by David Timms
We all like a good story. In the United States alone, box office movies grossed over $11 billion in 2010 (about $30 for every man, woman, and child in the country). The local theater attracts us like bees to honey. Some of those films—for example, Avatar—appealed to our fascination with computer graphics and special effects. But many other films drew us in and held our attention with their intriguing storylines, twists, and turns.
There’s nothing new about storytelling. The ancient Greeks had their myths. Aesop had his fables. Every culture has its stories of heroism, stories of loss, stories to entertain, and stories to instruct.
But how do we tell and retell stories—especially the gospel story—with effectiveness for a culture that has lost interest in the familiar?
What’s in a Story?
Think about the last movie you watched or that novel on the nightstand that keeps you up far too late. They have four basic features.
Eugene Lowry writes, “What identifies the usual [story] is its plot form, which always—one way or another—begins with a [disruption], and then makes its way through complication (things always get worse), makes a decisively sharp turn or reversal, and then moves finally towards resolution or closure.”
I like watching NCIS, which first aired on television in 2003. That television drama, like all shows and stories, follows this formula to a tee. Each episode begins with a murder or unexplained disappearance (a major disruption to my normal life, thankfully). The Naval Crime Investigative Service team then sets about solving the case, but more and more possible suspects emerge. Good guys turn out to be not-so-good. Bad guys turn out to have alibis. Who can tell what’s really going on? Complication. And just when we think we’ve worked out the culprit, something crops up to make it impossible. It has to be someone else! Reversal. Then, usually in the final few minutes of the episode, the unexpected truth is revealed. Resolution. We sigh with relief, knowing that our team has done it again—solved one of the great crime mysteries or protected national security in less than an hour! We go to bed satisfied.
This basic structure applies to romantic comedies, action-adventure, science fiction, drama, and virtually every genre of storytelling. We even see it in the stories Jesus told.
A certain king decided to call in his debtors and squeeze them to pay. (Ouch! That’s not good.) Disruption. One of the debtors owed the king a fortune. (Uh-oh! This could get ugly.) When the king realized that the man had no resources at all, he ordered that the man and his entire family be sold into slavery so some repayment could be made. But the man fell down before the king and begged for mercy. He promised to pay the king if he just had a little more time. (Yeah. Right. Who’s he kidding? What’s really going to happen here?) Complication.
The king did more than give the servant extra time. He released the servant and completely forgave the debt. (Wow! Sounds like a nice happy ending coming up.) But the servant went out and bumped into someone who owed him a tiny fraction of what he had owed the king. He grabbed the poor man and choked him and demanded his few dollars back—though he himself no longer owed the king a penny. The second servant begged for mercy but the first servant was heartless and tossed the hapless fellow into prison until he should pay back every dime. (Huh? What’s going on? This is not what we expected!) Reversal.
Some other servants saw the whole episode and reported it to the king, who grew furious. How dare that servant act so harshly when he had been forgiven so much! And the king handed the merciless servant over to the torturers until he should repay all that he owed. “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35, New American Standard Bible). Resolution. We didn’t expect this to be a story about us. But it is.
Telling Our Own Story
Why analyze new stories and old stories like this? Simply so that we can better tell the old, old story ourselves. The gospel has not been heard and found inadequate. Rather, it has too often been heard and found uninteresting or irrelevant. “We have a problem. Jesus is the answer.” Yes, that’s true, but even Jesus didn’t use such bland packaging. Our hearts respond best to a conversation that also captures our imagination.
Everybody’s personal story is filled with disruption, complication, reversal, and—through the power of the gospel—resolution. We just need to listen and reflect it back to them.
Consider Jared. He’s a college junior who is ready to hear the gospel, though he may not realize it. Rather than present a series of propositions for him to believe, what might happen if you heard his story and could reflect it back to him, as a doorway for the gospel?
Jared’s freshman year at college—his first experience away from home, first time to share a room with a roommate, first time to organize his own schedule—was filled with disruption. Everything was up in the air. Classes provided new insights, relationships were different than he’d ever experienced, church attendance and faith seemed to take a back seat. Plenty of complication. Now, after a season of discouragement and frustration, he’s talking with you. You know that his story needs a reversal and a resolution. As you sympathetically reflect on his disruption and complications, you suggest that college is less about the head and more about the heart. The reason he can’t win the game is because he’s playing on the wrong field. Reversal. And he is now faced with a choice: Let Christ do what the professors never can, or choose the ever-elusive path of self-sufficiency. Will there be resolution?
Or meet Jennifer, who was married just a year and found herself pregnant, unexpectedly. Disruption. What would this mean for their plans as a couple? Could they afford this? They weren’t ready to be parents! And she’d have to quit her job. Many complications. Then, at 12 weeks, the heartbeat stopped and so did the pregnancy. Reversal. They’re devastated. They had been confused and anxious. Now they are broken.
You can help Jennifer identify the reversal—the journey from inconvenience to heartbreak—and then guide her toward gospel resolution. She faces a choice: Surrender her life plans to Christ and receive his peace, or continue to walk in her own strength and wisdom. Will there be resolution?
These represent pure gospel moments. We simply hear the stories of those around us, recast them in light of the first three basic elements (disruption, complication, reversal) and then invite them to the grace of God (resolution). Of course, we don’t use the terms—disruption, complication, reversal, resolution—but they provide a simple, powerful, age-old framework for us to introduce and tell “the old, old story.” NCIS shows us a model for sharing the gospel!
It’s Our Own Old Story
Stories about redemption unquestionably rank among the most powerful stories in the world. And none is more powerful than the story of our own redemption
Telling the old, old story comes easiest to those of us who live it. We understand the disruption of sin, the complications of trying to handle life on our own, the reversal that comes with repentance, and the resolution that grace provides. In fact, it’s a plot line that plays out for us nearly every day. If we can have ears to hear it in others, we’ll have real hope to share with them in the right moment.
David Timms teaches at Hope International University in Fullerton, California.
Want to read more about storytelling?
Check out the following online:
Stories that Tell Family History
A past article in The Lookout by Phil & Bev Haas
Choosing the Visual Media Stories (TV Shows, Movies) You Will Watch
by Jeff Parker
Evaluating Your Own Life Story
by Donald Miller
International Storytelling Center
A nonprofit organization “dedicated to inspiring and empowering people across the world to accomplish goals and make a difference by discovering, capturing, and sharing their stories.”