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Shaped by the Story
Helping Students Encounter God in a New Way
By Michael Novelli
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One ADAGES AND PEP RALLIES
My first memory of the Bible is from the stories we'd act out in Mrs. Mary's preschool class. I loved Mrs. Mary, and I loved going to preschool in the basement of the Methodist church in our small town. Mrs. Mary was such a nice teacher with a kind voice. She had short black hair, wore thick-rimmed glasses, and smiled a lot. She gave out lots of hugs and would often call us "sweetie" as she gently rubbed our backs. It felt like home most of the time-except for Bible story time. After a snack of juice and graham crackers, Mrs. Mary would gather us to the carpeted area for the Bible story. She opened a big trunk full of all kinds of hats, shirts, and props for us to use as we brought the day's Bible story to life. My brother and I called them "plays," and they were quite memorable. I wish I had video of them.
The most vivid story I remember us enacting was Jesus healing people with leprosy. My twin brother, Mark, and I (along with a few other students) were selected to play "sick" people in the story, while my friend Jeff was often picked to play Jesus. Not cool. (I believed it was because Jeff was the tallest kid in the class. But when I asked him why, Jeff said, "Because I live down the street." To my four-year-old mind that explanation made sense. Jeff must have had a special "connection" because he could walk to class. Maybe he came early and rehearsed his role as Jesus. Who knows?)
Worse yet, she asked us to put "leprosy spots" (made from purple clay) on our arms. Some of the kids were excited, but my brother and I wanted no part of this. In fact, we were freaked out, fearing these spots would morph into real ones and never come off. So when Mrs. Mary began the story, we both hid under a table, well out of the teacher's reach. We came out after a promise that no sores would be applied to our arms; but we still had to let Jesus heal us. A fair trade-off, I thought.
This memory had to, in some way, affect my view of the Bible. As a little kid, Bible stories seemed scary-storms, wars, sickness, spitting in people's eyes, blood, demons. No thanks. We preferred Mom's stories about talking animals and magical forests over Mrs. Mary's Bible stories any day.
While I was growing up, the Bible seemed like an ancient history book to me, full of weird stories that I had no interest in reading. I remember spending one long Sunday afternoon watching Family Classics' presentation of The Ten Commandments. I was probably seven years old, and even then I could tell Charlton Heston's beard was a fake. And when he broke the two big "stone" tablets on the ground, I could tell they were obviously Styrofoam. How lame! I thought. "Come on, Mom. Can we turn on Battlestar Galactica?"
I did like the part when Moses parted the Red Sea and when he got electrocuted on the mountain. (Oh, wait a minute. I believe the lightning actually missed him. He still seemed pretty dumb for carrying around a big stick in a lightning storm.)
So my journey of faith was a path left mostly unexplored until I reached high school. Some friends invited my brother and me to a church youth group during my sophomore year. By then I had a genuine interest in spiritual things, but little understanding and few expectations. Youth group was a place where I quickly built friendships-and a good place to meet girls.
One day my youth leader, Dan, asked me, "Why do you read the Bible?"
"It makes me a better person ... it's full of wisdom, right?" I asked.
"Yeah, but there should be more to it than that," he replied. This conversation occurred during the first year I'd ever picked up a Bible.
My spiritual interest eventually led me into some engaging conversations with a school friend named Maria. She was very bright and a practicing Catholic who was eager to investigate other paths of faith. So together we began learning about various religions. I even visited her church Mass, which was conducted mostly in Spanish. (What I liked most was her translating in my ear.)
When Dan found out that I was studying other religions, he showed me several Bible verses about the dangers of "false teachings." It scared me into ending my exploration. This memory makes me sad now, as I believe fear stifles learning. It's a distorted method for motivating people toward action.
Another time Dan told me that in order to grow spiritually I needed to have "devotions." This seemed odd to me: "Why do I need to read the Bible on my own if we're going to read it together?" Still, I began flipping around in the Bible aimlessly, like throwing darts at a board. After sifting through some of the books, I often landed in the books of Proverbs and James. These seemed the best places to find a quotation that would help me be a better person and live virtuously. At the time, I thought that religion was just about living morally, based on all religions as I understood them.
One night after youth group, Dan pulled me aside and started firing questions at me about why I came to church and why I read the Bible. At that time I'd just begun dating a girl from the youth group, and Dan said, "We don't let Christians date non-Christians." I wasn't sure what he was talking about. Was he talking about the girls I was friends with at school? I never thought of myself as a "non-Christian," and I'd never considered that there was an "us and them" thing going on. (Even now, I'm not sure this way of thinking is helpful.)
I told Dan, "I'm new to church. But I think people are at different levels with all of this ... some of the healing stuff seems weird." He immediately showed me several verses about sin and separation from God, asking me if I understood that I was a sinner. "We all mess up," I replied.
Then he showed me a verse about how I needed to confess with my mouth and believe in my heart that Jesus is Lord. He asked me, "Who do you believe Jesus is?"
"I've always been taught that he's God's Son-"
"Do you really believe that in your heart?" he interrupted.
I paused; he stared at me. "Yeah ..." I gulped. I was sweating, and I felt as though he was cross-examining me. I wanted Dan to like me. He was a good guy, fun to hang out with, and so genuine with us in the youth group. I was afraid I'd get kicked out if I doubted or had any questions. Yet I wasn't sure what it meant for Jesus to be "Lord."
Then Dan said, "You don't have to have all the answers to your questions; you have to have faith. If you really believe that, then say it out loud."
"Say what?" I asked.
"Jesus is Lord," he said.
I parroted, "Jesus is Lord."
Then he prayed for me. When we opened our eyes, he asked me, "Do you feel different?"
"I'm not sure," I answered.
"Well, you're changed now," Dan replied.
We talked some more. Dan told me the Bible is really about Jesus, and he encouraged me to read the Gospel of John. I went home and began reading that night. I was riveted by this story, and I read the Gospel all the way through in one sitting. Jesus was such a fascinating person and said such powerful things. I'd never seen him this way before. I was beginning to understand that God goes to amazing lengths in order to reach humans.
In the next few weeks, I read and reread John. Then I read the other Gospels. This was good stuff! It was one of the best stories I'd ever read-one I wanted others to know, too.
I told Dan what I'd been reading, and I asked him how I could help other people know about this story. He taught me to draw a diagram with Bible verses and simple steps to explain how to get to heaven. I asked, "Why not just have them read the story about Jesus?" One of the other youth leaders told me, "What if you have only a few minutes? People need more than the story; they need to know how to be saved."
This answer didn't satisfy me, but I wasn't sure why. It got me wondering why we needed the other parts of the Bible. We rarely talked about them in church, and I didn't see how they had much to do with Jesus. But my church insisted that the whole Bible is God's words. I was confused. The Old Testament was sometimes described in church as a "law book" that shows people how they can't live up to God's standards. That sounds depressing-why would I want to read that?
Thankfully, my doubts and questions didn't prevent me from pursuing God. The story of Jesus was so powerful that I decided to give my life to it. So I attended a small Bible college that was affiliated with my church, and I planned to study ministry as a vocation.
One of my pivotal classes was hermeneutics-how to interpret the Bible. This course taught us how to "exegete" passages of Scripture using a set of historical-critical skills. I was told that if I used these skills correctly-in tandem with the study of a passage in its original language-then I could arrive at the true meaning of the text. It was emphasized to me that there are "many applications to Scripture, but only one interpretation."
Then came a course in homiletics-how to prepare and preach a sermon. I was primarily taught the expository preaching method-a systematic way to teach a continuous segment of Scripture. This approach taught me to select a passage of Scripture, study it carefully, and try to surface the key points-usually three or four of them. Then I was to support each one of these points with related stories and Bible verses. To conclude, I was to tell my audience how to live out these concepts in their daily lives. This was the ministry one-two punch-historical-critical exegesis followed by expository preaching.
During my second year of college, I began leading a middle school ministry called "Discovery." This was my training ground in which to experiment with what I was learning. At the time, I was only 20 years old and new to Christianity. Therefore, I now equate this experience to letting your nine-year-old baby-sit your two-year-old-they might not burn your house down, but there will be a big mess when you get home.
Those are years of ministry that I wish I could do over. I consistently cared for students, yet my methodology was poor. But despite my mistakes, students from that youth ministry still tell me it was a positive and important group in their lives.
At first I tried expository preaching with these middle schoolers, but I gave up on it pretty quickly because the high school pastor didn't teach that way. He was more experienced than I was, and his topical style of teaching had his students in a frenzy for Jesus. Nevertheless, as time went on, I began to feel as though the church services and youth groups were just pep rallies for Jesus. And the main use of the Bible was to learn memory verses to ward off temptation. There was little room for doubts, struggles, or questions.
I felt out of place there. I wanted to be in a community where I could wrestle with my faith, be honest about my struggles, and explore a deeper understanding of the Bible and how to live authentically.
I spent the next few years attending larger congregations-some would say "megachurches." In some ways this was refreshing for my wife and me, as much of the teaching seemed to go deeper into the Bible and connect to real-life issues. But at the same time, we felt lonely. In the smaller church we came from, relationships seemed unavoidable. But in a megachurch, we had to work hard to connect with others.
I volunteered in a megachurch's high school group for two years. I had experience in running events and in creative arts, so I helped brainstorm and put together some of the weekly "programs" for the youth ministry. Excellence, cultural relevance, applicability, and authenticity were high values for our team. It was a fun group to serve with-they loved students and really desired to help them connect with God.
Our programs were mostly topical, focusing on life transformation and Christian living. I felt as though the content had depth to it, but it rarely focused on learning from the Bible. Instead, it emphasized ideas that are supported by the Bible. So we spent lots of time trying to determine what topics we should teach, usually picking the ideas we thought were the most relevant to students.
As I continued to serve this large group of students, I began to notice some interesting things. The big stage, professional lights and sound, and well-crafted programs and messages all created a different kind of youth ministry than I'd ever seen before. It seemed as though the majority of the students came to observe or evaluate rather than participate. They were audience members instead of members of a community.
Our creative team invested countless hours and creativity to put together programs that were engaging and interactive, but it was difficult to tell if what we planned made a difference.
Week after week, droves of students sat back in our theater-style chairs with their arms folded and offered little reaction.
Ironically, I also noticed that some of the students had a deep desire to be on the stage. Those teenagers in the band, drama, dance team, and especially those who helped with the teaching were revered as insiders-celebrities. I became concerned that we were feeding a culture that was already enamored with entertainment. And I worried that the students felt the same way my wife and I did-lonely and disconnected from real relationships.
Our environment and program seemed to influence the receptivity to our content so much that it made me believe Marshall McLuhan's adage, "The medium is the message."
I sensed that significant changes were needed in our ministry. But how? How could we help students connect with the Bible if our primary means of communicating with them was through a presentation on a stage?
QUESTIONS FOR RESPONSE AND DISCUSSION
What parts of this story do you relate to?
What Bible stories have most captivated you?
What have you been taught about why we read the Old Testament?
How do you read the Bible? In what ways have you changed the way you read it?
What kind of teaching do you best connect with?
How do you teach the Bible? How do you determine what you're going to teach?
How do the method and environment of our teaching affect the response of the learners?
A TRUE STORY ABOUT STORYING
I've rarely-if ever-seen students connect with and respond to Scripture the way they have through storying. Not only that, but also my own passion level and interest in God's Story has grown and deepened in ways that I never could've imagined.
Having led the storying process, it's been one of the absolute thrills of my life and work in ministry to watch students become enthralled with the Story of God, finding themselves completely caught up in (and a part of) the characters, patterns, and themes of the Bible.
I, like many others, had gotten to a point where I not only struggled each week to engage students in deep, meaningful dialogue about God and his ways, but I also found myself struggling daily to engage with God in my own life. It would be an overstatement to call storying the cure-all for both problems-but it sure feels close.
Having been a part of the storying process, both as a participant and a leader, I can truly say I'm unwilling to retreat to former, more familiar modes of learning and teaching the Bible. It's not that I find no merit in them. It's not that I won't try anything else. But I won't go back. I'm not sure I can go back.
Seeing (and teaching) the Bible as the Story of God and God's people throughout history (with today's church being the latest chapter of that story) has changed my life and ministry in unalterable ways. -KELLY DOLAN, VOLUNTEER IN ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, ILLINOIS
Excerpted from Shaped by the Story by Michael Novelli Copyright © 2008 by Michael Novelli. Excerpted by permission.
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