Why Storytelling Matters for Churches
Why do we need storytellers? What can the church learn from Hollywood storytelling?
Justin Bell, Hollywood producer, seminarian, and former church worship program manager for Willow Creek Community Church-Dupage (Illinois), set the stage for Aspen Group’s 2015 Alignment Conference with this story:
Imagine you’re on a flight across the globe, and your plane crashes on a remote island in the middle of the ocean. Everyone survives the crash. As the fog of the trauma starts to lift, the survivors' thoughts turn to considering how to exist on the island until they're rescued. One person is assigned to chop wood for a fire. Another is given the task of gathering food. Someone else tends to those with injuries.
In the midst of all of these critical survival tasks, one person announces that he will serve as the storyteller.
“What?” the other survivors ask incredulously. “Why in the world do we need a storyteller?”
According to Bell, the primary purpose for stories is that they help us encounter God. “Encountering God can be broken into three categories: Truth, Goodness, Beauty,” said Bell. We can encounter God through knowledge (Truth) and through the experience of God’s goodness. For Bell, though, it’s beauty that ushers him into the presence of God.
“I didn’t find a lot of beauty in the church growing up. I found it in the movies,” he said. For this reason, Bell has devoted his professional life to learning the art and craft of storytelling through film.
“Storytellers may not be essential for physical survival, but they are essential for spiritual and emotional survival,” he said.
Drawing from his experience working on films—such as Elsa & Fred and the forthcoming feature film Full of Grace—Bell laid out the elements that Hollywood filmmakers look for when determining whether or not to produce a movie, and he used these principles to show the correlation to the stories churches tell, both in their physical space—their church building—and through the lives that are transformed within churches.
Setting the Stage
In film, Act One establishes the setting and the characters. “When people walk into your church, what world are they walking into?” asked Bell. Who are the characters in the scene—leaders, first-time attendees, young adults, moms and dads, older adults?
In Heather Stevens and Taylor Snodgrass’s breakout, “Making Space for Millennials in Your Church’s Story,” they shared insights gleaned while traveling the country visiting churches that are doing a good job reaching young adults.
According to the duo, 20s want to experience love, connection, community, authenticity, and empowerment. Churches that are drawing Millennials into their congregations share these elements in their story.
In “How to Discover Your Church’s Story”—the breakout session by Bob Gray and Graham Richards—the pair explored the process Aspen uses for helping a church discover its unique DNA—its central “story.”
Richards, senior minister at Central Christian Church in Carmel, Indiana, shared the experience his church recently underwent as they gathered key stakeholders from the congregation and church leadership team to explore their church’s story. Many of their discoveries are helping to inform the church’s design decisions as they embark on a new church building project with Aspen.
How can you engage the stakeholders of your church to create thoughtful design?
The Story Your Space Tells
Dona Schnelle-Loftus, an interior designer for Aspen Group, presented a breakout on the important role that finishes, furnishings, and equipment play in telling a church’s story. Just as Act One establishes the setting, a church’s exterior and interior design sets the stage for what will happen within the building. Finishes visually display what a church values—where they are most invested as a congregation. Details matter—in stories and design.
For example, at Second Church in Danville, Illinois, Loftus described how their new lobby space was designed to capitalize on the church’s value of hospitality. They expressed this value clearly by creating comfortable seating in a space where people can linger and visit after services.
Leah Norton, a partner and director of client strategy at Fishhook, discussed the need to create consistency in the way churches tells their story, whether its through communications on a church’s website, or in the church’s physical building.
“As a Christ follower, I want to be the same person—with the same vision, focus, attitudes, and behavior—no matter where I am and what I’m doing,” said Norton. “Our churches are the same. It’s critical to be consistent. To tell your story and live out your brand and values again and again in every situation.”
Who are you? What is your church all about? Are you communicating and living out who you are as a church in a consistent way?
One of the ways churches tell stories is through the use of technology, especially during worship services. In his breakout, “Telling Stories Through Technology,” Mike Mrozinski of LiveSpace, an AVL company, walked people through the various tools available for enhancing stories through technology.
Overcoming the Battle of the Heart
In movies, Act One also establishes the conflict. “Hollywood understands that all is not well with the world,” said Bell. Good stories depict a conflict—“primarily a battle of the heart,” said Ed Bahler, CEO of Aspen Group, in his keynote.
“People are looking for meaning and connection,” said Bell. “When they come to your church, what story are they walking into?” What ‘conflict’ are they bringing with them? What battle of the heart are they fighting?
Act Two is where the action, or plot, unfolds. “People come to church wanting all kinds of things—different music, better air conditioning,” said Bell. “What they really need is Jesus. At our churches, are we creating space for people to choose an adventure with Him?”
Rex Miller, a futurist and the author of Change Your Space, Change Your Culture, discussed how churches can look to organizations outside of the church to discover new, relevant ways to help people engage with God’s story and transform lives.
“We’re all trying to find our place in God’s grand story of redemption,” said Miller. “But there’s also an epic story we’re a part of—the spiritual battle that’s invisible but which is going on all the time.”
Giving people space to engage in this battle—to choose to go on an adventure with Jesus—this is the primary invitation we make to people who come to church. But does the built space of our churches provide a meaningful place for people to engage with God and others?
“Architecture is an expression of our collective values,” said Miller. If your church building doesn't reflect your church's values, it can create dissonance and disengagement. “Is your church locked into a narrative that no longer works?” he asked.
Derek DeGroot, an architect for Aspen Group, explored potential ways churches might create thoughtful design based on shifts in culture, leadership, ministry, and facility—the four core aspects of Alignment. Just as Rex Miller looked outside of the church for inspiration, DeGroot looked to the future to explore how the changing needs in our world may inform new expressions of sacred space.
For example, “If the church ripped a page from the food truck movement, what experience could it bring to the community to ‘feed' it?" DeGroot asked.
One of the battles of the heart that every church tries to help its members win is our desire to live generously. Mark Slabaugh, generosity consultant for Generis, talked about “How to Build a Generosity Story at Your Church.” One powerful way: Start with why.
In movies, Act Three provides the climax and resolution—the breakthrough ending. “Stories create space for the miraculous to happen,” said Bell.
How do breakthrough endings apply to the church? It could be in the baptismal pool or at the cross. It could be in a quiet moment in the sanctuary, or during a small group moment. It could be an a-ha moment during a sermon.
Justin Bell asked, “How does your church describe life with Christ? Is it individualistic or communal? Does it leave space for transformation?” These factors help set people up to find resolution to their conflicts.
In his closing keynote, Kevin Miller provided a resolution to this year’s Alignment Conference. “Architecture is the most immersive art form,” he said. “To quote Winston Churchill, ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.’”
To illustrate this point, Miller showed an assortment of slides depicting various ways churches both shape—and are shaped by—their buildings. “With your next renovation, addition, or new church construction, how can you use your building to tell a better story?” Miller asked.
For the answer, Miller focused on three factors: loves, location, and lessons learned.
“What is your church’s great love?” he asked. “What building areas would you starve to feed this love?” During his church’s renovation, they made the decision to invest significant dollars into a purposefully designed baptismal font. This feature expresses his church’s value on transformation—death to self and resurrection in Christ.
Similarly, “location matters,” said Miller. “Your building is not just a story; it’s a story in a particular place.”
As you consider where your church is located—its particular context—how does this inform decisions you make about your building?
Finally, Miller shared how lessons learned—a church’s history—also affects how a church tells its story.
“God is telling a story through you,” Miller said. “It’s a story he’s not telling through anyone else. And he’s doing it through architecture—through your loves, location, and lessons learned.”