Evangelism – the lost art of telling three stories, not one

Remember when your church used to run evangelism training seminars where everyone was taught how to share their faith via a memorized script or a tract or a series of provocative questions (“If you were to die tonight…” gulp)?

I remember attending courses like that and I couldn’t help but feel like a door-to-door salesman being trained in how to present the products benefits, respond to any pesky objections or questions, and finally how to close the deal. The trainer told us that one of the big obstacles to successfully evangelizing people was the temptation to get side-tracked. Side-tracks were the worst. We were trained in how to stick to the main topic and bring the presentation to the point where we could confront the person directly with their need for salvation. In order to get there we had to make an effort to think through any situations or issues people might raise and have a clear set of responses that guide the conversation back to the main point.

Courses like those probably gave you the impression that when it comes to evangelism there’s only one story that matters — the story of Jesus dying for our sins.

But what if I told you evangelism isn’t just about memorizing and retelling one story? No, it’s much more complicated than that. It’s about telling three stories. *

Yep, as if learning one story wasn’t enough, I want you to learn three stories. And I want you to learn to tell them really well. Those three stories are (1) the story of God, (b) your own story of life with Jesus, and (c) your non-Christian friend’s story. And the sweet spot for evangelism is in the intersections between those stories. Let me explain.

Story 1: The Story of God

Of course, evangelism involves talking about God, but not like a sales pitch. More like an epic story. It’s the story of a God who reigns over everything and whose realm is one of justice, beauty, freedom and love. God created this world according to his good purposes for all life, but human sin opened the door for evil, undermining those purposes.

But Jesus showed us what the good life looks like. He lived it, taught about it, demonstrated it. His is a world devoid of evil and sickness, a world of justice, peace, joy and community. He took our punishment, conquered evil, brought forgiveness, defeated death, and ushers in a new social and political order according to God’s purposes, one that mirrors God’s heavenly kingdom.

The good news is that this new order has begun with the resurrection of Jesus, and we live in the light of the future in the power of the Spirit.

There’s so much more I could say here, but suffice to say that the story of God is not just news about how to avoid going to hell when you die. It is an invitation to healing and wholeness, to an experience of the presence and power of God in our lives now. You need to learn to tell it really well.

Story 2: Sharing Your Story

The second story we need to learn is our own. You might think you know your own story, but a lot of Christians don’t spend enough time reflecting on their own spiritual autobiographies. How is God’s story shaping my story? How is God healing me? How is God changing me? How am I growing and changing to conform more and more to the values of God’s kingdom. Where is Jesus present in my story?

This involves us knowing how Jesus was present in our lives even before we became Christians. It also involves how we see God being present in our lives during even non-sacred activities. Is God there when we’re watching something on Netflix, or surfing, or doing our tax return, or fulfilling a mundane chore or duty? Yes. Think about how God is present and learn to share this with others.

Also, we should be able to talk about how our work toward justice, reconciliation, hospitality and generosity are inspired, shaped and sustained by God’s presence in our lives.

We need to practice sharing our biographies, not just how and when you became a Christian, but how and when God is turning up in your life these days. We need help in knowing how to talk about these things in real, colloquial, winsome ways. That involves acknowledging our failings and uncertainties, being genuine, not embellishing our experiences, not relying on clichés. As Rebecca Manley Pippert writes,

“Our problem in evangelism is not that we don’t have enough information—it is that we don’t know how to be ourselves. We forget we are called to be witnesses to what we have seen and know, not to what we don’t know. The key on our part is authenticity and obedience, not a doctorate in theology.”

Story 3: Telling The Other’s Story

It might sound presumptuous to suggest that our job is to tell people their story. But there is nothing so intimate, so loving, as being able to put another person’s story into words. As I just mentioned, many of us have never reflected on our own stories and are quite limited in our ability to talk about them. It’s the same for non-Christian people. Life just happens. We get busy. We don’t take the time to stop and examine our own biographies, let alone put them into words.

But when someone — a dear friend, a therapist, a close relative — puts into words our deepest longings, or explains how they see the events of our lives shaping us, it can be so incredibly powerful and intimate.

In order to be able to do this we need to make ourselves available to them. We need to be loving, attentive, interested friends. Learning to listen well in order to genuinely hear and understand is an essential skill in evangelism. Well, in life, actually. We have to become better listeners in order to tell someone their own story.

Become curious about other people. But remember that too many questions can feel like an interrogation. Try asking questions without question marks. For example, “Tell me about your family”, “I’d like to hear more about that”, “Tell me how that’s working out for you”. Also, ask tough questions gently. Some stories are too scary to tell right away.

Most people are lousy listeners, often only pausing long enough to think of something to say. They compete with you for airtime and leave you feeling exhausted rather than understood. Instead, we should practice what counsellors call active listening. That’s listening with empathy. You do it by maintaining eye contact with the other; leaning toward the person; asking questions; and repeating answers back for clarity. Try to maintain a state of prayer and a learning posture to unwrap the gifts in others.

Finding the Points of Intersection

As you’re learning to tell these three stories, you’ll discover that the most important thing is to find the points where those stories overlap. This is where the magic happens. The most fertile ground for evangelism is where two or three of the stories intersect, as shown in this Venn diagram:

Find Where God’s Story Intersects with My Story – the places where God’s story overlaps with mine are the many ways grace is working on me, guiding me, healing me, shaping me more and more into the person God wants me to be. I call this intersection “Saving Grace,” but it’s not just about me being saved. This intersection is where you can see all the evidences that God’s reign is changing me.

Find Where God’s Story Intersects with The Other’s Story – God’s story of grace overlaps with an unbeliever’s story even if that unbeliever doesn’t understand it or recognize it. This is called “Prevenient Grace.” The term prevenient comes from an archaic English usage meaning “anticipating,” “going before,” or “preceding’’. So, prevenient grace refers to God’s grace that precedes any human decision. It exists prior to and without reference to anything a person may have done. I need to know another person’s story so well that I can identify all the ways I see God at work in their lives, even without them noticing.

Helping people to see how God has touched our lives and theirs is really beautiful work. It’s possible to learn to recognise the myriad ways that God touches us outside of that which is openly spiritual and we can share these moments with others. God touches us through painful growth experiences of loss and grief, through moments of creative and athletic excellence, through moments of victory over our problems and through the tenderness of relationships.

These moments when we touch something eternal and noble and good are God’s fingerprints on our lives — God’s prevenient grace. People need to realise that the God they feel they do not know has, in fact, been at work already in their lives in many ways.

Even the shame, doubt and despair of not being the person you know you could be, can be the indication of the Spirit’s presence, giving a sensitivity to sin in your life. A moment where you connect with a deep truth through the work of an author or an artist can also be the Spirit’s work. A virtuoso performance full of human excellence can leave you feeling you need somewhere to put your wonder and gratitude. All these things can be seen as the Spirit at work through prevenient grace urging the heart toward worship of God. 

Find Where My Story Intersects with The Other’s Story – When you think about it, all conversations between good friends are about where and how our stories overlap. There’s nothing more affirming and empowering than when a friend says, “Me too!” It shows our commonality and our shared brokenness, and it fosters humility and hope.

Good evangelism doesn’t just involve finding where the places of intersection are, but expanding them. Allow more and more of God’s story to overlap with yours. Allow more and more of your story to overlap with your friend’s. And as this happens, you’ll discover more and more of the ways God’s grace has touched his or her life story.

The Place Where All Three Stories Intersect

If you scroll back up to that Venn diagram you’ll see there’s a zone where all three stories intersect. This is the place where Saving Grace, Prevenient Grace, and Real Friendship come together. This is the place where we share about God’s story and how it has changed us for the better, and where we can explore how that same God has already touched our friend’s life. And such sharing is done in the context of a close, trusting friendship.

As we discern God’s grace in their story, through carefully, gently and respectfully listening and uncovering their story, there are several things to keep in mind:

  • Evangelism doesn’t mean sharing everything all at once – in fact if you are true to God’s story, you can’t do it all at once!
  • You don’t have to do it the same way every time – in fact if you are true to their story, you can’t do it the same way every time!
  • You don’t have to have all the answers – in fact if you are true to your story, you know you really don’t have all the answers.

There’s much more I should say — about the need to demonstrate love in practice, and the importance of community — but in the interests of keeping this short, I’ll leave it here. Elaine Heath was right when she said, “Evangelism is intrinsically relational, the outcome of love of neighbor, for to love our neighbor is to share the love of God holistically.”

And as Tim Keller once wrote, “Everybody has got a story. If you’re able to inhabit that so well that they feel that you know their story better than they do, and then show in a compelling way how that story is only going to find resolution in Jesus, then they are going to find a compelling case for Christianity.”

Hey, evangelism is simple. It just involves learning three really complicated, beautiful, perplexing stories really well and then figuring out how to tell them with gentleness, grace and kindness.

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* I am indebted to an old friend Chris Harding from YFC-Australia for first introducing this approach to me many years ago.

** Cover image from Dmitry Ratushny

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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12 thoughts on “Evangelism – the lost art of telling three stories, not one

  1. Great blog Mike thanks. As a Church Army trained evangelist, this is music to my ears.

  2. Thanks Mike, story is us, and especially in this Naidoc week and after last week’s 150th anniversary of the Coming of the Light. As an indigenous poet has put it “we are all connected by our stories”. it is so important to listen to the story of this land, the stories of its people. “Dadirri” or deep listening is one of the most profound gifts from our First Australians. Not only is this important for evangelism but for all we attempt to be and become as Christians.

  3. Thank you Michael. Great to be reminded of those things that informed the mission of so many of us in the 70s, 80s and 90s through Young Life, Youth for Christ, Scripture Union, Teen Crusaders etc and still inform many of us today. It has been lost on many, and will, because you have put it out there once more, encourage and inform many in our present day in their mission-al endeavors.

  4. Thanks, this is really helpful. I especially like the idea of finding the intersections between the stories.

    In telling God’s story, I wonder how you fit into a modern science frame? The conventional God story is that he made a perfect world and we stuffed it up. In your words: “It’s the story of a God who reigns over everything and whose realm is one of justice, beauty, freedom and love. God created this world according to his good purposes for all life, but human sin opened the door for evil, undermining those purposes.”

    But if we accept the truth of evolution, there was death and suffering of animals even before humans appeared, and God’s “good purposes for all life” are somewhat double-edged. It seems that God’s creation was “good” in potential, but not entirely yet realised. I imagine many younger people would have this evolutionary meta narrative in their minds when we might speak to them about God’s story.

    Do you think this changes how we speak on these matters? Do you think christians have adjusted their stories to suit?

  5. Thanks Mike for this practical advice. In telling God’s story I am very taken by the idea of telling it as a meta-narrative. I am attending the Baptists in Mission Conference this week. As the opening paper, Melinda Cousins of Baptist Union South Australia took us through a session on the meta-narrative of God through six ‘acts’, as in acts within a play. Creation, Fall, Promise, Redemption, the Story of the Church and Renewal. It seems like a great way of presenting God’s story to new believers and a structure that captures everything that needs to be said.

    1. Yes, I’m attending (and speaking at) the BiM conference this week. I heard Melinda’s presentations. I would want to point out, though, that we will almost never get to take someone through all six acts in one sitting.

  6. As an Atheist who has Evangelical relatives I can assure you that nothing annoys me more than rote talking points that some “trainer” taught them. Most Atheists I know get very annoyed with hearing the same arguments and “questions” over and over again. If you want to share your faith, and what it means to you, with me, then please keep it personal. I may not agree with you, but I am far more interested in your personal story than I am some prefabricated talking points.

  7. Thanks Mike – wonderful. Appreciate you deconstructing that, which is sometimes instinctive, into words. And describing the beauty of the intersection.

  8. Mike,
    Excellent! I am captured by the book of Acts and have been reading it over and over. The stories, the way Paul, Stephen, and others retold the story of God and their encounters with the Lord. I remember those early days in my faith being under pressure going door to door with those leading questions. I remember how uncomfortable I felt with those questions.

    Sharing our faith is not about ” quoting” verses, but as you said so well; after all, the bible is a compilation of stories.

  9. Mike,
    Wonderful article and I love the “story telling” aspect that really resonates today.
    One thought I had was regarding “My Story”. I wonder whether we should also think about how our story is part of God’s story – how we are joining with Him in His work of redemption, His work of kingdom-building? See through the parts of where God is turning up in my story to how those times fit into His Story? I’m reminded of the scene in Tolkien’s The Return of the King, after the ring is destroyed and Sam is saying to Frodo “‘What a tale we have been in, Mr Frodo, haven’t we?’ he said. ‘I wish I could hear it told! Do you think they’ll say: Now comes the story of the Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom? And then everyone will hush, like we did, when in Rivendell they told us the tale of Beren One-hand and the Great Jewel. I wish I could hear it! And I wonder how it will go on after our part.'”
    I recently heard N.T. Wright talking about the Eastern Orthodox concept of icons, rather than being objects of worship, were intended to be windows into the divine through which we get a glimpse of the heavenly realm. I wonder if, as we contemplate how our story forms part of God’s bigger story, it takes us out of our potential for navel gazing and lifts our eyes to Him.
    Thanks again.

  10. I’m sure we have all talked nicely to someone we’d rather kick in the shins. I suppose that is what it is to be a civilized human being. I’m a little hesitant about authenticity. Maybe only kids have it? I would hope even if believers got pegged as marketing guys it would be something/one they were proud of. In the US we have a lot of people getting tricked into doing stuff and people being told things they don’t understand. I think when the apostle Paul summed up Jesus he said the guy is love.

  11. Would highly recommend Hannah Steele’s recent book Living His Story which was Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for 2021 on this subject. Accessible and with great depth and a range of associated resources and reflections online too.

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