We Need More Stories

I love to tell stories.

When our boys were little, we would gather in their room before bed. As we lay there half-asleep, they would beg me to tell them a story, and I would oblige them. Sometimes the stories were stand-alone tales. Others carried on for days, told in chapters as long or short as my energy and creativity could support. There were standard conventions in each of the stories: an adventure taking place, a monster, villain or mystery character sowing unrest, and three boys the same age as the three lying next to me--strangely named Fred, Ralph and Lars--coming to the rescue. I've always thought the name Lars was funny. I have no idea why.

For camping trips, I created a recurring character--a short, creepy man in a US Park Ranger uniform who would mysteriously and silently appear with a horrifying grin on his face before laughing and running off like a khaki-colored leprechaun. His name was Ranger Pete. He's still out there somewhere.

As they grew older and our lives grew busier, the tradition fell away.  I regret we didn't carry it on till they left for college. Imagine what kind of stories we could have created, having graduated from bicycles and superpowers to exotic cars and the wooing of women.

I wasn't quite finished telling stories, though. Every year at our youth ministry camp outs, I would tell a scary story and try to get everyone to jump. In high school, I found a willing co-creator in one of my favorite students, Brandon Jones. Brandon and I would tag-team long, improvised tales around the campfire, usually involving murder, one of our volunteers, and clowns. What good is a campfire story without a scary clown?

I love to tell stories. I believe we need more of them in our schools, homes and churches. 

We need more stories in our schools. I'm an outside observer, but it seems to me that schools and teachers are overwhelmed with the pressure of teaching to exams. We live in a data-driven culture. There are standards to be met and goals to be reached. I understand we need to ensure that students are learning the basics. I understand that we need to ramp up our success in science and math in order to compete with the rest of the world's economy. But I also believe that everyone-- especially those of us driven primarily by the right side of our brains--need inspiration in equal measure with knowledge. Every person with a driving passion in any field of study can point to moments they were inspired to pursue their calling. Many times it began with a story. I think schools should make story time mandatory.

We need more stories in our homes. Most parents read to their children when they are young, but I wonder if we should read to them more as they grow older? Reading out loud to teenagers sounds weird, doesn't it? I can almost see them running to their laptops like cockroaches in the light, demonstrating never-before-seen enthusiasm for their homework. 'Hey kids, it's story time!" "Sorry dad, I've been dying all day to do my exciting pre-calculus!" It sounds counter-intuitive and almost too weird to work, but in an age of endless distractions, google mania, video-games and on-demand episodes of Cake Boss, I wonder what would happen if set aside 45 minutes a week to sit down together and read the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Call of the Wild, or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. What an odd, delightful kind of family that would be. Heck, we can even invite our teen's girlfriend or boyfriend to join us, and spare them the $40 they would have wasted on Chipotle and The Fast and Furious 19: Old Men in Go-Carts! "Guess what we're doing this Friday night, Julia? We are going to sit in my living room and read Tom Sawyer with my parents!" "Oh, James, you are sooooo romantic!"

We need more stories in our churches. Sunday school lessons and sermons, though important, are not the only means of communicating God's truth. Stories do too, usually in a more memorable and compelling manner. Jesus loved stories and used them freely and frequently. How ironic that we spend so much time explaining his stories and forcing them into three points (with alliteration) instead of allowing ourselves to be caught up in the wonder of them.

Last Sunday at our high school youth ministry, I taught a Bible story from the book of John. It was a whole chapter about a blind man whom Jesus healed. He had been blind all his life. Jesus healed him on the Sabbath, causing a stir among the religious elite. The blind man's parents even ended up on the hot seat, where they left their own son to fry. It's a good story. There is humor, drama, conflict, and a pretty sweet miracle involving mud and spit. For a few days, I spent time imagining what it was like to see it happen, or what it would have been like to have it happen to me. Sunday night I told it as dramatically as I could -- through the eyes of the blind man, his father, and a Pharisee -- to a room full of teenagers. They were as silent and open as flowers waiting for the rain.

I honestly don't know where this comes from. I was never an actor. I've been in one play my entire life. (I forgot my only line in our sixth grade play, and was so mortified I swore off the stage for life.) But our  leaders say that when I teach this way, their post-message discussion groups go better. Kids open up more. They see themselves and Jesus more clearly. In the end, stories generate better discussion than sermons, because we find ourselves in them instead of being detached outside observers.

"Story is the way we figure things out," says John Eldredge. "It's how we make sense of things. Story is how we all make sense of our lives."

So we need to tell more stories, be more creative in our teaching, use our imaginations at home, school, and church. We need to dress ourselves in creativity and tell tales like ancient, wizened tribal chiefs captivating their progeny with stories of great bears and warrior owls. We need to read great stories aloud. As the digital age accelerates, we need to maintain our humanity and our connection to God by recapturing the simple, powerful gift of telling stories.

Our children--Fred, Ralph and Lars--will thank us.


For examples of good stories being told orally, I recommend two podcasts from my "Favorite Things" page. This American Life and The Moth Podcast. Not every story in these podcasts is great, but many of them are.