The following is a guest post by Kyle Baker.
A lot of the stories we tell go something like this:
Our protagonist, a sinful man, coaches high school football. The man is a closet alcoholic, his marriage is on the rocks, and his team always loses. He isn’t involved in church, but his wife is. At the end of the first act, his wife, frustrated by his drinking, gives him an ultimatum.
During the second act (and maybe a montage) he starts to get his act together and reconnects with church, beginning to find redemption. At the end of the second act, he rededicates himself to the Lord, and his sin problem fades. He’s now a better Christian, a better husband, and a better coach. During the opening of the third act, the team finally beats their longtime rival and advances to postseason play, where they continue to do well. On the eve of the state championship, he and his wife reconcile. The team wins state.
The vast majority of real-life testimonies — even the most dramatic conversions — do not end with a trophy presentation, promotion, new baby, or successful business, yet that’s the pattern of the stories we tell. Why is that? Conversion stories for most people end with commonplace lives full of service, temptation and perseverance-but we don’t seem to share stories like that with each other. Where’s the story about the coach who comes to Christ but still loses his marriage? Or the noted celebrity who gets saved but loses her fanbase?
God moving in people’s lives doesn’t always look like a Lifetime or Hallmark movie.
John Piper makes a great point in his condemnation of the prosperity gospel (you can watch the video embedded below). He provides an illustration about the tragic death of a young girl, in which God is glorified in the midst of a believer’s grief and suffering – not success.
This kind of story is so powerful because stories like it are rarities on our screens and our platforms.
What’s the difference between the prosperity gospel and many of the stories we tell?
The danger of “Follow Christ and he’ll forgive your sins, give you your wife back, and give you professional success” is that it deceives our congregations. The pattern is too rigid, and I believe it leads people to build false expectations for what a life in Christ looks like — expectations that lead to disappointment, when if fact they’re inconsistent with the lives of Jesus and his first followers found in Scripture.
Personally, I watched this play out in a series we hosted this past spring. The series was on recovery, and someone shared a personal testimony about addiction recovery every week. I watched as the folks sharing struggled to end their stories with a bow and slowly adjusted their stories to better fit the “State Champion” archetype. Where did they get the idea that they needed a happy ending? Certainly not from the recovery program which encourages lifelong mentoring and accountability.
One of the best reasons to share testimonies is to corporately celebrate what God has done (and is doing) within the individual lives of our church body, including the recoveries from cancer, the new jobs, the healthy babies, and yes, the state championships. I think this is the motivation behind all these positive tales, but it has spun a little out of control. People are adjusting how they tell the truth.
We’ve taken the plot diagram from the four verse hymn structure (God’s Great, You’re a Sinner, Christ’s a Savior, Heaven’s Awesome) and applied it to every story we tell: how somebody joined the church or a specific ministry, how our church was founded/grew, even the summer camp recap video. There are places it doesn’t belong, and as curators and producers we are in a position to shape these stories for the better.
I am not condoning any manipulation of personal testimonies; quite the opposite. I’d like us to un-manipulate stories when we see it happen. We’re the ones in the studio for what goes on the screen. We’re the ones on the website purchasing what we will share. We’re also the ones in rehearsal before the service. Remember, testimonies are supposed to be about what God has done in a person’s life, not their personal achievements. Redemption from sin is a way bigger deal than winning state (even in Texas), and our stories should reflect that.
What would it change about the stories we produce to focus on what God has shown our protagonist or where they are now spiritually? What if we acknowledged “stories like that” are rare? What would be lost if we got all Terrence Malick and left things somewhat open-ended?
While we’re under the hood of our internal storytelling, I’m going step on one more toe: I don’t think we need to be as pollyanna about dark subjects. Resist the temptation to sugarcoat pain, despair, attacks, sinful behavior, and personal traumas. There is real pain in the world. Ignoring it in our services gives the impression (and tacitly supports the delusion) that it doesn’t exist for Christians.
A Storyteller without the integrity to show the depths of the world’s darkness will never have the authority to depict its even greater light. – Andrew Klavan (I like that quote so much I turned it into a poster.)
Whether you’re a video producer or a service planner/curator, you shape the stories your church tells itself. (And if you’re a commercial producer, your opportunity is to shape the stories the Church tells herself.) Within that role is an opportunity to share stories that create mature disciples and that recognize the possibilities and the realities of our faith and the infinite permutations of its role (and our Creator’s role) in our lives.
They need better stories.