This article is a continuation from last week. You are free to read this post as a stand alone, but it will make more sense in the context of last week’s part 1, which you can read here: Loving Their Story – Part 1
Part 1 also includes a preface from John Shaw that we repeat in part here:
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.
Here is the Part 2 of the article written by Brad Hertzog, former OPC church planter in Queens, NY.
LOVING THEIR STORY – PART 2
There is a second way that “loving their story” may create a helpful paradigm shift for you in developing relationships. It will give you a framework to focus on what God is doing, generally speaking, in this person’s life. They are in the script! They are a character in the story. And they are now in your story! We don’t know what role they play yet. If you are watching the early part of a movie and the main character bumps into someone at the grocery store, you don’t immediately know if they will be a bit character just in this one scene to show us something about the main character or if this may be the great love interest. But you are watching. You are paying attention. Likewise with every person you meet. They are in the story. They are in your story. And you are in their story. The paradigm shift also gives you a framework to focus on what God might be doing in this person’s life—from a salvation standpoint. Why are they part of the script? Supporting role? Bit-character? Heading to the celestial city? We don’t know. But we watch and we pay attention.
In the world of story–the formal study of it that I was talking about earlier–there is something called “the hero’s journey.” It’s basically the realization that stories follow a pretty conventional structure that has about 12 parts to it. Illustrating the Hero’s Journey is best done visually. I want you take a moment and think about a popular story that you know really well. A movie you’ve seen or a book you’ve read multiple times. Whether it’s Star Wars, Hunger Games, Pride & Prejudice, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or any other that comes to mind. You ready? Now follow this chart with the story you have in mind. Can you map out the journey?
How did it go? Try it again if you like. It’s going to work on almost every story. There are some exceptions. Some stories intentionally break the pattern. But if they are good stories, you can piece it together. Some stories unintentionally break the pattern. They are called boring.
Stories have this structure and this rhythm. Bible stories have this structure. Jesus’s story has this structure. And there’s one other story that follows the hero’s journey as well: yours. A full discussion of this is for another time. But for now, know that the grand sweep of our lives certainly can be plotted along the hero’s journey.
Now having some awareness of the hero’s journey, let’s translate that into the Christian life and into how you build relationships with people with a desire to share the gospel with them. As we do that, I want to start with a caution or a qualification. Some people reading this are jumping up and down excited that we are talking about these things in the world of the church and evangelism. Some of you may be reading this and find it all new—maybe a little strange. Some may be quite skeptical—thinking that this is headed down the road of some mainline, liberal gobbelty goop. Let me assure you this is not simply about “living a better story,” or “having our sermons tell a better story.”
The hero’s journey was popularized in American culture by George Lucas. When he wrote Stars Wars, he was intentionally and explicitly putting on screen the hero’s journey that he had read in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” The premise in Campbell’s work was that as he looked all the way back to mythology and different eras of history, people seemed to be telling the same story, but all the details were different. It was just the same story, but the hero had a thousand different faces.
What Campbell got right was: It’s all one story. It’s one hero with a thousand different faces. But Campbell’s mistake was that he didn’t ask: Who is that hero? For Campbell (and Lucas and others), Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus, and Hamlet are all the same. But the Christian can determine that there is one true story and all others are derivative. Campbell and Lucas and others that follow hit on something that is true, but in their unbelief they see the Christian story as just one of the thousand faces—just like all the others. When in reality all of the others are imperfect distortions—we can even say corruptions–of the one true story and the one true hero: Jesus Christ.
The Hero’s Journey & Building Relationships
So, having this qualification explained, how does the hero’s journey and our awareness of it apply to meeting, building relationships, and seeking to bear witness to Jesus Christ?
First, you recognize that this person is on a journey. In some way, it involves God and now you know it involves you. You think about where they may be on that journey—however far from the kingdom they may seem or how close they may appear. They are somewhere in the hero’s journey.
As you engage them, you think: Is this person just living a carefree, pain-free normal life that seems ordinary to them and the “call to adventure” is to become a Christian and embrace suffering for the Lord? Or are they in the abyss where all hope looks lost. But we must know that when someone is in the abyss they are there because
they are seeking a treasure and that’s where the treasure is. They are in the dragon’s lair precisely because the treasure they seek is behind the dragon. What is that treasure? If they aren’t a Christian, it’s a false treasure. Another question you might think about: have they been brought into the journey of the Christian life through other friends who have planted and watered, or through other churches who have brought them along the way? Or maybe the other friends or churches have even scarred them and now they’ve been brought to the point where you serve as their mentor–their Obi-Wan Kenobi?
And that’s the other thing that comes with focusing on the hero’s journey in your relationship. It says a lot to you about your role in their journey and getting to know them and love them and appreciate their story. What role do you play? Are you the first person that ever showed care and concern and love for them? Are you the first person to ever talk to them about the true gospel? Are you the one calling them to adventure out of their ordinary life? Or are you the mentor–where they have recognized that their life is a struggle and they’re in need of something greater than everything else they’ve tried and now you are coming along with the “magic elixir”—(that’s a story world term) of the gospel of Jesus Christ to teach them that this is their hope? Are you meeting them in the abyss where your message of hope and love may actually aggravate them and frustrate them and where you may seem more like a villain at first than a mentor or friend?
When you take the structure and context of the hero’s journey, this gives you some practical helps. Not only to evaluate where they may be in the journey and what role you may play, but it can give you the words to say to them and the words to pray to God. You could argue that it’s OK to just sort of meander in a relationship and see where it goes naturally. But in our age of busy-ness and distraction, we aren’t just sitting around week after week with our neighbors and co-workers. Life isn’t an episode of Cheers or Friends. We may need to be more intentional. It’s not that you can’t develop a relationship and bear witness to the gospel apart from knowing about the hero’s journey. But maybe in a world where we so often just go through the motions with opportunity passing us by and ineffective communication ending relationships before they develop, thinking about the universal truth of story structure can give you a hook that resonates and helps you to be more effective. It may give you a framework to think about people and relationships. What treasure is this person seeking? How can I help to show them the vanity of their current journey? Who else has sought a similar treasure? You are reminded, helpfully, that you aren’t the hero of the journey. You may be the mentor. You may be part of the band of allies and friends.
The Hero’s Journey & Outsiders To Christianity
Let’s briefly consider the first couple stages of the hero’s journey as a specific deep dive into these concepts:
Every moment of a person’s life is a possible call to adventure. When you look at the chart let’s think about this person’s introduction to you and Christianity and the church as a possible call to adventure for them. What would that look like? And how does the hero’s journey help us? Well, for starters we realize that the next two stages are “refusal of the call” and “meeting a mentor.” People refuse the call to adventure. People want to remain in the shire and live an easy, comfortable life. When heroes refuse the call it shows that are both flawed and even weak. So, when the call comes, they’re first reaction will be to refuse. Enter the mentor. The strong character who will prod and push the hero to accept the call. Who will be this mentor? At this point in their journey it looks like it might be you. But what does it mean that they need a mentor? It means that they need not just an introduction but also somebody along the way to hold their hand and show them and guide them down the stages of the journey. It’s not just meeting them after a worship service, but it’s checking in along the way and thinking about their journey from their perspective and what tests and challenges they’re facing and what they’re not understanding and how you can help them with that.
We look at the hero’s journey and we see that on the way to the next stage is “crossing the threshold.” That is, he or she is leaving the ordinary world and entering this new world. This happens when they start to get a hint that this Christianity thing might actually have something to it. An idea in a conversation starts to make sense or a chapter in a book they’re reading starts to make them think. A sermon they’ve listened to makes sense for the first time. A Bible verse or passage opens up in a way they’ve never experienced. As that happens they are crossing the threshold.
So what does that mean? Well, the hero’s journey reminds us, and quite frankly life also reminds us, that this isn’t an easy march to victory and celebration. The next phase is “tests, allies, and enemies.” How often do we see a friend of ours come to church for the first time and express an interest? They tell us they’ll be back and for the next few weeks something always comes up. This is the phase of the hero’s journey of tests and enemies. And here they need help; they need “allies.” What might that look like? Well that might mean planning to get together on Sunday morning and going to church together. That’s what a helper does. A helper knows they are a vital part of their story. As this person crosses the threshold and starts to experience some signs of life and positivity toward Christianity, they experience tests, trials, and failures. These tests might also look like a friend or family member speaking against Christianity and becoming an enemy to the work that looks so promising. You can’t get discouraged. You have to know that this was coming. You have to know what to say and how to help and how to pray and what to do.
Now, you might think at this point that this sounds like an awful lot of work and that it sounds quite mechanical. Can’t we just do this naturally? Shouldn’t we just do this naturally? Well, a full treatment of those questions is beyond the scope of this article but I would suggest a couple of things. First, there are naturals–people who naturally seem to connect and get to the heart of other peoples’ lives and their story. I would suggest that the way “the naturals” achieve this is through the means that we are talking about. Unfortunately there aren’t many naturals. For the rest of us we have to be intentional and we have to think about it. We have to have a structure to help us be more effective. And I am suggesting that story and the hero’s journey give us that structure and give us those tools and those helps. Second, I think that when we find good books on developing relationships and talking to people in conversation we could actually dig into those books and find that they are using this story structure and hero’s journey framework to teach us how to be more effective. I’m not suggesting it’s as explicit as what I’m doing, but it’s underlying and present. Where we find good points in those books and resources it’s probably connected in some way to the story structure we are talking about. And in some ways those resources are incomplete because they only touch on certain aspects of the story structure in the hero’s journey. We want to consider it as a whole and we are aware of the origin of the concept of story—a storytelling God of all creation.
Conceptually, I think the hero’s journey teaches us another important reality. People are looking for something in their relationships. They are looking for a mentor. They are looking for friends and allies. They are looking for a helper. They don’t know that, and won’t say that explicitly, but that’s their natural bent. Let me make it a little bit clearer and more concrete: on their journey people are not looking for another hero. When a hero meets another hero they think to themselves “huh, that’s interesting” and they go on their way. When they find a mentor or friends and allies or a helper, those people become a part of their lives because they can help them on their journey. So what does that mean for us? Well if you go back to the first part of this article it reminds us of what we often do that makes us ineffective in conversation. We unknowingly present ourselves as another hero. When the conversation is a back-and-forth of one person sharing something important in their own life and the other person sharing something important in their life, that is two heroes talking.” I enjoy playing golf.” “Oh cool, I’ve been playing for 15 years and just broke 90 for the first time last week.” That’s two heroes talking. Go back and look at the chart in the first part of this article. The second column is a hero’s response. The third column is the response of a mentor or a helper.
As a mentor or guide or helper, what might you be thinking about regarding their journey? I wonder how they responded to the administration of the Lord’s Supper today. I wonder if they were confused or offended. What could I do to help them or guide them through that? Could you anticipate possible tests and trials that are coming as they are crossing the threshold? Could you send them a text or call them on Saturday night to check in and see how things are going and what their plans are–maybe avoid the Sunday morning conflict that inevitably comes. What is their experience like on a Sunday? Have you seen who’s been talking to them, and do you know whether those are normal, engaging people or somebody who had an agenda, and could you help them with that? Could you anticipate a competing call to adventure that might come? If every moment in a person’s life is a possible call to adventure, and their introduction to you and Christianity and visiting the church could be a call to adventure, then what might compete with that? A fantasy football league? A kids’ playgroup that meets on Sundays? Their child’s soccer league? How will you talk to them about that? How will you be patient with that and find ways to keep the relationship and development going? How will you pray about that?
As you put this intentional effort in and expend energy on developing this relationship, you don’t know what the result will be. Likely for some of the people that you approach this way there will be times to rejoice in the ultimate story of God‘s salvation, at which point their hero’s journey takes a noticeably different look than what it looked like previously. But if that’s not the end result, as it likely will not be in numerous relationships, you have played the God-ordained role in the story and let the Author write the details of the journey.
Taking this approach to loving their story may allow you to more freely develop a meaningful relationship with new people. If you focus on their journey as if you had to tell their story, you will stand out. Now, people aren’t going to say, “Wow, you really understand story and the hero’s journey as it relates to my life.” But they may say, “Wow, you are a good listener,” or “You really get where I’m coming from.” Thoughts and expressions that are, shamefully, far too absent from unbelievers descriptions of Christians. This approach to people will expand your horizons to what God is doing in your life and those around you. Too often we get trapped in our own small worlds—our struggles and our difficulties. Even in the depths of suffering, depression, or anxiety, one of the greatest helps is to expand our world and see the bigger picture—what God is going. This storytelling, story-loving approach to people in our lives will do that, naturally. We will not be as self-focused and narrowly drawn into the difficulties or our story—though they may be real and powerful. We will be drawn more readily into the Kingdom story through the King who is weaving the tapestry of all the seemingly countless stories into the one great story, of which we are a part and of which we are ambassadors. Or to put it another way–of which we are: the storytellers.