Can a Story Really “Change” Your Life?

“It changed my life” is an adage that’s often repeated. There are certainly events that are life-changers: birth, graduation, job, marriage, children, death… and so many more.

But can just the simple hearing or reading of a story actually change your life? I’m not talking about making us laugh or cry, or evoking emotions of compassion or anger. Those are a given. I’m talking about tangible change that results in action. Change that makes someone do or live differently.

As a storyteller I have heard “life-changing” applied to my craft. I have often accepted the statement as a compliment, but not taken it too much to heart. I am not sure I really believed that someone was going to live their life differently because they heard a story I told them.

I decided to put it to the test. Could I actually point to life-change in my own life because of stories that I heard or read? Once I seriously considered the question I was surprised at how quickly the answers followed.

• It was through hearing and reading the Gospel story in my youth that I became aware of a need for Christ in my life. It was the added stories (testimonies) of other believers that convinced me to become a follower of Jesus, a change that resulted in me living my life differently.

• It was hearing the stories from a missionary to South America at a youth retreat in Michigan that I became convinced that I wanted to actually serve God as a vocation. One of the few Spanish phrases I can actually remember is the translation to a familiar song that he taught us: “He decidido seguir a Cristo” (I have decided to follow Jesus). I didn’t know the path I would take, but I have never considered a job for more than a brief season of my life that was not also a ministry.

• It was through first seeing plays as a kid and then performing them that I discovered my passion was to be on that stage as a performer. I wanted to tell stories like the ones I was seeing–I wanted to live them. It became the inspiration and motivation for me to find a way to combine my desire to serve God with my desire to be a performing artist. My first job after college was 10 years on the road with a professional touring theater ministry.

• It was reading the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon that challenged me with the famous question “What would Jesus do?” Little did I realize that years later that same story would keep me awake at night–a still small voice saying “tell that story.” Later adapting that book to the stage has indeed been life changing. It launched my current ministry and set the course of my professional/ministry career from 1984 to this day.

I am still thinking through the question but these thoughts flooded in once I opened the door to the question, “Can a story change your life?”

My answer is without a doubt, yes!

Story really does matter!

 

Is it Live or…

Remember the old commercial with the slogan “Is it Live or is it Memorex?” The conclusion that Memorex wanted you to draw was that quality of the recording would be so good that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. That you would prefer the recorded music to a live performance.

Technology has come a long way since that commercial (1972). If we are talking about sound quality alone, a professional recording would be hard to match in a live performance these days.

As a professional performer with a focus on ministry these last 40 plus years, I have seen the tides change on the “live vs. recorded” question, especially in the area of drama. I have written about it a few times, most notably here. For the church today, the consensus seems to be that live performance is “out,” video is “in.” And why not? Quality video is easy to obtain and relatively inexpensive. You don’t have to worry about an actor forgetting lines, and you don’t have to move anything on the platform to accommodate a living room setting (sofa, coffee table, and lamp) for a scene that only lasts 5 minutes. It is rare to find a church today that does not use video in some form at their church services every week.

And yet I hear from people in churches all the time that they miss live performance. So I decided to conduct an informal poll on Facebook. I wanted to see if the perception were true that, due to cultural shifts, more people would prefer video to live performance. I asked this question:

Informal poll for my church-going friends:

A pastor has decided he wants to launch his next sermon series with a powerful 5-minute dramatic scene. He has the option of having two professional actors perform the scene live, or those same two actors perform the scene on video. Both options will be professional in every way. Would you prefer the “live” option or the “video” option?

(along with your answer would you give your age group with a simple: teens, 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s?) Additional comments are welcome.”

There was great participation, with over 135 people responding to the question on 3 different FB sites in 24 hours.

Here are the results:

  • Prefer Live: 77%
  • Prefer Video: 17%
  • It Depends or 50/50: 6%
  • 75% of responses were people between the ages of 50-70.
  • 25% of those in the age 60’s category preferred video.
  • Of the 31 responses in the age of 40 or younger, 80% preferred live to video.

I know this not scientific. There is a bias in that most responders were in an age bracket closer to mine (between 50-70). It would be interesting to see how a mostly millennial sampling would have responded. And because of my connections in the arts, there are more responses from people in the performing arts than you might find in a more random poll. One responder questioned if the responses favored “live” over “video” because I, a theater person, was asking the question, rather than a person who does video for a living asking the question. Fair question and I am sure the results were skewed some because of that, but I don’t think that the vast majority were answering the question to satisfy the poller.

Note that there are also several pastors responding to the poll. One of the more interesting responses from a pastor was this:

Live would be more impacting, BUT, as a pastor I would have to consider the actors afterwards. Will the focus be on them and their performance? Would the video allow the people to more easily integrate it into my message?”

The implication being that the live performance might “upstage” the sermon. I have long suspected that a pastor might feel that way, but had never heard someone actually verbalize it.

There were a few other surprises. There were some theater people that I would have suspected would choose “live” who actually preferred “video.”

Many of those who chose video over live cited more practical reasons dealing with “easier for more people so see and hear in a large auditorium” as opposed to the artistic impact on the audience. And there were many who, rightly so, said it would all depend on the actual piece; that some pieces would translate better on video than live.

I am frankly surprised at the results. I would have expected video to come out ahead, given the shift in how often it is used in the church. But maybe the overuse of video has a lot to do with these responses.

My take-away is that the shift away from live performance in so many churches today does not reflect the preference of the people in the audience. Many have suggested that this is a pendulum swing and that live performance will once again come back.  Me, I’m not so sure.

What do you think?

In the meantime, let me know if I can come to you “live.” No Memorex, I promise!

Play it Again, Chuck

Do you have a favorite play, movie, or TV show that you don’t mind watching over and over again? I have a few that fall into that category; not many, but a few.

As a kid, before the VCR, DVR, and Streaming, there would be those movies on TV we would watch again and again. The Ten Commandments at Easter, It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas, and of course The Wizard of Oz. All of these would air once a year on network TV and it was an event you actually made plans to watch.

Times have changed, and with the overwhelming amount of content generated on TV, we often find ourselves struggling to keep up with the latest episodes of our favorite shows.  Who has time for a rerun?

With this mentality in mind, I am always a bit taken aback when a pastor asks me to perform something that I have already performed at that same church just a few years earlier. I have a handful of churches that I perform for every year and they are often the ones that motivate me to write a new show. I think to myself, “If I don’t come up with something new I won’t be invited back!” (I wonder how many of my pastor friends have that same thought when it comes to writing their sermons?  “Will they remember if I preach that same sermon I preached two Easters ago?”)

My friend, Jon Karn, is a pastor in Southern California. I have followed Jon around from church to church beginning in the Pacific Northwest back in the 1980’s and at several churches he has served in California. Jon has probably seen my adaptation of Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps more than any other pastor. I can say this because not only have I performed In His Steps at every church Jon has served (at least 4 churches), but Jon has requested that I perform it multiple times for at least two of those churches. Jon really likes In His Steps!

I was back at Jon’s church a few weeks ago. I was slated to do one of my newer shows, Truth Be Told…from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up. A couple of weeks before my scheduled performance, I get a message from Jon: “Chuck, we have decided we want you to do In His Steps again!”

Somehow I was not surprised. I mean it is Jon, and he really likes In His Steps. I asked Jon why he wanted me to do that instead of a piece that he hadn’t seen before. He replied:

“People always need to see what following Jesus looks like. I doubt the congregation will read Sheldon’s classic but they will happily watch the drama. I guess I’d say In His Steps sounds like something I’d preach. Personally, I probably need to see it for my own spiritual health, at least once every year or two.”

If I’m being totally honest, I get a bit tired of the rerun. I mean, I have performed that piece well over 1,000 times since 1984. But I need that reminder that it is not about me – that art can speak to people in powerful ways and a good story bears repeating, which is one reason we call Sheldon’s book a classic.

Anybody up for a rerun? I’m booking dates for 2018!

He’s Putting Up the Flag

It’s Flag Day. It’s not a day I usually think too much about. It sort of gets lost between Memorial Day, our Wedding Anniversary (just hit the 40 year mark!) and Father’s Day. It isn’t officially a holiday. It’s one of those days that just sort of sits there on my calendar and sometimes I happen to notice it when I check my daily agenda.

Such was the case today, as I sat at my desk and opened up my computer. I did a quick glance at Facebook and there I saw this guy looking back at me, my friend and fellow theater artist, Curt Cloninger. I’d seen Curt’s video about the flag a few times over the years. I scrolled past it, then paused… scrolled back and decided to watch it again.

It made me pause and reflect, as his character does, about the flag. But it also made me pause and reflect about a lot of other things. I thought about the important things in my life; faith, family, country and traditions.  I thought about my friend Curt, a masterful storyteller, who suffered a tragic loss recently. I marveled at his skill as I watched the video and then marveled again knowing his personal story and how that story is touching so many other lives. I marveled that watching a video about our flag could trigger so many thoughts and memories.

That’s what a good story does. It makes you think, reflect and sometimes it even inspires!

Excuse me, but I need to step away for a moment. I’m putting up the flag.

My First Communion

I often tell people I grew up in the church. It’s kind of a foreign concept in today’s culture…especially church culture. A church like the church of my youth is not as common today.

To “grow up in the church” meant you were either a PK (preacher’s kid) or one of the very committed that were at the church every time the doors were open. My family was committed. For me that usually meant at least 3 or more times a week: Sunday morning and evening services, Wednesday prayer meeting, and often a youth group function somewhere every other weekend. If you are reading this and thinking, “that sounds kinda Baptist” you would be correct.

Growing up in the church, like growing up anywhere, means you get used to routines that rarely change. Routines you take for granted. Routines that get so familiar you do them without really thinking too much about the meaning behind them. For me, one of those routines was Communion, or as we called it in our church, The Lord’s Supper (this was confusing to me as a kid because supper was an evening meal and we rarely did The Lord’s Supper at night).

In our church, as it is in many churches today, The Lord’s Supper consisted of crumbled up saltine crackers served on a metal tray and a half ounce of grape juice served in clear plastic serving cups.  The pastor would recite the story of the first Lord’s Supper from the Bible and we would eat the cracker crumb and drink the juice at the appropriate times. It was a somber service in which we were to make sure we were “right with God” before partaking.

In movies I would see scenes of more liturgical churches taking Communion in various different ways, but they were obviously not the same ilk as the church of my youth, so I didn’t give it too much consideration.

Fast forward my life.

I joined a theater company that toured the country and did much of their work performing faith-based plays in churches of all denominations. It was a religious culture-shocking experience for me. I was on tour with people who professed to be Christian and many of them not the slightest bit like the Christians I had come to know in the church of my youth. I was now expected to perform plays about my faith in all kinds of churches, many of them also not the slightest bit like the church of my youth. It was in this environment that I experienced what I have come to call “My First Communion.”

It was in a church in Northern California. The service was much more liturgical than what I had experienced in the past. The pastor wore a robe. Kids called acolytes processed and lit candles. There were a lot of responsive readings with the congregation…all very unlike the church of my youth.

Then came time for Communion. I watched and quickly adapted to what the others were doing. We lined up and walked the aisle to the front of the church, knelt at the altar and waited with our hands cupped in front of us, my eyes frantically scanning right and left to make sure I was doing this right.

The pastor stopped in front of each person, spoke softly to them, and gave them what looked like a white round plastic disc, which the person ate. He the offered the cup, (actually a chalice) so each person could drink from it. (My first reaction to this way of serving the cup was “yuck.” I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to put my mouth were all these other people had just placed theirs.)

Finally it was my turn. The pastor handed me the plastic thing. Looked me right in the eye and said, “The body or Christ, Chuck, broken for you.”

Uh…wow…I was taken aback. He just said my name, I don’t remember his. I ate the plastic thing.

Then he held forward the cup and again, looking me in the eye, said, “The blood of Christ, Chuck, shed for you.”

In that moment, I was overwhelmed with emotion (and it had nothing to do with the fact that what was in the cup didn’t taste at all like grape juice). Suddenly this Communion just became transformative. No one had ever said my name during The Lord’s Supper. Oh I had heard that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, that he shed his blood for me…heard that many times. I knew it in my head. But for some reason hearing it like this, spoken directly to me in the context of this Communion service…well, it all became very real…very personal…it hit me in the heart. For the first time it really sunk in that He did it for ME!

Sometimes we need to hear things differently for the message to sink in, to penetrate our hearts. For me, this was one of those times.

The Body of Christ, The Blood of Christ…for ME!

On another note, this week I learned that a church board decided not to invite me to their church. I share about Jesus through storytelling and acting. This board didn’t think that I what I did would be appropriate for a church worship service.

It was something different, that they had never done before.

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