Ministry in the shape of a story

“We tell stories to live.” So begins the great book, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals (Anderson and Foley). I feel like I don’t even need to explain this statement because it’s so self-evident to us. We are a story telling, story living people.

So, it is not surprising that much of Scripture comes to us in narrative form. Even the books of the law in the OT come to us primarily as narratives. Still, we expect instruction on how things should go with church to come to us in a form other than a story.

Imagine my excitement when apostle-con was announced for Detroit to be held at the MGM-Grand Casino. All the big biblical writers will be there. And just in time, because ministry has gotten hairy and I’m in over my head. I could use some wise counsel.

When I arrive there’s a long line. I have brought my autograph copy of Galatians and I’m hoping to get Paul to sign it. I’m hoping my place in line coincides with an opening in front of Paul, or even Peter. Imagine my disappointment when I get Matthew. And he senses it and asks me, “Why the long face?” “Well,” I explain, “things are tough at church and I came today hoping to get a little practical help.” He nods knowingly and says, “I’ve been there. I was serving a church in the midst of some pretty significant transition. All the labels had been changed and we were lost. Let me tell you a story. The birth of Jesus took place in this way… .”

It wasn’t what I expected, but it’s my favorite all-time apostle-con.

So, the question is, what is it in the form of a story that makes it an effective way of addressing ministry concerns. What is a gospel trying to do? How does it accomplish this? What are the rhetorics of a gospel? What are the rhetorics of ministry? What does ministry look like in narrative form? Or, maybe better put, what are the rhetorics of “gospel” and what can they tell us about ministry?

Here are some initial observations.

  1. The narrative form allows Jesus to speak directly to the church even in their current circumstances. While the gospel writer is mediating this encounter through the choices made in story selection, story order, and editorial liberty (redaction), still it is Jesus’ voice the church is to hear. This is more than a parlor trick or a passive aggressive way of getting Jesus to sponsor your agenda. I am convinced that these writers made the choices they did and took certain liberties under the conviction that the risen Lord was still present to his people. While I think we should be careful today to respect our double mediation, gospel writer to me, me with the church, I think it is incumbent on leaders to let Jesus speak in the present tense to the church. It is Christ’s church, not our own.
  2. A story is both a direct and indirect way of engaging an audience. The features of character and plot draw us both through what’s familiar and unfamiliar. We identify with the story intensely, but a distant. It is about us, but at a distance. We can identify the rich young man, but we are not the rich young man. We recognize Peter and Mary, but we are not Peter and Mary. This intense identification at a distance allows people the space they need to consider how their own lives are implicated by the story without being scolded or reprimanded. I have become convinced the hard way that the way to make sure you don’t get what you want is to preach about it. That kind of direct action is rightly, in my opinion, resisted by the congregation.
  3. The gospel writers all lift the veil from time to time to leave no doubt that the situations confronting their life have been anticipated in the life of Jesus. When Jesus says in Matthew, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law…whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me… “(10:34-38), he is not speaking in the abstract, but to Christians who have been excommunicated from synagogues and divided from their families. When Jesus says to his disciples in Luke, “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name,” (21:12) we know that these things happen in the book of Acts. We could repeat examples like these from Mark and John, but I am simply making the point that the audience would have no trouble knowing that this is a story told for them in their concrete circumstances.
  4. The narrative form allows multiple things to be happening at once. They are porous and possess a surplus of meaning. For instance, the gospel stories function in relation to a literary audience, e.g. scribes and pharisees and the twelve, but also to a public audience, churches or seekers, both ancient and modern. They also are spacious enough to carry forward echoes and allusions from both Scripture and the contemporary situation. We hear Isaiah in the speeches of character and notice elements from the Exodus story being repeated. As we noticed in the point above, these narrative can also carry allusions to our lives. They can speak to multiple realities at once without having to break character or suspend the story for the sake of an extended editorial. The gospels are densely articulated worlds, the narrative form allowing multiple things to be accomplished at once. The applications here to ministry are perhaps less direct, though I have written elsewhere of how these features of NT writings might be applied to preaching. Here, I can say that in comparison, we typically use forms of rhetoric that are flatter, thinner, and less spacious because we are trying to get our agenda accomplished.

Well, this is a start. I know I need to explain more fully what I mean be each of these. That’s what a book is for.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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