Telling our stories

May 23rd, 2017

Benefits of storytelling

Storytelling is as natural as breathing. When something happens in our lives, whether good or bad, we want to tell someone — and we feel like we’ll burst if we don’t! When we see a loved one in the evening after a long day, we want to hear their story. We greet them with that simple, universal question, “How was your day?”

Since storytelling is such an integral part of our lives, it’s unsurprising to learn that it has benefits beyond entertainment or information. According to a December 2016 article in The New York Times, nursing homes and assisted living facilities are beginning to offer storytelling programs for their residents. Some participants have written full memoirs as part of these programs, while others have simply written short sketches about their lives. Regardless of the participants’ output, the effects of these programs have been profound. Through simply telling their stories, these older adults have found confidence and peace. It has often led them to forgive themselves for past mistakes or helped them process their feelings of grief.

Studies have found that storytelling benefits younger children as well. Practicing this craft improves language skills and memory, develops imagination and enhances cultural understanding. If these benefits can be found for groups as divergent as older adults and young children, what are the implications for the large group of people in between? It would only make sense that the list of benefits found for these disparate groups would apply to people of any age.

Storytelling and empathy

The nonprofit organization StoryCorps has embraced the importance of storytelling and the attendant benefits by providing spaces for people to interview one another and to share stories together. The group states that its mission is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” This ambitious mission points to the myriad benefits and possibilities found in sharing stories.

Indeed, storytelling is an act that many see as beneficial for the process of peace. In a May 2015 article on the website Insight on Conflict, Kirthi Jayakumar explored storytelling as a way of creating empathy and a means of making peace. Jayakumar says that when people listen to the stories of others, they “learn to empathise at the tragedies they learn about, and gain from the strength that is developed.” Hearing the stories of others challenges the preconceived notions we hold. It also gives the storyteller a safe space to tell the truth and heal. In this exchange, the storyteller and the listener begin to lay the groundwork of peace together.

This use of storytelling highlights not just the benefits of telling stories, but also the value in listening to stories. Through stories, we “learn about life beyond our direct experience,” says Jude Treder-Wolff, creator and host of a monthly storytelling show called (mostly) TRUE THINGS. Wolff explains that storytellers can engage our intellect and imagination simultaneously. We don’t just learn about new concepts, we actually experience them. This relates directly to the peacebuilding nature of storytelling described earlier. “Stories connect strangers through what neuroscientists call ‘empathic transportation,’ ” Wolff continues, “which binds listeners in an intangible but powerful way.”

Storytelling and evangelism

In a 2013 article for Forbes, Jim Blasingame states that the “Holy Grail of storytelling is when someone else tells your . . . story to others.” Blasingame’s principle is clearly illustrated in John 4. The woman at the well gets a big surprise in verses 17-18 when Jesus shares her story, the one about the five previous husbands and the current living arrangement with a man who isn’t her husband. She’s so impressed, so shocked that she simply replies, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” (verse 19). As her interaction with Jesus unfolds, this initial impression slowly morphs into a deeper question, “Could this man be the Christ?”

Her question prompts her to transition from the listener to the storyteller. She tells the story of her interaction with Jesus and invites her listeners to hear the story themselves: “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done!” (verse 29). She wants them to know what she has experienced, and she wants to know if they have the same question about Jesus’ identity.

When they arrive, we see the value of listening to stories directly from the source. The people meet Jesus and are so awed that they invite him to stay for two more days. Once they listen to Jesus themselves, they tell the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world” (verse 42). The woman’s story about Jesus got them there, but Jesus’ story about himself convinced them.

Storytelling is the primary way that faith is shared throughout the Bible. In Acts 2:14-36, we read about Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. In his sermon, Peter tells the story of Jesus. He says that Jesus was “a man whose credentials God proved . . . through miracles, wonders, and signs, which God performed through him” (verse 22). Even with all this evidence that the story Jesus told about himself was true, he was still betrayed and killed. Yet, Peter says, the story doesn’t end there, because “God raised him up!” (verse 24). This basic story about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the essential proclamation of the Easter faith of the church, and Peter skillfully weaves it into the larger story of salvation.

This is how evangelism is carried out — Jesus’ story is woven into our own story. We tell the story of how we were one way, and now, through Jesus, we’re a new, better way. Even the acts of mercy and justice we do can be viewed as yet another opportunity to share our story so that others might come to believe.

Storytelling and growth in faith

The benefits of storytelling for Christian faith don’t end with evangelism. Our continued growth in faith requires even more storytelling. In the early Methodist movement, each member of the society was plugged into a class meeting. During the meetings, the participants asked one another, “How does your soul prosper?” or “How is it with your soul?” The members were invited to tell the story of their walk with God, the good and the bad.

The main hope behind group meetings like this was to share stories with the goal of sanctification, which means “to increase in the knowledge and love of God and in love for our neighbor.” By honestly sharing our stories and holding one another accountable for the parts of our stories that don’t fit in with the larger narrative of salvation, our growth in knowledge and love of God and neighbor is greatly aided.

Storytelling, then, can be a means of growth and transformation for people of all ages and in all contexts. Therefore, storytelling is fundamental for Christians. Through it, we evangelize by telling about our encounters with Jesus. We grow in our faith by sharing the stories of how we’re being challenged and shaped in our daily journeys. When we share our stories with one another, they become a powerful tool for transformation.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus