The Beauty of Storytelling

I recently got my first business card. It has a catchy phrase with a photo I took, four different ways to connect with me, my name, and my job title—Missionary Storyteller.  (I’m pretty proud of it, not gonna lie.) When I hand it to people, I’m often met with the same question (after their compliment about its coolness, of course), “Missionary storyteller…what’s that?”

Little did I know when GEM prompted me to get a business card what sorts of conversations I could have as a result of them. And recently, I’ve found myself in several conversations explaining this idea of missionary storytelling—a passion that only continues to grow for me. What does it mean to be a storyteller? And how does that relate to missions? For those of you who I haven’t yet talked shared this with, let me give you a glimpse of why I believe storytelling is so powerful and how it can be integral to growing Christ’s church.

I recently picked up Victor Hugo’s famous book Les Misérables. As I read the introduction and first few pages of the book, I felt this awe and wonder at the reality that I was stepping foot into a book that has transcended culture and age to speak to people over one hundred years after its publication. Hugo’s book was meticulously written and critically detailed down to every character’s description for a reason. Why? Because Hugo saw that stories carry great weight. And he believed it was his responsibility to educate the general public on what is happening in culture. And the way he chose to do this was through story.

Stories are powerful.

If that weren’t the case, stories like Les Misérables would have died with Victor Hugo as relics of the past. And even more so, if stories weren’t powerful, we wouldn’t have or need the Bible. The Bible is, from beginning to end, a story—one of beauty, loss, hope, redemption. It’s a story of how God allowed our story of sinfulness to connect with His story of perfection in order to bring us in to His grand story of His eternal Kingdom. It’s a powerful story. So powerful it has lasted the marks of not just centuries, but millennia.

And the awe and wonder of this wonderful story is that though it was written down thousands of years ago, it involves us. We are still actors in this great drama of God’s redemptive story. Yet I think we often lose sight of this. We forget that the story is incomplete. The story continues as we are called to make disciples of Jesus all over the world until He comes to set up His Kingdom on earth.

And so our job is like that of the prophets and apostles—sharing God’s story far and wide to spread His fame.

Cue missionaries.

If you are anything like me and grew up in the church, you’re probably vaguely familiar with the idea of missions. People go out from their home like the apostle Paul, often to foreign places to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, to bring people into God’s family. But if your experience is anything like mine, there is often a big disconnect. Sure, churches and individuals support these missionaries. They go to other countries, and every few years they come back and have a few minutes at church to share about what God is doing in their new country. But in between those visits, there’s very little contact, very little understanding of what they are doing, and little clarity on how we can support and pray for them.

There’s a disconnect in the global body of Christ. We theologically recognize that we are one in Christ, but we practically forget how to do this when thousands of miles separate us from those we support. There’s a need to connect Christians, build bridges, and share stories in order to help people see what God is doing around the world.

You see, missionaries like me are generally pretty good at writing updates on what’s going on in their corner of the world, but it only takes so long of being confused by names of people you’ve never met, cities you’ve never heard of, and places you’ve never been that readers get lost or disinterested in what missionaries are trying to share. We need something more.

Let me give you an example:

In the summer of 2017, I had the chance to serve at a youth camp in the French Alps. When you close your eyes and think of the most beautiful mountain range in the world, you’re probably thinking of Camp Des Cimes. In my two weeks of staying there, I knew it would be a shame if I simply served and didn’t take advantage of the beauty of God’s creation through hiking and taking in the awe of this place every second I could. So I went on solo hikes at 4:00 in the utter darkness of the early morning to the tops of mountains to spend time with the Lord. I stayed up late until the constellations came out to capture the awe of millions of stars through the lens of my camera. And I packed picnics and went on hikes with friends to witness breathtaking landscapes as the sun peaked over each mountain until the weight of the sun’s brightness hit my face. Scripture is replete with verses screaming the glory of God as seen in creation, but never before have I witnessed it so clearly as I did in those two weeks. There are few things that make you realize your own smallness and God’s transcendence like the wake of a new day seen in a sunrise.

That’s a beautiful story, isn’t it? But try reading it again with these photos interspersed.

In the summer of 2017, I had the chance to serve at a youth camp in the French Alps. When you close your eyes and think of the most beautiful mountain range in the world, you’re probably thinking of Camp Des Cimes. In my two weeks of staying there, I knew it would be a shame if I simply served and didn’t take advantage of the beauty of God’s creation through hiking and taking in the awe of this place every second I could. So I went on solo hikes at 4:00 in the utter darkness of the early morning to the tops of mountains to spend time with the Lord.

I stayed up late until the constellations came out to capture the awe of millions of stars through the lens of my camera.

And I packed picnics and went on hikes with friends to witness breathtaking landscapes as the sun peaked over each mountain until the weight of the sun’s brightness hit my face.

Scripture is replete with verses screaming the glory of God as seen in creation, but never before have I witnessed it so clearly as I did in those two weeks. There are few things that make you realize your own smallness and God’s transcendence like the wake of a new day seen in a sunrise.

See the difference?

Photos are powerful. People don’t forget classic images like Muhammad Ali knocking Sonny Liston out cold in the midst of the politically tense 1960s. Or the infamous “Tank Man” photo that alerted the world to the horror of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, China in 1989. And more recently, the photo of a deceased three-year-old boy, Alan Kurdi, washed ashore in Turkey that awoke millions around the world overnight to the reality of the refugee crisis in 2015.

Stories connect emotions to reality.

It’s one thing to hear that the refugee crisis has caused the largest migration of people since WWII, but it’s another to see photos of it.

It’s one thing to hear of refugees coming to faith in war-torn countries like Syria, but it’s another to encounter them through interviews and photos.

The world has never been more accessible than it is now, and with all the technological developments, we can use media to bless or to curse, to build up or to tear down. As Christians, it is our Kingdom responsibility to steward this gift for Gospel purposes. Using photography and videography to tell stories of what God is doing around the world is a crucial way we can accomplish this.

Stories challenge people to live differently.

The hope is that through storytelling, we can connect churches, individuals, and communities from around the world to know what God is doing, know how they can get involved, and know why it matters.

If you talk to many missionaries, they often feel discouraged because they don’t know how to adequately convey the joys and struggles, victories and sorrows of life on the mission field. And likewise, if you talk with many church leaders who try to connect with missionaries, they often feel disconnected from what is going on in other countries. Storytelling mediates both of these struggles.

Rarely when missionaries (or anyone for that matter) is serving do they think, “I should take a high quality image of this to share with people!” Nor should they need to. Why? Because they’re focused on the people! But what does that leave those of us not present with them? With abstract ideas and places thrown in an email newsletter devoid of media to capture our attention and give us perspective into their lives.

The heartbeat of missionary storytelling is to connect Christians globally through media. To be a fly on the wall while missionaries serve to capture what is already taking place. To take photos and videos to share stories of what God is doing there to encourage the missionaries that people do want to hear their stories! And then to use those stories to plaster across the internet, give to supporting churches and individuals, and share with friends as ways to pray and connect with their missionaries.

Storytelling allows those who can’t be present to experience, as best they can, life with those they partner with in ministry. And these stories can encourage, mobilize, and recruit people for ministry. Whether that’s to give material blessings, pray more specifically, be aware of current struggles and realities, or to find their call to missions through the media’s message.

Stories are powerful. Stories connect emotions to reality. And stories challenge people to live differently.

We all have different roles to play in the body of Christ, and storytelling allows all of us to live into our calling—by praying more effectively, going more fervently, giving more sacrificially, and loving more compassionately.

This is why I write. And this is why I take photos. So that through what the Lord allows me to capture, stories might be told to build the Kingdom and grow Christ’s church. This is why Naomi and I are going to Germany to serve as Missionary Storytellers.

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