Hamilton is an amazing show. Incredible story-telling. Phenomenal music. Extraordinary acting. And hundreds of memorable moments. Here are some of my favorite lines:
- “I may not live to see our glory, but I will gladly join the fight. And when our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.” — Hamilton, “The Story of Tonight”
- “You want a revolution? I want a revelation. So listen to my declaration: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ And when I met Thomas Jefferson, I compelled him to include women in the sequel!” — Angelica Schuyler, “The Schuyler Sisters”
- “Dying is easy, young man; living is harder.” — George Washington, “Right-Hand Man”
- “If there’s a fire you’re trying to douse, you can’t put it out from inside the house!” — Thomas Jefferson, “Washington on Your Side”
- “There are moments that the words don’t reach. There is a grace too powerful to name. We push away what we can never understand. We push away the unimaginable.” — Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, “It’s Quiet Uptown”
- “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” — Hamilton, “The World Was Wide Enough”
At the very end of the show, the cast repeats a by-then very familiar line. Here’s the question they ask as the show comes to an end:
“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
It’s from the song: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”
Actually, I didn’t need to tell you that because it was rather obvious, but it is a question that I want you to think about today. So in case you forgot, here’s today’s question:
“Who tells your story?”
Today’s book is Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey by Rick Richardson (InterVarsity Press, 2006). Honestly, this was not my favorite book in this series, but I really liked Chapter 5: “The Power of Story.” Why? Because in this chapter Richardson hits the nail right on the head. He writes:
“Stories are so powerful. Learning to tell our own story is one of the most important steps we take as Christ followers. It is not only important for our witness. It is also a crucial step in our self-understanding as Christians. In many ways, we are the story we tell about ourselves because the art of telling our own story is also the act of discovering and declaring our identity and of finding the meaning in our lives.”
These five sentences overflow with tremendous insights. There is such power in a well-told story. But that is the problem. Not all stories are well told. Ira Glass, creator of the podcast, “This American Life,” once said: “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
His point is clear: If you can’t tell it well, no matter how wonderful and life-changing the story’s truth is, it won’t come across as a great story. And that is our problem when it comes to evangelism.
If it was only for this one insight, buying Richardson’s book would be well worth it (but I guess I am giving you this insight, so now you don’t have to!). Here’s the point told in question form: Who tells your story? (Give yourself ten-extra-bonus points if you connected the dots to Hamilton before reading this explanation!). Now, this sounds like an easy question to answer. Obviously, WE tell our own story. But sadly, that’s not true. Most of the time we let others tell our story.
Now, that sounds crazy wrong, but I think Richardson has a very valid point. When we are first trained in evangelism (whether that is through a book, a seminar, a sermon or whatever), we learn how to share our testimony, our story of conversion. And we are taught in that story to discuss certain theological truths: things like sin, death, separation from God, God’s goodness and love, God’s forgiveness through a substitute, Jesus’ resurrection, God’s grace, our repentance, our faith and prayer. After all, that is what people need to hear so that they too can believe and be saved. But as a result, our story becomes saturated with theology; and that’s a problem, because most lost people and seekers don’t speak theology. We do. They don’t. And if that is true, every time we tell our story we miss the mark (theological interruption: “missing the mark” is one of the biblical definitions of sin). However, church people LOVE this form of the story. You are speaking their language. And so, when we tell the story this way, we get all sorts of accolades because church people love it and encourage us to keep sharing it just that way. Meanwhile, lost people hate it because it doesn’t connect with them in any relevant way. They hear how bad you were (“I wonder what he did that he isn’t willing to share?”). They hear how hopeless you were in your sin (“I bet it was drugs or some other addiction. I am glad I am not addicted to anything!”). They hear you talk about how Jesus saved you (“I wonder what that means? I guess if I believed in God or in heaven I might care, but maybe not.”). And when we ask them if they want to pray with us, they simply shake their heads and walk away, saddened that someone so nice could be so mentally deluded.
Now, you are probably thinking I am over-exaggerating here, but I am not. In my evangelism class in seminary, we were required to have an evangelistic encounter once a week and write a report on it. Every week, I would stuff my coat pocket with Four-Spiritual-Law booklets and go to the local mall to prey on lonely people. In every case except one, I shared my faith by following the Four-Laws script and had a meaningless conversation that both me and my target were delighted came to an end. In every case, I wrote up my report and got a solid “A” for a grade. And what were the chances that the person to whom I had spoken would seriously think about Jesus and the things that I had shared after our brief encounter? Slim to a “D-.” But one conversation was different. The person I was speaking with was an agnostic who was trying to find direction in his life. We talked for a good hour; and at the end of our time, we both left feeling good about our conversation, and I was sure he would think seriously about all the things we had discussed. He did not come to faith, but he moved one step closer to the truth. I wrote up my report with enthusiasm and submitted it to my professor. It was rejected because I had not mentioned Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins, nor had I invited the person to come to faith by saying a prayer. See, there was a correct way to share our story and that involved loading it down with theology, with truth, and with our testimony of how we came to faith.
But what if we decided not to share our “conversion” story and, instead, told stories of “transformation.” This is Richardson’s big idea. Instead of telling a story about how we went from sinners to sanctified saints, what if we told a story of how God was right now working in our life? What if, as we are talking to our friend, we listened for where they were struggling, where they had questions, where they had fears and where they had disappointments and then shaped our story to share how God was working in our lives today to help us find answers to those same or similar issues (even though we do not tell the story of us “arriving,” but of us journeying towards faith?). Here’s the point: we need to put “connecting with where our friend is” first and put our theology and our “conversation” story (our “arriving victoriously” story) on the back burner. In short, what if our friends set the agenda and we used our story to speak to that agenda? Richardson writes:
“So how do we get beyond a script that doesn’t work well for us? How do we generate interest by telling our story when our story may seem boring, confusing, or flat? I suggest that we learn to tell transformation stories and move away from being solely focused on our conversion story. Our conversion story is still very important, but only for people who are near the conversion point themselves. Mostly, learning to recount experiences of God’s reality and impact on your life today will help others the most.”
See, people don’t want to know if you have a theology of God. They want to know if you have had an experience of God that is real and meaningful and moving, a story that is relevant to them; a story that speaks to their situation and calls them to consider that God can change lives today. When we connect our story to their needs and hopes and longings, then our story will have power. Richardson writes:
“We need to connect our story to the needs and stories of those around us. People will be interested in our story, but only if they think it will be relevant to their life and story. When trust is there and vulnerability is real, people love hearing the transformation of others. Your struggles, sufferings, needs and longings are the best bridge into the lives of others. And your transformation stories are your greatest asset for sharing your faith.”
Bottom line: you can tell your story in many different ways. You can tell it as a conversion story. You can tell it as a story enriched with theology. You can tell an irrelevant story that speaks the truth, but never connects. Or you can tell a transformation story. So now, you have to decide: Who is going to tell your story?