Is the story being told at your church useful? Does it lead to change or does it just seek to entertain?
Every year I attend the Transforming Ministries conference, an event put on by my region of United Methodism, featuring a mix of churchy and secular voices. Previous years included Alan Hirsch, Lillian Daniel, and Phillip Clayton, as well as Microsoft executives, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation chief of staff, and others. I found the takeaways from the intersection of church and world lingering on for months after the event.
The 2015 conference was held in Glendale, California, the home of Dreamworks Studios. The conference got to visit the Studio and spend time with Shawn Dennis, the head of their brand development, and director Tim Johnson, whose movies include Home, Over the Hedge, and Antz.
Two stories in every movie
One of the takeaways I took from this year’s collision of sacred and secular is the two stories that are told in every movie.
From the DreamWorks presentation, when we experience media (movie, music, novel, etc), there’s actually two stories being shared:
- The Entertainment story of the hero/shero overcoming challenges and emerging the other side. Or whatever the story is in Se7en or Sin City.
- The Audience story of the viewer who changes their life because of the entertainment story. What is the moral or how does it parallel what is going on in your life?
So the story matters more than the special effects (which is why Michael Bay movies are so lifeless). But what really matters is whether the story being depicted leads to life change in some way. Will our personal life change in our relationships after watching The Notebook? Will we go vegan after watching Food Inc? Will we stand up for the unlikely people after watching The Hobbit? Will we fight the power after watching V for Vendetta? It matters on how good the story is and how it connects with the viewer.
In short, we watch entertainment stories with heroes who model the changes we believe we need to make to overcome the challenges of the real world. And then we go and do likewise as we live out the audience’s story.
A crowded field of stories
Story matters to DreamWorks and to the Church alike…but it’s a crowded field nowadays.
An interesting statistic from DreamWorks is: More stories made and shared in the last 24 months than in all the rest of human history. And yes, this is always current. When you think of all the user-created youtube videos, songs, poems, prose, and other forms of media, each of those tell a story. The complete democratization of storytelling means that anyone, anywhere can share a story, and it increases exponentially every hour.
This leads to a crowded field. A field of stories that function on their own as entertainment–but the best of them hope for life change as a direct result of experiencing that story.
So in the past 24 months, there’s been more stories proclaimed hoping to change your life than humanity’s ever heard before.
And the Christian story is only one among them.
Is your story useful?
We’ve got to have a solid, life-altering, sticky story that lingers beyond anything found in popular culture or literary genres. And we do. But should we tell it the same way with so much competition these days, the likes of which Christendom has never seen?
I think of the stories being told from pulpits and choir lofts, in the Sunday school classrooms and in the adult bible studies. Churches are masters of telling the story depicted in the Bible and in the Christian tradition. Even in a secularizing culture, we know what story needs to be told and we know it stands on its own.
But what about the other story? Is the story useful? Does it lead to life change?
Frank Thomas’s seminal book is They Never Like to Quit Praisin’ God, where he says in his “Preaching Worksheet” (pp.74-80) that every sermon must have a change in behavior at its core. That every sermon should lead to behavioral change in the receiver, and the preacher should have that behavioral change mapped out and planned for, though the Spirit gives other encouragements (see original discussion about this topic at HX).
If the story being told at every single event doesn’t aspire to life change, then what does it matter?
People will form more of their identity to the Marvel universe than they will to the Gospel if it leads to more life change (which leads to more readers of our Geek Gospel series, so there’s a silver lining).
Life Change…with Limits
I have little time for useless-feel-good sermons or pontifications on a particular doctrine. What matters more to me is whether the story is a good one and if I can see it leading to life change for the other participants.
How are your stories being told?
- Are they stories of the Church and why they do this or that? If so, how does that lead to life change?
- Are they stories of the people and why they do this or that? If so, are the applicable beyond a particular segment of humanity and lead to life change?
- Are they stories of the culture and how they are astray or doing well? If so, how can the individuals change their life to change or embrace the culture?
- Are they examinations of the story of the people of God found in Scripture, in history, in today’s collective experience? If so, how do the hearers fit into that story beyond assent of belief?
My hope is that in the crowded field of stories told everyday that the story of your ministry context is about life change, behavioral change, in the most illuminating and least manipulating way possible. We’ve failed on that as a Church and continue to do so. There’s a lot of stories out there, and people are more aware of manipulations and cogitations, so we must do better.
We must tell the story. And the story must be useful.