Scott McClellan, 30, is Communications Pastor at Irving Bible Church and former director of the Echo Conference. He is one of the foremost Christian voices on effective communication and is releasing his first book, Tell Me a Story: Finding God and Ourselves Through Narrative (Moody Publishers). In it, he shares what comprises a good story and how we can begin living better ones. Building on Psalm 107:2, which states, “Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story …”, makes the case for every Jesus-follower to impact the lives of others by telling their own story of redemption.
JM: The concept of story has come into the Christian evangelical lexicon in recent years by other authors like John Eldredge and Don Miller. What’s your take on it?
SM: I think both Eldredge and Miller do a wonderful job of identifying the elements of story and exploring the ways in which God seems to have woven those elements into the fabric of life. My take goes something like this: We’re both created and called to be storytellers. When Jesus told his disciples they would be his witnesses, he was calling them to be storytellers in his service. We might even say the book of Acts is the account of how the gospel went out and the church was born as the apostles lived out their narrative calling. As storytellers, we see life and all it entails—God, self, purpose, work, conflict, community, culture—through a narrative frame that lends context and perspective to our circumstances. That, along with scenes from my own life, is what Tell Me a Story is all about.
JM: We live in a Post-Enlightenment age in which people no longer deploy the techniques of rational thought, according to Neal Gabler in the New York Times. In what ways is this beneficial to story and narrative? Is story the next generation’s best chance of impacting lives?
SM: I hesitate to invoke the example of the Civil Rights movement and the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but I’m going to do it anyway. Here goes: racial inequality in 20th-century America was many things, but pertinent to this question is the fact that racial inequality was irrational. It was irrational then, but it’s especially irrational now as we look back upon the 1950s and 1960s with the gift of hindsight. But here’s the thing: rational thought was never going to suddenly win the day and persuade irrational thought to leave town. What we needed was a movement.
I dare say rational thought rarely sparks a movement. Rather, I think it’s one of story’s particular gifts that sparks movements: imagination. In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek makes the case that Dr. King was not a tactician. Dr. King didn’t have a plan or a logical argument, he had a dream. See, rational thought can analyze and extrapolate, but it can’t imagine a bright future and compel us toward it. That’s what story does. That’s what storytellers do. To the extent that we can imagine and tell a story of hope and new life in Christ to our peers, we can impact lives.
JM: In what ways can narrative and story have a downfall (as you discuss in this post)?
SM: Storytellers are faced with particular temptations. There’s the temptation to artificially heighten drama or the temptation to paint people as spotless heroes and sinister villains. We might also be lured by tidy, three-act arcs. The reality, of course, is that life rarely fits into the clean lines of a storyboard. So, the underlying temptation for storytellers is that the truth isn’t good enough. People of faith ought to know better, but we’re tempted nonetheless. Should we give into that temptation, should we forsake the truth for something we consider more entertaining, we’re essentially forsaking the ultimate pursuit—to tell stories that people believe.
JM: We’re also in an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young. How can we share the beauty of a narrative-driven faith in that context?
SM: I’m reminded of one of the most important maxims in filmmaking: “Show, don’t tell.” Film is a visual medium, of course, and so it’s incumbent upon cinematic storytellers to use the strengths of the medium to capture the audience. Ultimately, I think this is about more than being visual; it’s about being experiential. A narrator can tell the audience that the protagonist is kind and gentle, or the filmmaker can show the protagonist being kind and gentle to puppies and small children. The difference between telling and showing is the difference between information and story.
In the same way, we can tell people that God loves them. Or we can show them the grace of God through the stories we’ve lived in the past and are living in the present. Again, it’s the difference between information and story. Yes, we’re more likely to be influenced by what we see with our own eyes than by the propositions of authorities and institutions. As such, we’re presented with the opportunity to live stories that bear witness to the powerful, redemptive love of God. Those kinds of stories are the best apologetic we have to offer our 21st-century world.
JM: The idea of story can seem intangible. What are some practical/concrete ways become a storyteller?
Perhaps Psalm 107:2 is instructive: “Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story …”
The best place for any of us to start is with our own story, and especially the redemptive arc therein. If you don’t know your own story, or if you’ve never thought of your life on those times, for goodness sake it’s time to start. Your friends, family, and neighbors don’t need an elaborate gospel presentation constructed with spiritual laws and airtight apologetics. When we who follow Christ tell the stories of how God has redeemed us, those stories tend to be shaped like this: Who we were, who we are in Christ, and who we’re becoming. I think that’s a practical place to start, and I think that’s a story worth telling.