Movements Run on Stories
When I was a child, I used to write fearlessly.
I wrote with the confidence that you can only have when you don’t realize you are bad at something. That’s the kind of confidence most children have. (Some adults I know have that kind of confidence, too.)
When I was a child, I didn’t write theological treatises. I wrote stories.
I wrote autobiographical stories about scoring the winning run in a baseball game and about having adventures in the forest: fishing, camping, hunting, canoeing.
I wrote fictional stories, too. They were usually about the same sorts of things.
When I was a child I didn’t write for money or fame, but I also didn’t write just for myself. I shared these stories with other people — and mostly against their will. I mailed them to my grandmother as letters. One time I basically held my third-grade class hostage while I read to them a chapter of a novel I wrote at home. It was terrible. But I wrote it and I thought they needed to hear it.
I wrote stories because I read a lot of stories — stories about boys winning baseball games and having adventures in the forest or floating down the Mississippi River on a raft. And those stories made me brave. Reading about other peoples’ adventures made me want to have my own adventures. Those stories tapped my emotions and expanded my imagination. They gave voice to my feelings and opened my eyes to worlds I could never visit on my own. They gave me a sense of identity and solidarity with a community of people out there I had never met. I was an only child, with no brothers and sisters, and my parents divorced when I was young. The time I spent alone was less lonely when I spent it with a book, where I met other kids who liked the same things I liked and felt the same ways I felt.
They gave me a sense of identity and solidarity with a community of people out there I had never met.
I found all this courage, comfort, and community in stories.
Then I went to university and everything changed.
I stopped reading stories, and I stopped writing stories.
The reason I stopped reading and writing stories was that I noticed that the kinds of books my teachers and pastors admired weren’t stories. They were serious books. Important books. Weighty books about ideas. Books that had the power to make sense of complicated topics and provide an intellectual framework for how to think about things the right way.
These kinds of books were new to me. And they were powerful. Over time I began to believe that the most important thing isn’t telling stories, but explaining stories. I began to believe that real influence doesn’t come from telling stories, but from telling people what the stories mean.
I looked at the people who were really good at that sort of thing within my Christian circles — people like C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright and Tim Keller and others — and I began to think that the world didn’t need more storytellers. It needed more experts. It didn’t need new stories. It needed people to explain the old stories.
Suddenly I lost all the confidence I had when I was a kid. I began to think that it was time to grow up. That I shouldn’t waste my time reading other people’s stories. I certainly shouldn’t waste my time writing my own stories.
So I went to graduate school and on to doctoral studies to become an expert in Christian history — then, I could be helpful to pastors and church people because I would know how to explain our most important stories.
And while I was spending lots of time and energy and money becoming an expert, God gave me an education.
God arranged it so that the way I made a living during graduate school was by working for a Christian magazine where most of the writers were pastors. That meant that during my classes, I was reading stories about deadpastors and during my work hours, I was listening to stories about livingpastors. And because I was their editor, I wasn’t just hearing these living pastors write their stories — I was helping them write them.
Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed helping people I didn’t even know tell stories about how they tried and failed in ministry and saw God at work where they live. And I found it really meaningful when other pastors all across America and beyond would read those stories and write us letters to tell us how those stories gave them courage in their own ministries, brought their imaginations to life, and helped them feel connected to someone who understood their struggles and made them feel seen and heard and not alone.
In other words, I was realizing that the stories these pastors were writing were just like the stories I studied as a historian. They were stories about normal pastors who were trying to be faithful in their time and place.
It would have been a lot easier — and much less expensive — if I had just let God teach me the lesson. Instead, he used pastors both in my studies and in my job to bring me to an important conclusion.
The lesson that changed everything for me is this: movements run on stories.
Stories are the fuel that power movements.
Let me give you an example. My doctoral studies were focused on the First Great Awakening in America — or the Evangelical Revival, as it’s called in the U.K. — which was a time of intense spiritual renewal in the 18th century. The more I read, the more I realized that the Great Awakening was a movement fueled by stories.
One of the most important collections of stories during the Great Awakening was written by Jonathan Edwards. It was called A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton. (This was before there were marketing people to tell authors that you need a snappy title to sell books.)
Jonathan Edwards witnessed a revival in his town, so he wrote a book about it — a book of stories about how God met sinners, changed their hearts and behavior, and brought gospel renewal to their town. He published the book in 1737 in London, and from there, the book was distributed through England, Scotland, and Wales. It was published the next year in America, where it was read and re-read and shared all along the east coast. It was translated into German and Dutch.
Why? The people who read it saw themselves in the stories. They recognized that God was doing the same thing in their churches and towns — in England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, the Netherlands; in Virginia and New York and Philadelphia — that he was doing in Northampton, Massachusetts. The stories made people brave enough to try new things in their ministries. They preached differently. They included people in their worship that they would normally have excluded — people of other races. Some allowed women, slaves, and even children to preach.
The people who read it saw themselves in the stories.
The stories made people like George Whitefield and John Wesley brave enough to sail across the ocean to preach in America. It touched their imaginations and emotions so that they were open to new possibilities of what God might do among them. It gave them a sense of identity and solidarity with Christians around the world.
But it wasn’t the explanation of the stories that did it, even though Edwards was a master explainer. The power was in the stories. Edwards said it himself:
“There is no one thing that I know of, that God has made such a means of promoting his work amongst us, as the news of others’ conversions.”
Did you catch that? It was the stories about the work God was doing in other peoples’ lives that was God’s main instrument of change.
The Great Awakening ran on stories.
All movements run on stories. Some movements run on stories about things that happened in the past. The #MeToo movement is made up entirely of stories about past abuse and survival. The stories make people feel brave enough to speak out. It gives them the imagination to envision a world where abusers are brought to justice. It gives them a sense of community and solidarity with other survivors.
Some movements run on stories about things that haven’t happened yet. The Civil Rights movement in America, for example, was powered by stories about what America could be if it truly embraced its best ideals. Martin Luther King told a story in his speech, “I Have a Dream.” He told a story about an America that didn’t exist, but could exist, especially if God’s people worked to make it a reality.
Over the course of the last year, I had the privilege of helping a few church planters from Europe write their stories. They’ve written about their experiences trying to engage secular culture through the arts; about starting businesses in cities for social change; about reaching across cultural and racial divides to reach people with the gospel. About trying and failing and trying again to be the salt and light of Christ to the cities of Europe. Those stories give me courage and expand my imagination and make me feel like I’m part of something bigger happening around the world.
In other words, God has used pastors — both living and dead — to remind me of a truth that all children know and that most grownups forget: that there is real, world-changing power in the stories of ordinary people.
Can you imagine what could happen if pastors all over the world started telling their stories?
Stories about trying and failing in the hard work of ministry in Europe. Stories about how God is at work in your city. Stories about ordinary people trying to be faithful servants where they live. Can you imagine?
I can. I believe those stories would reach people on every continent and give them renewed courage and fresh vision and a deeper sense of being a part of a global movement of the gospel.
I believe that if we want to see gospel movements in our generation, then we have to start telling gospel stories. We don’t have to leave it to the experts to explain what we need to do. We just have to start sharing. I believe movements run on stories that make us brave, that stir our emotions and imaginations, that give us a sense of identity and solidarity.
And I believe our City to City networks around the world are full of stories that need to be told.
Want to join the movement and share your story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Brandon O’Brien is Director of Content for City to City, where he aims to equip gospel movements around the world through books, training, and other resources. Originally from Arkansas, Brandon has served in pastoral ministry, worked in publishing, authored a few books, and taught for state and Christian colleges and universities.