Storytelling in Mission

Storytelling. Photo: Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Photo: Etienne Girardet on Unsplash 

Storytelling is an ancient art of passing on wisdom and experience. It is a way to convince the listener of the message the speaker is conveying. Jesus used stories, such as the parables, to invite his listeners to join his mission. Even after 2,000 years, the power of the parables and storytelling still moves us.

As missionaries, we rely on storytelling to promote our mission. Our donors/benefactors identify with us through our storytelling. If we do not tell our stories, our mission will abruptly come to an end. We must tell our stories and tell them well.

Yet, how do we tell our story? What are the characteristics of good storytelling that invite others to our mission? Over the years, through experience and training, I have come to identify six effective elements of storytelling in mission.

The extraordinary is in the ordinary

Often, the common response for a missionary not to write a story on their mission is because they feel there is nothing extraordinary to tell. They expect that the listener wants to hear something miraculous beyond what is commonly experienced.

Yes, I believed this as well until our editor of the Columban Mission magazine in the United States, Kate Kenny, emphasized to me, you may think your story is ordinary, but, for the other, it is extraordinary. In addition, it has proven true in my experience.

The biggest responses to the stories I have written were the ones I felt were simple, ordinary stories. It struck a chord because it was identifiable. The listener can relate to it. Therefore, do not underestimate the role your story can play in another’s conversion. Tell your story and let the Holy Spirit do its work.

Be humble in your story

If you are in the story you narrate (spoken or written), remember you are never the hero of the story. Be humble; it is you who has learned something. The centre of the story is the mission, not you. After all, Jesus was not the centre of His storytelling. For example, in the parables, the Kingdom of God was the centre and mission, not Jesus.

Lifting up the other(s)

The people you speak or write about, if they had access to your story, hopefully, they would be proud of the story you tell and the way you tell it. Your words should lift them up. This is the antithesis of Save the pagan babies! Mission-stories during my parent and grandparents’ generations.

I wonder if the parents of the pagan babies had heard or read these stories, how would they have felt about their portrayal. When the pagan babies became adults, would they have felt proud of the way they were imaged?

Certainly, it was the way of storytelling of that time, but in today’s social media world, be conscious that those whom you write or speak about could have access to your story. In the parables, Jesus always lifted up those he came to serve. 

Provoke empathy, not pity

I hope that the way you tell your story invites the listener to walk in another’s shoes so the listener will, in some way, identify with the other’s struggle. In this regard, I think of Jesus, and the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 3-11). Jesus words: Let whoever is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her, invited the crowd to put themselves in the woman’s shoes. Jesus provoked empathy, and so should your story. 

Provoke solidarity beyond charity

As a missionary congregation, we do rely on our benefactors to make our work possible. However, we do hope that in some way, that our stories inspire the listener to take action - great or small, locally or globally - that leads to a lifetime commitment of conversion. That the listener can identify and to have solidarity with others who are in their midst. 

Building bridges

Storytelling is building spiritual bridges between the listener and the mission you experience. What was unknown has become known. The world is made smaller, the geographical distances shorter. For example, hopefully, my stories of 17 years in Chile have made Chile present to the listener so that they feel that they have walked with the Chilean people as I did. 

Keeping these points in mind while preparing your story of mission will, hopefully, make your message more effective and accessible to the listener. Thus, the mission you experienced becomes alive to the listener.

Columban Fr Chris Saenz is from the USA and has worked in Chile for more than seventeen years.

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