Tag Archives: stories

Seven habits for highly affective Christians: 1. The habits of story (telling, listening, and playing)

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” — Colossians 3:16

I quoted Alisdair MacIntyre in the intro to this series; and though he’s a ‘great one’ I’m going to render his idea slightly differently in this post. He says, in After Virtue:

“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

I think we can understand that last question slightly differently by tweaking it:

‘Of what story or stories do I inhabit?’

There’s a link between inhabiting a story (or an identity) and our habits (just as there is between our environment, or habitat, and our habits). To know how we should feel and act rightly, or coherently, requires us to have some sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going; to have a story.

So, when it comes to habit forming the habit of reflecting on our story, and potential other stories we might inhabit seems to be ground zero. What might this look like?

We could spend a significant amount of time deliberately immersed and engaged in quality stories — most significantly, but not exclusively, the Bible.

We could try our hands (or minds) at telling or crafting stories as a spiritual discipline geared towards fostering our redeemed imaginations. 

The message of Christ is a story; a compelling one. The ultimate ‘true myth’ or fairy tale that turns life into a comedy, rather than a tragedy. Understanding stories, the shape and power of stories, is pretty important if living in a story with some sense of what heroism looks like, the enemy looks like, and where we’re going, is what helps us develop character… but this means not only should we immerse ourselves in the Bible’s story by reading it, and finding ways to appreciate it (like a good kids story book Bible), but we should get better at understanding and appreciating good and beautiful stories. The more I get my head into mythology and its importance in shaping cultures and communities the more I’m sure the story of the Bible, centred on the death and resurrection of Jesus, has been so effective in shaping the world we live in because it really is the greatest story; and the more conversant we are with stories the better.

Also, the more we see our lives in storied terms as part of this grander story, the more we might be able to bring about change in our own spheres… if we’re able to imagine (or conceive) of a different ending for each little episode in our lives because of this big one, it might help set a course for us. Stories —whether history or biography or fiction expand our horizons and allow us to see the world differently. I think Tolkien’s masterful essay On Fairy Stories should be almost compulsory reading for anybody enrolled at Bible college, but probably for all of us.

The way this plays out for me is in a commitment to reading good fiction and watching popular television (it’s fascinating to watch how basic narrative plot lines are used to over-produce or over-engineer even terrible reality TV), but also to be wary of the power of story for setting our desires towards things other than God (and the desires of our kids and congregations). Stories where the protagonist (or author) is not just like us also teach us empathy as we immerse ourselves in them.

Because stories are powerful I want to curate them for our kids and engage in them with them (and engage well with them with other adults). We read lots to our kids and want to encourage all of them to be readers; but I also tell an episodic, serialised, adventure story a few nights a week featuring the three of them bravely and imaginatively facing down monsters or baddies that they invent (mostly giant animals); I also turned our last big family holiday into a picture book using a couple of apps, and I’m keen to do that again.

Video games are a powerful medium for stories and imagination, whether they’re linear adventures or open world. Our son loves them (like I do), so my plan is to indulge that love, but to always join him in it, and to build and journey through different worlds with him, and as they get more complex using the games and their stories as a chance to talk about decision making and his imagination. It’s probably not a terrible thing to normalise the idea that he uses screens in my presence not tucked away in his room.

The best stories are the ones we imagine and then inhabit in an embodied way — not just a digital one (one of the things I love about the kindy we send our kids to), so, like many parents, we’ve got a full dress up box and a yard full of different bits and pieces the kids can improvise with (especially when they’re playing together)… I’m much more concerned that they do this as they grow up than that they do ‘homework’.

The way this plays out — though I’m wanting to get better at this — in my preaching is that I don’t want to devalue the arts or culture, or demonise it, but engage with it well (and sympathetically) as legitimate expressions of our humanity and our desires; and to recognise the way these stories shape the purpose of people around us because they connect with the stories our communities, cultures, and nation lives by. My rarely updated Like But Better, my review essays of the Marvel/Netflix universe (like this one), and my reviews of stories like NoahMoana, and Wonder Woman are examples of me trying to do this… but my favourite place in all the virtual world for modelling this is Christ and Pop Culture… being a better reader, viewer, or audience member for stories helps us become better readers of the Bible’s grand story, and better participants in God’s unfolding story in history.

This means I want my talks to feel more like a narrative to live in than a set of propositions that I’m inviting people to agree to. When it comes to our embodied participation in stories, this has helped me recapture a sense of the providence and goodness of the sacraments, and to want to sacramentalise (or re-enhant) lots of physical objects and practices (not in an idolatrous way, just in a way that helps everything that has been made reveal the divine nature and character of God). C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image was useful on that front for helping me see just how much we’ve evacuated any ‘enchantment’ from mundane things (a concrete example of this is the way we preached about Hot Cross Buns over Easter; my hope is that people will buy them between Christmas and Easter next year, while they’re on the shelves of the supermarkets, and ponder their significance.

Christians could join — or host — book clubs — or even TV show clubs — in the community beyond the church (though even in the church is better than devaluing stories or seeing them as trivial distractions from the real deal of following Jesus). Failing that we should talk enthusiastically about stories with our friends online.

These could involve picking challenging and compelling (even just popular) stories that cultivate empathy and the imagination, or that pay attention to the world and invite you to do so in new ways; trusting that because of the storied quality of the Bible this is useful time even if it doesn’t produce conversations where you can draw out the parallels between a story and truths revealed about the world in God’s story. Also, in terms of cultivating the affections, instead of asking ‘what did you think about that story’ and breaking down its mechanics or execution, we should ask each other ‘how did that story make you feel’.

,

How TED works

This behind the scenes look at TED is pretty cool – especially when they talk about what they’re looking for to make a “lecture” a “story”…

They also talk a bit about “getting out of the way of the idea” when it comes to what you do and say, but supporting it in terms of how the idea is presented.

It’s got me wondering what that would look like in the church context.

,

Book Review: Outspoken: Conversations on Church Communication

Church Communication is something I’m pretty keen on. So a book on Church Communication, with contributors from churches all around the world, is something I’m also pretty keen on.

Enter Outspoken: Conversations on Church Communication a nice little primer on church communications in the digital age.

outspoken

What I liked about this book is how digestible the chunks are. Each chapter is an idea. A page or two – basically a blog post. From a different person. Each chapter ends with contact details for that person. It’s very conversational. It’s a nice format – and this is, increasingly, the way this sort of “how to” book is going to work, I think.

I loved that each contributor is passionate about seeing the church communicate its message well, and in a way that removes barriers for people while finding new opportunities. There’s much to like here. And not much to dislike. You should get a copy.

Some chapters resonated more with me than others, each is the product of a time, place, and culture, a little bit removed from the here and now. But it’s possible to mind that gap and get something from just about everybody who contributed.

Here are some of my favourite tips, tidbits, and communication tricks from the book.

“The early church didn’t have the modern technologies we have today. There were no billboards or direct mail campaigns to announce Jesus was coming. The disciples didn’t tweet or blog the Sermon on the Mount or other messages Jesus gave during his ministry. The one thing the early church did have, however, was captivating stories worth telling.” – Introduction, Tim Schraeder

This para is a nice summary of what my Masters project is going to cover next year.

“Church historians have noted that with every major cultural revolution that has taken place in modern times, there’s been an accompanying movement of God’s Spirit as the church has found new ways to reach more people. Our message has never changed but the way we communicate it has found new forms and new mediums throughout the generations.”

Those who caught my “multimedia is word ministry” post a while back will understand why I appreciated this

“Every time you communicate anything in any medium as a church, it is preaching. I’m not suggesting you start tweeting, “God reads knee-mail,” from your church’s account. What I am suggesting is that no matter what you’re saying, it is a sermon being preached.” – Media is Preaching, Jeremy Sexton

This collection of four tips for communication from a chapter by Curtis Simmons called A Failure to Communicate is timeless (the first three are the same sort of tips Cicero might give):

1. What The first step is to fully understand what you are being asked to communicate. Find out the story that is driving the communication. For example, don’t simply announce that Vacation Bible School is next month and assume everyone understands the benefits. Instead, explain the positive impact that it will have on the lives of the children and volunteers. Include testimonials from those involved in prior years.

2. Who Next, consider the audience. Tailor your message to the specific audience that truly needs to hear it. If your church is conducting a class specifically for new parents, then customize the message so it speaks directly to their needs.

3. How When developing your message keep it simple. Don’t use the cryptic language only some Christians may understand. Explain in simple, every day terms how one can come to know and trust in Jesus rather than inviting them to be “washed in the sanctifying blood of the Lamb.” Your message should also be crystal clear. Reduce the effort to get involved with an event or ministry to no more than three or four easy to under- stand steps and direct them to the first step.

4. Where Now that you know the story you need to determine which channels should be used to best reach your intended audience. In some instances an email to a small group is sufficient. In other instances, you may need to spread the word on your website, Twitter, Facebook and in the worship announcements.

There are a couple of really important points in there – I think – the first is to make all your communication about people – both in who communicates it, the content of the communication (stories), and the benefits you spruik (the “what’s in it for your audience” factor), and the second is the emphasis on multichannel communication. There’s a solid theory that suggests a message needs to be heard somewhere between 6-10 times (which means it probably needs to be said more than that) to be communicated effectively.

Simmons has a helpful warning emphasising the corollary of that – everybody else is trying to communicate to the same people multiple times.

“Keep in mind that the members of your congregation are bombarded with hundreds of messages each day. Don’t add to the noise by communicating every idea, event or program to everyone.”

This means being careful and creative with how we get messages to the ears or eyes of our hearers.

Another really helpful point, which I think leads back to ethos being more important than well put together pathos or logos (another part of my project), comes in a chapter by Phil Bowdle called Authenticity > Excellence. He says:

“There’s a word that has generated lots of momentum in the church world in recent years. It’s a word that gets thrown around frequently in conferences, workshops, staff teams and blogs. We’ve become obsessed with it. The word? Excellence.

Excellence has become a mantra behind much of the work we do. We’ve attempted to prove wrong the world’s assumption that if it’s Christian, it’s sub-par. Excellence is a value that has often been overlooked in the church, and it’s as important as ever to keep it at the core of everything we do.

In an effort to demand excellence in all that we do, a more important principle has been overlooked. That principle is authenticity.

I’ll be the first to put my hand up to say that I’ve bought into the excellence idea – because I don’t think being excellent in how we do things stands apart from being real and excellent in who we are – I actually think excellence and authenticity are incredibly related – so long as excellence is aspirational, and room is given for the humanity of the communicator and their audience.

Bowdle makes an interesting point, depending on how you measure excellence, that authentic communication produces better outcomes.

“Interestingly, we generated a much higher response out of the secondary communication strategies we implemented. Things like webcam videos, simple blog posts and in-service testimonies seemed to be more effective than the polished video and print pieces. The difference? The more the authenticity of the person, message or story shined, the more effective the result.”

I would’ve thought that rather than authenticity being better than excellence, authenticity=excellence.

I’d say, given that I have a bent towards judging communication by its character, and its fruits (and hey, so does Cicero), that authentic communication is the most excellent kind – especially if it’s driven by love (ala Paul in 1 Cor 12:31-13:1 – which seems to be one of his fundamental principles for church communication).

If you’ve come across marketing doyen Seth Godin, you’ll recognise the notion of “tribes” – if not, the idea is that the most successful to build something to the point of being successful is to build a tribe. His definition of a tribe: “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea,” essentially describes a church. Whether the leader is Jesus or the senior pastor (or both), is a question of one’s ecclesiology. Anyway. Jon Dale applies this model to church communication to suggest we should be working harder at equipping the members of our tribe to talk to other people – which is, I think, the essential secret to doing social media well as a church. He says:

“There are four types of tribal communication:
1. Leader to tribe member.
2. Tribe member to leader.
3. Tribe member to tribe member.
4. Tribe member to outsider.

We spend most of our energy in the church (and business) world on #1. Think about it. We get up on stage on Sunday and do #1. We send out eblasts and do #1. We write books and do #1. Then we upgrade to the latest craze and do a podcast (more of #1). And for kicks we send out a survey and think we’re doing #2 well. But the reality is that #3 and #4 are what change the world.”

Another idea that resonated with me came from Danielle Hartland in Fresh and Light, which basically called for your organisational infrastructure and pathways should be seen, and experienced – rather than heard. And when you’re talking about these important things you should talk about them as they relate to Jesus and in a human way.

“No one is motivated when they feel like a tiny cog in a big machine. Instead of telling people how they fit in your church’s grand plan, tell them how/why things will help them connect to and grow in Jesus.”

This leads nicely back to the importance of the story – and Matt Knisely’s Your Church, the Storyteller, is, I think, the most important chapter for communicating with the post-modern, and post-post-modern world.

“One of the most powerful tools any church has to reach people is a first-person story of a changed life.”

And the best part is, no matter what size church you have, telling stories doesn’t require expensive equipment or complicated multimedia. You really need just one thing: People whose lives are being changed by the gospel message. Ask them for their stories. Ask in emails. Ask them to write their stories down. Ask them in person. Then, tell those stories. Video them if you want. Print them (with permission).

There are a few good practical chapters in the mix, none more important than the chapters on church websites. These make the point that the church website is, if not just for outsiders, the primary tool outsiders are using to investigate you. I’ve argued that the result of this is that your website should be geared to the outsider.

These contributors agree – Jeremy Scheller writes Your Website Needs to Be a Billboard, and suggests the following principles (I’ve summarised them):

1. Keep it simple.
2. Say something about you.
3. Get to the point.
4. Point people to take action.

Paul Steinbrueck in Your Website: your first, and only, impression, says 80% of people who are looking for a church start on the web. And they start with google. So search engine optimisation is really important, as is what people see if they arrive.

He gives seven tips with these points in mind. (Again, I’ve summarised them, buy the book).

1. Optimize your website for search engines.
2. Give your website a nice design.
3. Prominently feature a “New Visitor” section.
4. Include a welcome message.
5. Include pictures or video services.
6. Answer all the questions you would want answered before you visit a church.
7. Publish stories.

The last, and perhaps most important point comes from Scott McClellan – who, in a chapter called Never Trust a Skinny Chef urges people involved in communication to put themselves in the shoes, seat, or ears, of their audience – to make sure it’s hitting the target.

“Read your writing. Watch your films. Listen to your sermons. Browse your website. Navigate the church building using your signage. Subscribe to your email newsletter.”

This is a really useful book, and one I’m sure I’ll be coming back to, both in its initial form – and by continuing the conversation, where necessary, with its contributors. Most of whom are on Twitter.