Preface To This Week’s Article By John Shaw:
Every person is drawn to a good story. Does that statement sound too bold? Too certain? Absolute statements are often too simple, that we can all agree on. (See what I did there. Another absolute.) Yet I think, if we pay attention, we see that story telling is a part of who we are. And that shouldn’t surprise us – we are made in the image of a story-telling God. He planned and perfectly tells the greatest story the world will ever know – the good news story of the gospel. (Of course, to be really clear, we need to understand that this story is a true story, not fiction.)
Have you ever watched a young child hear a good story for the first time? Have you ever heard the excitement in a child’s voice, asking a sibling or parent, “Will you please tell me a story?” Have you watched a child learning how to tell their own made up story? Have you observed the excitement as children learn to read stories by themselves for the first time? Have you stayed up way too late because you can’t put down a well-written book? Have you shared a new favorite book with a friend? The excitement is contagious.
The following article takes that common human interest – the love of story – and applies the reasons for that common interest to our relationships and our evangelism. Every person has their own story. (Have you listened to novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”? I highly recommend it. She challenged me to rethink how I love and talk with others.) And we love people well when we take the time to carefully listen to their story.
Many of you have never thought in that way before, and that is OK. But I would suggest that what we know about story and storytelling can help us become better listeners, better friends, and better sharers of the gospel.
Maybe like me, you will get part way through this article or the next article and think: I have no idea what he’s talking about; maybe I should just move on. Let me encourage you in this way. Keep reading to the end, for the punch line. (Actually, there are several punch lines throughout these articles – also some helpful charts.) If nothing else, you will better understand why you enjoy well-told stories so much. But hopefully, you will be challenged to love people well as you listen intently to their story, and you will also learn how to share the story of the gospel more effectively in the process.
The following article which will be in two parts is written by Brad Hertzog. He is a former OPC church planter in Queens, NY who now does consulting work in communication and digital media.
LOVING THEIR STORY
We are wired to love our own story. We need to learn to love someone else’s story.
Over the last ten years, I’ve grown in my understanding of the concept of story—story as a form or medium of communication. I guess I always knew that there were stories around in life, and I can recognize a good story. But I never really thought about the role story plays in our lives. This new understanding started when I was a church planter in the OPC in New York City. How would I get to know people and get involved in their lives and build relationships—especially people who didn’t have interests that were similar to mine?
I was introduced to new writers across different vocational fields that talked in depth about story. I heard some Christians—some Reformed Christians—talking about story in a way I hadn’t heard. What I learned is that stories aren’t just about telling stories. Story and narrative is its own form of communication, with its own properties, its own rules, and its own categories. Just like an essay, a speech, or poetry have their own rules and forms. This opened up a new world to me as it applied to the Christian life and the life of the church. This all makes sense because we serve a God who is a storytelling God. It’s no coincidence that two-thirds of God’s revelation to us is in the form of stories. His truth is embedded in story and narrative.
The world, at least a portion of it, is having this significant conversation about story. There are many profound thoughts about the importance of story in our lives. There are two kinds of people talking—those that attribute the origin and importance to God and those that don’t. But both shed light on the topic. To establish that I’m not pulling things out of thin air, just a couple of quotes from those exploring story. Think about these couple ideas:
“Story—sacred and profane—is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story.” (Jonathan Gottschall)
“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” (Jonathan Gottschall)
“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” (Muriel Rukeyser)
To bring in some accurate theology, a Calvinistic pastor draws some connections:
“Christians believe an audacious fact. At the heart of our faith is the bold claim that in a world full of stories, with a world’s worth of heroes, villains, comedies, tragedies, twists of fate, and surprise endings, there is really only one story. One grand narrative subsumes and encompasses all the other comings and goings of every creature—real or fictitious—on the earth.” (Mike Cosper)
People And Their Stories
So, how has this changed me? In my newfound understanding I want to share one new principle: When you are dealing with a human being, that person’s story is the most important thing in their life. This idea pairs up with an old principle I already knew, but has been highlighted in a new way. That old principle is: Once you become a Christian you realize that God’s story is ultimately the most important thing and your story fits under His story. But, that doesn’t demean the importance of your own story—because that’s what you are living out each day.
Those who have read or listened to John Shaw will know he likes to say that people are worth knowing and worth loving because they are created in the image of God. The way that you do that–the way that you love somebody and get to know them because they’re worth knowing–is through their story. Actually, it’s through appreciating their story.
This could revolutionize how you get to know people and build a relationship with them. Let me explain. We all have certain mannerisms when beginning a conversation and interacting with people. We have our own quirks. We have our own faults in conversation. We have things that we’re good at and some things at which we’re not so good. Some of us don’t listen well. But what if I told you that when you meet a new person and you recognize that their story is the most important thing in their life that your job is to get to know their story. Maybe even to get to know their story better than they know it. How would that change your interaction in your conversations? What if your goal was to be like a biographer who is writing a feature piece for the Wall Street Journal about their story? This approach is opposed to how we often approach the early parts of the relationship–by thinking of it more as a tennis match: they share one thing they like; I share one of mine. They share one thing that frustrates them, and I share one thing that frustrates me. Now let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that you can’t talk about yourself. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a give-and-take and sharing about one another’s lives–because they’re also getting to know you. But what I’m saying is your goal or mindset changes to that of a biographer–always looking for how to learn more about them, always looking for connections in their lives. Always looking for ways to better understand who they are, what motivates them, what drives them, and how they live life. You can see that this is a different approach from how you currently get to know somebody new at work, or in the neighborhood, or after church. This isn’t about looking for a surface level connection: “Hey, I play golf, too.”
Often when we talk with somebody, even with genuine motive, we get so excited about something they say that we can’t wait to chime in with our own response. We can view people as somebody who can’t wait to hear our thoughts and to hear about our lives. Sometimes we spend a large portion of our life not getting great interaction with people and see every new person as an opportunity to find our new friend—somebody to hear our hopes and fears and our longings. But I am suggesting a different paradigm in the name of reaching people in our lives for the gospel. When you take the mindset or role of biographer, you end up learning how to encourage the person, how to serve them, how to be a true picture of the grace of the gospel to them. They are created in the image of a storytelling God who gave them a story and gave you a story and now has connected your two stories.
Only a Christian can see that reality, and you cannot ignore that once you see it. So, you begin to engage their story. This perspective is transformative. It allows you to invest in the person, even if they aren’t interested in the same things you are. It allows you to “appreciate” their story, even if it’s a bad story with things you don’t approve of—you don’t have to run away from the grit and dirt of a story. You don’t have to avoid that aspect of the story. God is writing it, what might he do if you can relate and listen and engage where others are silent or uncomfortable?
A New Paradigm For Conversation
Let’s think through, practically, how this approach might work out in conversation. When you are talking about story—particularly developing a story—a popular question is: what happened next? So, for example if you hear Pixar writers (some of the great storytellers today) developing a story, you may regularly hear that question: what happened next? The underlying initiative is to draw out what the storyteller is thinking and keep the story moving. The phrase “what happened next” isn’t a rigid construct—it’s a representation of a mentality to get at the connections and movement in the story. You might hear: “what happened that led to that?” or other variations that are all in the “What happened next” structure. Now, what if we took that approach with our conversations? What if when talking to somebody new your driving thought was to find out what happened next? Does this approach sound odd to you? Well if we think for a moment, we may realize that our standard approach could be summarized with a statement something like: “Hey, that happened to me too.” I’m suggesting we switch “happened to me” to “what happened next?” You may realize that implied in the phrase “what happened next” are the words: to you. The focus shift is from what happened to you to what happened to them. The focus of your questions shift. Let’s be specific. See if these examples help:
|Person’s response to one of your questions||“That happened to me too” approach||“What happened next” approach|
|“I am a programmer-write code for apps and websites.”||“Wow. That’s so interesting. My son has started learning code. He may study it in college.”||“Wow. What led you to down that road—to writing apps?”|
|“I love to watch sports, big (insert local NFL team) fan”||“Cool. I’m a big college football guy. I love the tradition. (we may even add early in the conversation–”rather watch on Saturdays cause of church and the Lord’s Day on Sunday).||“Did you grow up playing sports too, or more just enjoying watching?” (Notice this is a “what happened next” category of question though it’s not structured anything like it.|
|“We have two kids, Penelope is 4 (pointing to her) and Maximus is 7. They are a handful.”||“Yeah, ours are 10 and 13. Just wait a few years. You’ll see what a handful really looks like.”||“What do each of them like to do?”|
|“We live in (insert neighborhood name) near the park.”||“Ah. We lived near there when we first got married. Great neighborhood. One of my closest friends lives on Sunset—probably right near you.||“Nice. How did you end up picking that area….work or family connection or just found a good house?|
|“My wife found your church website. We looked around…thought we’d give it a shot.”||“Great. A lot of people seem to find us that way. I haven’t really seen our church website. But lots of people seem to like it.”||“Did you find a lot of churches in the area when you were searching?”|
Now, let’s be clear again: This isn’t rigid, and you don’t have to respond to every thing they say in this way. There’s give and take. There needs to be a naturalness to the conversation. You aren’t interrogating them. But think for a minute about how conversations usually go, or try to pay attention to one at church this coming week. You will probably find a couple things. First, most people are 80-100% in the “That Happened to Me” mode when they talk. Second, unfortunately in Reformed churches, many of the people who are quick to greet visitors are close to 100% “That Happened to Me-ers.” If we are more intentional and more focused on their story, the “what happened next” approach can dramatically change our conversations. Take a minute with the chart above to think about what the “what happened next” approach may be open up with someone versus what the “that happened to me” approach may shutdown in the conversation. And that’s just the response to one question. Think about a whole conversation. Better yet, try it. Be aware over the next couple weeks and dabble. (I’d love to hear about it—what you experience and learn….or let me know I’m crazy).