By Emily Gehman
Editor’s note: Regular Baptists didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Billy Graham on issues of evangelistic methodology. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to note how his communication style was uniquely attuned to his culture, and to consider how we, too, can most effectively communicate to our culture.
Billy Graham’s big-top tents filled to standing room only. People smushed together on benches and rickety chairs and waved flyers for homemade air-conditioning. Billy spoke with authority, conviction, and kindness.
People sat in the crowds and bugs and sweat because they were seeking truth—answers, certainty, assurance—and Billy had it in that black book he loved. The Holy Bible.
God prepared powerhouse evangelists like Billy Graham to present the gospel in their culture. How we present the gospel is “deeply enculturated,” says author Sam Chan, and understanding the cultural context in which we share it is critical. Billy Graham preached the gospel in terms his culture could understand in order to meet the needs of his culture.
We must do the same, but our culture—a postmodern one—likely won’t be drawn to offers of propositional truth and absolute certainty.
A Postmodern Jesus?
The 2016 Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year—beating woke and even adulting—was post-truth, defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Postmodernism is characterized by a paradox: There are no absolute truths.
Postmodernism has allowed morality to be seen as relative to one’s own disposition, and truth to be seen as individualized and subjective rather than universal and objective. And then there’s the wonky logic of the believe-what-you-want-but-it’s-not-for-me mantra.
We’re in uncharted cultural waters here, and it’s tempting to pine for another Billy Graham to be raised up. But we mustn’t be trapped into golden-age thinking, wishing for those bygone big-top days; we shan’t go back to street soapboxers and tract-tossing and using words like mustn’t and shan’t.
So where do we go from here? How do we preach to a cultural congregation who isn’t listening? Rather than do things the way we’ve always done them, we should consider creatively reimagining how we share the gospel in our culture.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Instead of the emphasis on absolute truth Billy’s audience was looking for, our cultural audience says, “Don’t tell me what to believe. Tell me how what you believe changes your life.”
What the postmodern culture wants to hear is a personal, authentic story of how your faith changes your life. Truth and faith worth believing in brings real, lasting, and positive change.
Even Lee Strobel’s story, though it’s filled with facts and research, was propelled by the positive, “winsome” changes in his wife after she met Jesus. The data wasn’t the clincher for Lee as much as the stories of the theologians he interviewed—and even the changed lives of the twelve disciples.
Stories are powerful. Revelation 12 describes how testimonies, or stories, coupled with the gospel of Jesus defeat and conquer the enemy. The “accuser of the brethren” is thrown down by Jesus’ blood and our stories (Rev. 12:11).
Our stories don’t add to the gospel. Actually, it’s the opposite: the gospel supercharges our stories and infuses them with incredible, true, and certain hope. And when we share the gospel through our stories, we offer that hope to people who need it. (Just like we once did. And do.)
Stories can pave the way for the gospel to be explained in friendship and authenticity.
When we’re honest about our imperfections and how Jesus loves and heals so uniquely, we share the gospel with an experiential tone. One that says, “We’re all in this together, and Jesus is greater than all our mistakes.”
When we tell our stories, we tell how Jesus is the perfect Savior, the divine sacrifice to pay our way to Heaven—that’s the belief part. But the story part is how we truly know God: a Father who loves richly and unconditionally, Jesus as a friend who sticks closer than a brother, and the Spirit Who resides and empowers us for whatever’s coming down the pike.
Our stories are evidence of a true and living God at work in our lives. Our stories are letters written not of pen and ink, carved not on stone but on human hearts (2 Cor. 3:3). We comfort others with the same comfort God gives us (2 Cor. 1:4). We tell stories of how Jesus changes our lives, and others can see Him for themselves (John 4:39).
When we enhance our evangelism methods with our personal stories of Jesus in our lives, we build bridges with people in ways facts and figures cannot. Our brains process stories differently than facts and data. When we hear someone else tell a story, our brains stop to listen, and in an intelligent-design sort of way, we actually feel relationally close to the person whose story we’re hearing. Because God made our brains to listen to stories. Even the Bible is a huge story, made up of many little stories all pointing to the gospel. After all, the gospel is the greatest story ever told.
Your Story Matters
There’s an art to storytelling with the gospel, and though it may not easily lend itself to quantifying seeds planted and souls saved, it’s a sacred art. It’s a different way to share the gospel, one that helps us engage our culture. Just like Billy engaged with his.
God prepared Billy for his culture. And He’s preparing us for ours.
Now is the time to tell your story. Because you do have a story. And it matters.
Emily Gehman is a storytelling coach and freelance writer from Lapeer, Mich. She holds a BS in counseling from Clarks Summit University, and an MA in English from the University of Michigan. Emily is the online managing editor at Shattered Media, Inc., working to tell the stories of God at work in the world. Connect with Emily at emilygehman.com.