If you were to lead a group of Christians in some serious Bible study, which book would you begin with? I once asked a church leader and he said he would start with the book of Romans. He acknowledged it was a tough book to begin with, but he suggested that if anyone could survive a study of Romans he or she could go on to tackle any other book. What was most important to him was the fact that Romans articulated the predicament of humankind and highlighted and explained the gospel that was at the heart of the Christian faith.
I understood where he was coming from but if I were to start a group on serious Bible study I would start with a gospel, probably the gospel of Mark. The gospels contain the story of Jesus. And Christ is God’s definitive revelation of Himself. He didn’t just give us a bunch of facts about Himself but He came as a person. I want people to encounter the person of Christ and not just facts about Christ. And, as people respond to Christ, they can go on to learn more about this person in key books like Romans.
There is also another reason I would like folks to start serious Bible study with one of the gospels. They contain a lot of stories. And stories are a much more powerful medium for communication because they are better at moving emotions, as well as thinking and will. Lisa Cron’s book, Story or Die (New York, NY: Ten Speed Press, 2021) is just one more book that lays out clearly the importance of story as a means of communication. She writes:
We rip through every story we hear, hunting for the insight into what other people might be thinking, feeling, believing — regardless of what they say out loud. Which brings us to the most potent truth of all: we don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality. (26)
Recently we went to Melbourne to celebrate Lunar New Year with family. One of the highlights was being able to spend time with our grandsons. I enjoyed reading Bible stories with the older one, Austin. We read through a picture Bible. There were stories about David and Goliath, Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, etc. I noted that often Austin would insert himself into the stories. For example, he was the one, not David, who confronted Goliath. And he gave the five loaves and two fishes to Jesus. This phenomenon points to another power of stories.
Numerous fMRI studies have shown that when you are lost in a story the same areas of your brain light up as would activate if you were doing what the protagonist is doing. You really are there, experiencing it as if it were happening to you. By allowing you to vicariously live through the actual boot-on-the-ground-effect facts have in real life, stories inspire change in a way that the facts alone cannot. (45)
I want to be clear here that I am not questioning the objective nature of biblical truth. I am thinking about how that truth is best communicated. We note that the Lord Jesus Himself:
. . . spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. (Matthew 13:34 NIV)
The church needs to take seriously the power of stories. We live in such a noisy world. How will we get our life-giving story out?
Perhaps you’ve noticed that the world is getting a bit noisier. While technology has opened new doors to help us communicate in real time, our TVs, smartphones, and computers make it nearly impossible to find a moment of silence. On a daily basis, the average American sees more than 4,000 ads, receives 121 emails, and spends 2 hours and 37 minutes browsing the web via their mobile device.
So, if you have something important to say, how can you cut through the noise and truly be heard?
A good story is a great place to start.
In an overly cluttered communication landscape, it’s the stories that break through. A good story can transcend time, language, and culture to create authentic connections. It can humanize the storyteller, promote deeper understanding, bring people together, and create a lasting legacy. In fact, stories are 22 times more likely to be remembered than facts alone. (Ariel Group)
I cringe when I hear sermons that are just a recitation of facts devoid of any narrative elements. It is not that I disagree with the facts. Often the speaker has worked hard to marshal those facts. But I feel so frustrated when I see the eyes of the listeners glazing over. Many have come looking for a word from the Lord. They have come to hear a true, life-giving story. They need to hear that story. So, my word to myself and my fellow preachers and teachers — it is not enough to get the message right. We must also get the message across. There is an old Native American proverb that says:
“Those who tell stories rule the world.”
If we have ears, let us listen.