Telling a Better Story
John Stevens introduces us to this year’s Evangelism Conferences in London and Manchester by reflecting on the importance of story-telling in our modern culture. He’ll speak alongside join Glynn Harrison as delegates consider the better story of the gospel.
The great challenge facing Christians in Britain today is to proclaim the good news of the gospel to the vast majority our nation who do not have saving faith in the Lord Jesus.
Despite all of our efforts, many churches and leaders feel discouraged because we are seeing relatively few conversions, especially amongst the white British population.
Whilst the fruitfulness or otherwise of our evangelistic ministry is ultimately something that is the sovereign providence of God, this does not take away from our responsibility to proclaim the gospel in the most compelling ways possible. We need to learn from Paul and proclaim the never changing gospel in the way that is most appropriate for our ever-changing cultural context.
An era of Romanticism
Our major weakness is that we tend to preach the gospel as truth revealed by God, to which we must respond with understanding and faith. We use reason and logic as the primary means to persuade unbelievers. We highly value apologetics, and deconstructing and exposing other worldviews.
This is not wrong in itself and reflects our rich tradition of systematic theology and defence of the truthfulness of the Bible. However it was an approach honed in the early days of evangelicalism, when the primary alternative to the gospel was Enlightenment Rationalism. It is an approach that is still effective with many people who are attracted by intellectual debate and value logical arguments, but it is no longer persuasive to large sections of the population.
Nowadays we live in a culture that is dominated by Romanticism, the movement that rose to prominence at the end of the 19th Century, and which sought to emphasise feeling, experience and sentiment over reason. Romanticism tells emotive stories that move both hearts and minds. It does not demand consistency, but authenticity.
The dominance of Romanticism is seen across our culture – even in news and advertising. Rather than reporting “facts”, for example, the news now focuses on the stories of individuals who are caught up in events. Adverts no longer focus on the proven benefits of products, but instead weave a story of how they enhance life or create identity.
The wholesale transformation of our society’s attitudes to sex and sexuality, same-sex marriage and transgenderism, is largely because gay rights activists have told a better story. Rational Christian counter arguments have cut no ice with public opinion.
The Better Story
As Christians we need to learn to communicate the gospel into a culture like this. The great news is that the gospel combines both truth and story. God’s salvation runs from creation to the new creation, climaxing in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
The vast majority of the Bible is narrative, or the explanation and application of that narrative. Even the New Testament letters are fundamentally an explanation of the significance of the story of Jesus.
In Acts, the apostolic preaching repeatedly takes the form of a story. The apostles either retell the story of Jesus, the story of Israel, or the story of creation, depending upon their audience. In the final chapters, Paul preaches the gospel to Jewish and Roman rulers by telling his own personal story three times.
If we want to communicate the gospel effectively to our culture we need to learn to start telling the gospel story, which is a better story than the world can ever tell. Great preachers in the past, like George Whitefield and C H Spurgeon, were great story-tellers in their preaching, engaging with Biblical stories to move people to respond to the truth they conveyed.
It is natural for us to tell stories, since this is the way we have been created by God. Learning to tell the gospel story, the story of the church and our own personal story will help us to be more effective in evangelism, and also make it easier and less intimidating to connect with friends and colleagues.
You don’t have to be a theologian or philosopher to do evangelism!
Our church communities need to see themselves as the living embodiment of the story they tell, and as the evidence that will support the truth of that story.
So I am delighted to be speaking at the Evangelism Conference in London and Manchester this year, alongside Glynn Harrison, Jonty Allcock and Rico Tice, where we will be considering these issues. The title of the conference is:
better.story. New ways to tell the better story of the gospel in our narrative-soaked world.
The conference will pick up on the theme of Glynn’s excellent book A Better Story, where he makes the persuasive case that we can only tackle the challenges of contemporary sexual morality by showing how much better the story of the gospel is than the stories told by the world.
I am going to be speaking about how story-telling has shaped our contemporary culture, and how the Bible encourages, equips and enables us to engage in a story-telling culture.
I’d encourage anyone who is passionate about sharing the gospel, and equipping local churches to do so, to join us for this conference. We must never change the content of the gospel, but it might help us to ensure that we speak, share and preach it in a more effectively to the lost people around us.
The conference takes place in London on Tuesday 3rd October, before being repeated in Manchester on Thursday 5th October. Find out more and book online.