By: Dr. Adrianne Miles
“Tell me a story.” How many times have we heard that request? How many times have we made that request ourselves? Adults may not produce this phrase as often as children, but adult often say things like, “How’d it go last night?” or “Tell me what happened.” People love stories. We even turn non-story events like waiting in line, driving down the road, cleaning the house, or taking a test into stories when we are talking with friends. Why do we love stories so much? Paul Zak at Claremont Graduate University found that good stories cause our brains to produce oxytocin (Harvard Business Review, October 28, 2014). In other words, we like the way good stories make us feel!
Is it a coincidence that people like stories and that good stories cause our brains to produce a feel-good chemical? No, God’s creation is never coincidental. God gave us the gift of narrative as an ideal way for us to learn about Him and communicate His gospel to others. He made our brains to enjoy stories because He uses stories to communicate Himself to us. Not only do we find lots of narrative in the Old Testament, but we also see Jesus teaching through stories. Sometimes he provided direct instruction and other times he used stories, or parables.
Jesus knew that stories would impact his listeners in ways that a simple answer would not. The story of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 is a great example of the educational power of stories. In response to Peter’s question about the required frequency of forgiving others Jesus answers in two ways: with a simple number and with a story. The story conveys information that the audience may miss if only given the number. For example, as a middle child growing up with an older sister and a younger brother, I was self-righteous enough to have kept track of all the times they sinned against me. Were it not for Jesus’s story, I would have likely stopped forgiving my siblings when each of them reached the magical number of 490 or 4,900. But the story stops me from keeping count of my siblings’ sins against me. The story humbles me before an all-forgiving God and makes me want to pay his forgiveness forward. Stories are effective, in part, because God made our brains produce feel-good chemicals when we engage in them. We listen. Often we even remember.
Christians should use this knowledge about stories in our efforts to obey the last command that Jesus gave us before he ascended into heaven. Jesus commissioned his followers to make disciples and teach others about Him (Matt 28:19-20). We can communicate this information in various ways, but we want to be mindful of the God-created power of stories to communicate the greatest story ever told. Not all of us are amazing storytellers, but we all have stories to tell. We can use the stories around us in television, movies, novels, or music to build bridges to the gospel. Stories of romance and/or rescue remind us of the all-loving sacrificial God who gave up everything for us. Stories of revenge help us reflect on our own sinfulness and the undeserved grace God extends to us. Even the stories of our own lives—the crazy thing that happened at work or the interactions observed at Wal-Mart—can be, and should be, used as conduits to share the gospel. God is in all these stories. Our job is to see Him and share Him.
Dr. Adrianne Miles is Assistant Professor of English and Linguistics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.