Storytelling is very popular currently. Just today I got yet another promotion of a “Learn How to Tell Stories” webinar.
Though storytelling is perennially popular, our Bible is made up of stories, after all, we must also be aware of some cautions when we tell stories—and that’s what this podcast and blog is all about…. The podcast is below and the blog on the same topic follows.
With the current trend of excessive sharing influenced by current media and the public revelations of indiscretions of previous Christian leaders, it seems there is nothing that is off-limits in public discourse.
There truly is no longer shame in what is shared.
The secular news media is one area; the church is another and it's important to set limits for what we share in the church in our written and digital communications and spoken public and digital sharing. This includes written and spoken testimonies and regardless of our reasons for wanting to share them, please consider the following cautions as we do them.
Please consider the following suggestions as both the ignorance of possible consequences of oversharing and the abuse of it can have lasting, though often not intended consequences for the people in our church.
We can never separate the content from the person
Allow me to first share my background on this issue as it comes from years of writing about people in difficult situations when I wrote about people for a number of Christian ministries in Colorado Springs and also was a religion reporter for the Colorado Springs Sun.
When I was a senior editor and writer with Compassion International and progressed to teaching writing and publication creation to other ministries, one thing I was adamant about was that we never, ever show people who were recipients of our ministry from a victim position either in what we wrote about them or how we photographed them.
No pictures of children with flies on their faces, no women beaten and bruised, and no men slumped in a pile of rags. Regardless of their previous need, I felt we should always treat people with honor.
I would encourage ministries to talk about and show a previously hungry child fed and happy, a formerly abused woman working and playing with her children, and a man freed from prison in his current job as a pastor.
Much of my philosophy of presenting the redemptive results of ministry and not the lurid details of a person's past was influenced by the life of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. We know he stood by when Stephen was stoned; we know he persecuted Christians before the Lord changed his life but he only mentions these times briefly. The summary statement of how he viewed his past is summed up by his verse,
One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Phil.3:13-14
That attitude is the same as God's when, in dealing with our sins as several passages remind us, once sin has been confessed and forgiven, it is forgotten:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Ps 103:11,12
I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Jer. 31:34
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.” Hebrews 8:12
And finally, consider this verse where God says that for His sake, he blots out our sins:
I, yes I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake and remembers your sins no more. Isaiah 43:25
God forgets our sins because He doesn't want to think about them anymore. I think we do well to do the same.
We don't want to lock in or label a sin of others so we don't remember it whenever we see them.
There is of course a difference between forgetting sins we have committed and the sins committed against us but ultimately if God forgives and forgets the ugly things in our past whether caused by systemic sins of hunger and need, the evil individual actions of others, or our personal transgressions, it seems clear that the way God wants us to live is to forget the past and have our eyes and focus on His goals for our lives. We are to live facing forward to the goals and calling He has given us.
How this ties into my concern about testimonies
There is a fine line here but I feel strongly that it is not good for people to make broad public confessions of the details of past sins or tragedies. We might do it with the best of intentions to show God's redemption but that often isn't the entire result.
It isn't just the individual confessing or testifying who can get stuck reliving the past.
Once words of confession or the revealing of secrets or even sins committed (either endured by the victim or named to a perpetrator) are out there it is naive to think that people will not always label the person confessing with that sin. Perpetrator or victim, it will be attached to them.
Do we honestly think that anyone forced to hear (being surprised by it as part of a testimony) the confessions of men in leadership positions about their pornography addictions will ever feel completely safe around them?
What if people want to talk to a victim about their experience of abuse and they don't want to? What if questions are asked that probe in a hurtful way? What if the swapping of addiction stories slides into a veiled celebration of sins? What if the story is repeated and twisted?
Do we honestly think a woman who shared stories of abuse or rape or sexual exploitation will ever not be seen as a victim?
I'm not saying all people will have these reactions in a judgmental way, maybe they think their response is one of pity or praise for God's deliverance but a label will be attached to that person of a sin or a sin done to them that even the Lord says He has forgotten about.
Even if it isn't mentioned again, it is there. God may forget; people rarely do.
What then to do?
We can and should tell stories of God's redemptive power and God has given us an incredible source for them—the Bible.
Consider carefully if you have to have a personal story to make the point you want to make. We have a better resource in God's Word.
When we tell the stories that God has given us in His Word, we know we are telling stories that glorify Him, that they do not shame or label people we care about and walk with, and rather than unexpected consequences of inappropriate public sharing, we can trust that lessons from God's Word will accomplish good purposes as He assures us:
So is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. Isa.55:11
In conclusion, if we are looking for the topic of a newsletter or church blog, for a talk for a meeting or group, look first at teaching from God's Word. Pick a person, a passage, or a topic from the Bible and focus on our God and how He is working to redeem His creation.
There are also great stories in church history that tie into many Bible stories. These can provide great inspiration without naming and shaming the people we worship with each week.
Give your audience something to remember about God from His Word first of all and you will honor God in it and protect the reputations, minds, and hearts of your people.