Who doesn’t love a good tale from Swedish history? Well, maybe a lot of people, but this Swedish story packs a powerful take home message, offering tremendous insight into faith communication skills.
Learning the Language
In 1809, King Gustav IV was deposed in a peaceful Swedish revolution. It was peaceful, but still personally painful–the king was cast out by the nobles who considered him incompetent. In his place, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was eventually called to serve as king. This was a surprising move since Bernadotte had served as a French general under Napoleon. So, the not-very-Swedish general became King Charles XIV John. With a name like that, however, one can understand why his family still sits on the Swedish throne.
When the new king had his first opportunity to address the Swedish parliament, he desired to connect with the people of Sweden and spoke in their own language rather than having his French translated. The parliament responded by mercilessly laughing at the king’s broken Swedish. The former general, now king, was so upset by the experience that he never spoke Swedish in public again (Hofstede 2010, 53).
While most of us have never been a king or queen, I suspect that all of us have had struggles in communicating—perhaps even a very embarrassing public struggle with words. This is all the more painful when it comes to sharing our faith. Finding the words to share that describe our faith, or the phrases that highlight what our faith means to us can be difficult. In fact, it can often be lost in the translation.
What if our goal is not necessarily speaking Swedish (poorly) to a captive audience? It would seem as though faith communication would benefit a great deal if we sought out places for dialog rather than monologue. We could be a lot less anxious about faith communication if rather than focusing on a foreign language of evangelism tactics, we focused on something much more familiar. As Rick Richardson maintains, “let’s try seeing ourselves as travel guides on a spiritual journey rather than traveling sales-people on a call.” (2006, 19) We want to come alongside people on their journey and talk with them rather than offering a great sales-pitch at them to make the sale.
To Tell a Story About the Journey
When I think about my family’s road trips from Pennsylvania to California and Colorado, I do not think about how much we paid in tolls, or how many miles we traveled between point A and point B. I think about our shared stories on that trip. I think about our family’s “surprise” discovery of Angel Peak in New Mexico, driving in the snow up Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado, or the couple who helped us fix a flat tire in Wyoming. When I think about travel, I think about stories.
If we think about our faith as a journey, the travel guide approach would lend itself to sharing stories. We want to find opportunities to talk about our journeys—the surprises, the disappointments, even the wrong turns. This is not just telling a scripted story of our conversion—as powerful and important as that is in the right season. There are also times of sharing transformation stories – times and places in which we have experienced God and His direct intervention in our lives (Richardson 2006, 90). Here is a key to telling stories well—we need to know and understand the people we are talking with in order to be able to effectively tell stories that involve our walk with Jesus (Stetzer and Putnam 2006, 3). In fact, the focus is not just our own telling a story, but to invite a sharing of stories in which we ask questions about the other person’s spiritual journey as well. Notice that this requires not just civility in conversation, but an approach that “trades more on friendly curiosity—a kind of relaxed diplomacy—than on confrontation.” (Koukl 2009, 20).
Friendly curiosity means more than telling my own story to a captive audience. It includes building friendship and community with the people I am talking with. If we, as churches, are truly looking to communicate with our communities, I believe that we need to learn something from King Charles XIV John. We do not need to simply be trained with an evangelism sales pitch in a certain “cultural language” that people will understand. We want to assume the right posture to be a good neighbor (Pathak and Runyon 2012, 99). There is a need to talk with and listen.
“We need to recognize that every single one of our neighbors has a story as well. Deep down we all want to share our story. We want to feel as though our story connects to something larger than ourselves. As we learn to hear others’ stories, we can connect to their heart and see how God is at work in their lives.” (Pathak and Runyon 2012, 108)
The sequence takes on a shape such as this:
1) I share my transformation story that overlaps with my conversation partner.
2) I ask them what they think.
3) I ask them for their story.
Notice that we are not aiming to complete everything in a single conversation. This is opening the door for building community that allows for further discussion as we journey together. There needs to be a posture of conversational reciprocity: through our sharing of stories coupled with empathetic listening, and then an invitation to reciprocal storytelling we build a safe space for real, authentic faith conversations. For those with faith questions, they are invited to belong to a group that offers a safe space for honestly wrestling with their faith journey. This opportunity for belonging is something unique that small churches or small groups can cultivate. A safe space is where “I know I have a place in the community not only as I hear and accept its stories but as it hears and makes room for mine.” (Taylor 2001, 120)
I hope and pray that we create safe spaces within our churches for storytelling and asking questions. May we share our stories, ask heart-felt questions, and listen deeply. It is from this posture of shared story telling that we invite people to experience Christ and welcome them into an opportunity for real community.
Carl Greene, Executive Director, Seventh Day Baptist General Conference of USA and Canada
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Hofstede, Geert, Hofstede, Gert Jan, and Michael Minkov. 2010. Cultures and Organizations:
Software of the Mind. Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival. New York: McGraw Hill.
Koukl, Gregory. 2009. Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Pathak, Jay and Dave Runyon. 2012. The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationship
Right Outside Your Door. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Richardson, Rick. 2006. ReImagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey.
Downers Grove, IL: IVP.
Stetzer, Ed and David Putnam. 2006. Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become
a Missionary in Your Community. Nashville: Broadman and Holman.
Taylor, Daniel. Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories. St. Paul, MN: Bog