7.5 Experiential Storytelling
Review of Mark Miller. Experiential Storytelling: (Re)Discovering Narrative to Communicate God’s Message. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
Miller is attempting in this book to motivate and model an old form of communication (storytelling) to provide the church with a means to reach today’s postmodern generation. He writes because he believes there is much at stake for the church.
“I believe in the church. Christ died for it, and the Spirit moves it. Further, it is the primary instrument God has chosen to use on earth. If that is not a reason to be more creative in our communication, then I am at a complete loss. . .I also hope that you can be a part of creating a culture of creativity in your church that will eliminate the restraints on innovation.” 75
If I and others do not take seriously what Miller is saying in this book, it seems that we do not take seriously the church and her mission to reach the world with the good news.
Miller begins his book describing a friend’s frustration (as well as his own in being able to communicate to today’s audience. He explains how postmodernism requires that we change our communication methods if we are to reach people today with the message of the Bible. He says that the priority of experience in postmodernism has affected how we eat, how we shop, how we are entertained, how we do business and how we learn. However, he observes that the church and particularly our method of educating the church “has remained largely unchanged for centuries.” 24 He is suggesting in this book that the use of storytelling is a way to bridge this experience gap between the church and today’s generation.
He explains in chapter 2 why story has such power (especially with the postmodern generation) to touch a person at all levels and suggests that the Bible and Jesus in particular understood this. Stories help us to connect with people (37-39), cause people to think (41) and yet address the heart. He writes, “When a story becomes personal and people begin to become unsettled and challenged by it, then they have been touched in a place where facts fear to tread. It is a place so personal that it can spark an inner transformation.” 41 Since the church has the greatest story, he says, “We must tell God’s story and tell it well.” He will later explain why the church has moved away from storytelling (a tension between faith and art that arose out of the reformation in which the priority of the written word was emphasized). 43 He warns that to be an effective storyteller we must know our story, know our audience and honor our message. In words that should reassure those that fear using stories, Miller says that we must make sure we do not lose the integrity of the Biblical story. “The message you are trying to communicate is of much more importance than the methods you employ in telling the story.” 47
Having established the need for the church to use storytelling to be effective communicators in today’s world, the rest of the book is devoted to helping us be better storytellers. He has a long section (56-75) in which he describes various ideas on how to stimulate creativity (defined by Miller as “the ability to think or act differently” 58) as well as warn about creativity killers. In chapter 4 he addresses the traditional sermon and tries to get us to consider narrative preaching (without really defining what that means) which requires the preacher to relinquish control. As Miller says, our use of storytelling requires that we “stop trusting ourselves”, “ask God to help us trust those attending our gatherings” and trust in the Holy Spirit. 88
Miller concludes the book by suggesting some ways we can be effective storytellers (chapter 5) and then provides in chapter 6 one successful model of storytelling that he has used (the Jesus Journey) in a weekend retreat to reach young people.
Miller rightly assumes that most of us who preach and teach want to be effective communicators. He identifies with many of us in our frustrations to reach today’s generation with traditional methods and is very much aware of the fear that “storytelling” brings to many of our hearts. I am not sure that he will convince many of those who believe that the traditional preaching of the Word of God is what God means when he says “Preach the Word”. (2 Tim 4:2). He is obviously identified with the emergent church and because of this some will unfortunately not hear his message because of “guilt by association”. He draws upon other modern writers who are effective storytellers (Buechner as an example) and cites author’s who write about the value of narrative preaching.
This book has been a tremendous help for me in motivating me to further pursue story in my biblical teaching and preaching. It is an excellent resource for our Storytelling and Preaching class and I would highly recommend it to others who are interested in implementing storytelling in their ministry. It should be required reading for all that work with youth and college age folks.
If there is any frustration with this book, it is in its brevity and thus in its inability to provide more examples of how to implement storytelling in our ministry. However the book refers the reader to the author’s website for further illustrations of people using the experiential storytelling approach at http://www.experientialstorytelling.com/ However, as of September 29 at 12 pm, I was not able to access this site and could not find anything like it through a search on google. More assistance in this area would certainly be helpful and anyone seeking to implement some of Miller’s ideas would do well to gather a team of like minded people around them to brainstorm ways that their Bible teaching and church communication in general could improve.