There is power in indirect communication. When we go about our evangelism efforts, sometimes we forget how to communicate effectively with those we are trying to reach. We go about it directly. And sometimes that works. But most of the time, people are interested in stories they can identify with to know that if it happened for someone, it could happen for them.
Speaking the truth through storytelling is precisely what Christ did. He told the truth (of course, he was and is the ultimate Truth) through stories. Remember the idea of Jesus Christ using parables to tell stories of things that happened to others. By doing this, he was helping us and his audience to identify with the people in the stories so that they can see where they need to change their lives for the outcomes they desire. For instance, in the parable of the Good Samaritan he answered the question of who our neighbor is. He did not directly answer the question. Instead, he answered it through a story. We can do the same in our efforts to evangelize to people and teach them.
This concept is what communications scholar Walter Fisher advocated for. He said humans are homo narrans. In other words, we love stories. So, if we love stories, one of the best ways to reach others is through storytelling, because we respond to what we love. Preacher and theologian Frederick Buechner also mentions that we can tell stories in our preaching efforts, and highlights it as a means of communicating the truth.
Sitting through two hours of service, one and a half of which was preaching, I enjoyed the sermon more when my pastor told real-life stories of his family members and friends. He told stories of how they navigated some of our human challenges. Telling us these stories made the point he was making more relatable. Stories also helped lighten the burden we sometimes carry as we deal with sin. Through these stories, we realize that not only are we in this situation, but others are, too, or have experienced them before. If they overcame them through the Word of God, then we can too. Stories lighten the atmosphere more. While allowing people to genuinely see themselves in the stories, they also encourage people to change course (or repent) to align their lives with the Word of God more.
In addition to communicating the truth through stories, Buechner highlights how important it is for Christians to reach people through humor. Thankfully, my pastor also included humor in his preaching. Humor, like storytelling, made the sermon more enjoyable. People do not need to feel any more condemned when they come to church. They come into church wanting hope, wanting to believe that things will get better. By including humor, we allow them to relax and know that God is still in charge, regardless of what they are going through. This point of humor in preaching is beneficial for unbelievers or new believers who are still learning what Christianity is all about. Through humor, they can also know that Christianity is not boring: It is not a bunch of rules. It is not rigid. And Christians are not rigid individuals, either.
So, why do people love sermons with humor and storytelling or indirect communication? Preacher Fred Craddock says that people do not feel offended when someone uses indirect communication. Instead, they feel the story is about someone else until they see themselves in it. They can accept the lessons or morals of the story more quickly because the communicator is not directly addressing them. Instead, he allows them to see that their mistakes and challenges are common to humans. As Paul wrote, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). Indirect communication is, therefore, generally a gentler way to reach people.
Theologian Søren Kierkegaard’s life was significantly impacted by overhearing a conversation between a grandfather and his grandson. However, as Kierkegaard highlights, indirect communication works most when people have some understanding of the story or the key concept you are trying to communicate. That way, they already have some information about what you are trying to communicate. They can, therefore, connect the dots. With this foundational information, it could be easier for your audience to understand what you are saying. We could provide this foundational information by, for instance, explaining or defining the concept we want to communicate to the audience first. After that, we could follow the definition or concept with examples through stories. From experience, this has been an effective method of reaching people.
J.R.R. Tolkien comes to mind when it comes to apologetics and effective evangelism through storytelling. So does his contemporary, C.S. Lewis (who said his imagination was “baptized” after reading author and minister George MacDonald’s book, Phantastes).
During World War II, Lewis inspired the nation of Great Britain by hosting World War II radio broadcasts on the BBC. He did this by telling stories during his broadcasts. Lewis used metaphors, painted pictures in the minds of his listeners, and used analogies to evangelize. He included these communication techniques to tell his listeners what God wanted them to hear. His broadcasts were so popular that his book, Mere Christianity, which contains the broadcasts, still sells today. Through his broadcasts, people received hope and better understood Christianity. They also gained insight into some challenging topics mankind grapples with.
Today, we can use indirect communication (and humor) to reach everyone. We can use storytelling to help people see where they are and decide, within their hearts, to change course: To live a better life, a higher life, a life that glorifies God—a life that is in line with God’s will and plan for their lives, for his plans for us are good.