“God does not present us with salvation in the form of an abstract truth, or a precise definition or a catchy slogan, but as story.”
– from Eugene Peterson’s introduction to the book of Exodus
Storytelling is a fundamental tool for Christian living. Half of the Bible is written in story form. Stories teach us how life works, draw us toward both sympathy and celebration, and help us remember. Stories, well-told, help us sense that we have glimpsed something greater than ourselves.
Psalm 71:18 is a clue to the importance of storytelling: “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.” (NIV)
The person who affirms the prayer of Psalm 71 wants to tell the story of God’s work in their life. Does your church encourage this witnessing between generations? If so, this storytelling will happen over meals, in conversations over tea, and in small groups. But this witnessing must also happen in worship. Our most public gathering should model what we value. Do we remember what God has done in our lives? Do we celebrate God’s deeds in public ways? Does our worship planning make time and space for Psalm 71 to come true?
Telling the story of God at work is one of the reasons we gather. This happens in several ways.
The first of the ways is through the retelling of Bible stories. Our biblical storytelling is often so poor that many Christians think of the Bible as a book of ideas.
But the Bible is mostly a book of stories! Happenings, miracles, and sins and judgements — these come together to create the very best of stories. These stories should be heard, seen, and felt. We should tell, sing, dance, and show these stories with all our best creative energies.
Worship is indeed truth-telling. The simple act of naming the name of Jesus brings balance and sanity to our human journey. But this alone is not enough. The declaration of a truth begs for an example. That example is a “for instance”, a deed, an event, an action, or a story. It does not suffice to simply proclaim: “Our God is omnipotent.” The power of God is cradled in a basket made of bulrushes. It is in five smooth stones lying on the bottom of a brook.
A second way to reveal within our worship services what God has done is through testimony.
Testimonies could take the form of someone standing on a platform to share a personal story. They could also be in the form of an interview; they could be live and in person or recorded on video or audio.
Jesus commended the practice of testimony. “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32, NIV). Jesus says if we talk about Him to each other, He will be talking about us with the Father!
A third way to reveal within our worship services what God has done is through the sacraments.
Many of our churches rush through or even overlook baptism and Communion. Let us take special time with these, for they are holy plot points in the stories of our life with God.
One day, my teenage daughter, who had not yet been baptised, asked me how Jesus was baptised. I told her that John the Baptist probably cupped his hands and poured water over Jesus’ head.
She asked me if she could be baptised by having water poured over her head. Not at the Jordan River, but during worship. I asked the pastor, and he said yes. So my daughter Hannah helped me put some plastic over the carpet, and we covered that with several layers of towels. We covered those with a long runner of blue fabric to symbolise the Jordan.
When Sunday morning came, Hannah wore a simple white gown. Just before the service, she leaned over to me and asked, “Can I be barefoot?”
At the appropriate time, she knelt on the blue fabric in her bare feet. And her pastor said, “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and Son and Holy Spirit.” He gently poured an entire pitcher of water over the girl’s head. There were many wet eyes throughout the sanctuary.
A week before I wrote this article, my daughter sent me the spiritual autobiography she wrote for her application to seminary. She included the story of her baptism. The event of her baptism became a written story that will someday become a verbal story that Hannah will tell her own children.
And when she is old and gray, she will tell her grandchildren. And someday in heaven, she will meet John the Baptist as well as Jesus Himself, and it will be their theme in glory to tell the old, old story.
There is a great treasure for worshipping Christians of all ages – a treasure waiting to be revealed within our worship gatherings. That treasure is story.
is the author of The Storytelling Church: Adventures in Reclaiming the Role of Story in Worship. He is also a professor at the Robert E. Webber Institute of Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida.
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