves everyone equally. Then they introduced Jesus, the God-Man, and His amazing ministry. Even the epistles, the most theological and abstract parts of the New Testament, are filled with references to stories of God’s acts as recorded in the Old Testament. The mission movement in the book of Acts was fueled by story, just as Jesus’ ministry was.
Pieces of a whole
Years ago, I stood gazing at the Taj Mahal. From a distance I had seen beautiful vines and flowers adorning the walls. Up close, I realized that each design was made up of many individual pieces of precious or semiprecious stones. No one stone was especially beautiful. No one stone was the whole picture. Together, they created something amazing. And that’s how the Bible is. If we want to introduce people to God, what better tool is there than these hundreds of precious gems that together create a clear picture of our awesome God?
Looking back at my experience sitting on a mat in a small home in northeast Thailand, I wish I had realized just how powerful God’s story is. And how simple it is to share. Perhaps, like Jesus, I could have told stories that showed the God of Christianity to be compassionate and forgiving (the prodigal son, the good Samaritan) or compassionate and fair (the sheep and the goats) or that showed the God who has power over nature (Jesus calmed the storm). Or with Paul, I could have gone back to the Creation story of the powerful God who provided for all our needs. I wish I had shared God’s stories. What better “seeds” could I have planted?
The foundation of the three angels’ messages in Revelation 14:6, 7 is simple. Proclaim the everlasting gospel—the good news of God’s love. Lead people to revere God, to give Him glory, and to worship the Creator of heaven and earth. The same message that was entrusted to Israel.
If that is the heart of our mission, maybe I do not have a love-hate relationship with evangelism after all. The challenge is to find appropriate ways to share the good news of God’s story with each person. Those who do not know God need to be introduced to Him first. They need to learn to trust Him. And worship Him. And give Him glory. Everything else is commentary.
1 John Walsh, “All the Stories of the Bible,” bible.org/series/all-stories-bible.
2 Scripture references are from the English Standard Version.
3 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 21; emphasis added.
4 Rick Sessoms, Leading with Story: Cultivating Christ-Centered Leaders in a Storycentric Generation (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2016), 38.
5 Making Disciples of Oral Learners, Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 54, 2004, LausanneCommittee for World Evangelism, first page of chapter 1, accessed July 10, 2019, lausanne.org/docs/2004forum/LOP54_IG25.pdf.
6 Susan Weinschenk, “Your Brain on Stories,” Psychology Today, Nov. 4, 2014, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-wise/201411/your-brain-stories; Giovanni Rodriguez, “This Is Your Brain on Storytelling: The Chemistry of Modern Communication,” Forbes, July 21, 2017, forbes.com/sites/giovannirodriguez/2017/07/21/this-is-your-brain-on-storytelling-the-chemistry-of-modern-communication/#12ed58e0c865.
7 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 40.
8 Tom Steffen, Worldview-Based Storying: The Integration of Symbol, Story, and Ritual in the Orality Movement (Richmond, VA: Orality Resources International: 2018), 155.
9 Making Disciples of Oral Learners, 34.
10 Acts 2:14–40; 3:12–26; 4:8–12; 7:1–53; 13:16–41; 17:2, 3; 22:1–21; 24:10–21.
11 Acts 10:34–43; 14:15–17; 17:22–31.
Visit www.MinistryMagazine.org/stories to find “Taste and See—Stories of Hope and Faith” that include over 100 Bible Story suggestions and outlines for story-centric discipleship Bible studies. Get guidance on how to ask questions and develop your own story framework. There are Bible story suggestions for various aspects of the disciples’ growth, how to have a real experience with Jesus, and how to become His disciple.