10 Random Observations about the Church

A row of Church pewsI travel and perform/speak in a different church almost every weekend and have for the past 40 years—that’s a lot of churches. You do the math. And these are churches of all denominations and sizes and colors. Lunch with the pastor after a morning service is typical. I can almost always count on being asked a question like this:  “Chuck, you are in a lot of churches… what are some observations you’ve made about the church today?”

I know they want an answer with some profundity, but I don’t know if my answers will satisfy. So here are 10 random observations about the church, for what they are worth, and in no specific order.  This is not a scientifically researched treatise… just my observations.

1) The medium-size church is disappearing. I am often in church buildings designed to hold 500-1000 people with less than 100 in the worship service. There seem to be churches of under 100, and the mega church with thousands of people, but not much in between—churches of 200-500 are few. Pastors routinely over-estimate their attendance. They will tell me they have 150 people in worship but when I arrive there are less than 100… this happens a lot!

2) Based on my experience it would seem that the average age in most churches today is over 50. There is plenty of gray hair and there are not very many millennials in the pews.

3) The “Meet and Greet” moment in the worship service needs go. Most churches do it and in most churches it feels forced and awkward. I see plenty of meeting and greeting before the service that seems genuine. If your main goal is to make a visitor feel welcome, I think there is a better way to do it.

4) I have rarely visited a church that matches the negative stereotype portrayed in the media or by Hollywood. (That being the extremes of super fanatical or super boring). I’m not saying they don’t exist… but they are certainly not what I have found under the majority of steeples in the country.

5) People really do “play hooky” from church when the pastor is gone. I often fill in for a pastor who is away at a conference or on vacation. I almost always hear the head deacon say, “I don’t know where everybody is today.”

6) Contrary to what the media would have you believe, the church is filled with people who care about the poor and are involved in ministries that are truly striving to make a difference.

7) At the risk of sounding like my parents… your music is too loud!

8) People still sit in the back (maybe because the music is too loud) or are very spread out in the sanctuary, making those 100 people in a space that hold 500 feel even more empty.

9) There is not much being done to encourage and elevate the arts in most churches. Other than the worship team/band, the opportunities for an artist to be involved in the life of the church are very limited. (I’ve blogged about this one before, but I have to throw it in here.)

10) It can be a challenge today to figure out a church’s denominational affiliation. Oh it still exists, but you won’t find it on church signs and in printed material like you used to. This can be good thing. It can also be embarrassing if, say, you are charismatic and think you are in a Pentecostal church, only to find yourself being stared down after raising your arms and shouting hallelujah in a Baptist church.

Like I said, no science here… just some observations from that “Christian Actor Guy!”

Rooting for the Bad Guy

Okay, I’ll admit it…I love to play the bad guy. Being the villain on stage is so much more fun than being the hero.

My first big lead in a play was in my high school production of Dracula, and to be honest, it was great fun… plus I got to kiss a girl on stage (that was fun too… but awkward).

Back then I didn’t know much about acting, but some things that were true then still hold today. Acting gave me the opportunity to pretend to be somebody else and I loved pretending to be a different person. The pretending I did at home, acting out scenes from movies, was my playground and became the foundation of what would become my career.

In my childhood the bad guys were just that… BAD. I would play the part thinking I was a bad guy and thus it was acceptable that the bad guy did bad things, but would ultimately die at the hands of the hero. But that was okay, because it was fun to act out death scenes too.

As I learned more about acting I began to understand that a bad guy… a real bad guy… doesn’t usually think of themselves as bad. To play a real bad guy I needed to understand why they did the bad things they did. It is then that you begin to see them as real people, not necessarily bad people. Often they’re just people who make a wrong choice or even do a bad thing for what might be considered a very good reason. They kill for revenge, they steal to feed their family, they cheat on their spouse because they feel a need for more excitement in their life. It’s called justification and if we are honest, we all do it. It is the knee-jerk reaction we all default to when we do a bad thing.

I play the Bible character Judas in a scene from my one-man show Encounters (see video at the bottom of this post). The scene is in the moments before he takes his own life after betraying Jesus. In writing and playing this scene, I wanted to show what might have been going on in this man’s mind—what motivated him to do the bad thing. If I do it correctly you—the audience—come away with a more sympathetic view of a person that many simply write off as a “bad guy.” And while in the biblical story he is a villain, I like to think that he wasn’t all bad. He was misguided, he did a bad thing for what he thought was a good reason.

Hollywood has done much to change the image of the bad guy in recent years. In the movies of my childhood you were not really given the option to root for the bad guy. They were bad—they will lose or die—John Wayne or Gary Cooper would see to that! End of story. Today we are given the choice and even encouraged to root for the bad guy. Hollywood has given us the anti-hero in characters like Walter White (Breaking Bad) and Dexter Morgan (Dexter) and a whole host of others. In these shows we see life from the bad guy’s point of view. It is expected we will root for the bad guy.

In some ways this has merit. It is good to see people—all people—as real people. It is easy to put ourselves in their shoes and to see how, given the right set of circumstances, we might make the same bad choices. I think it is helpful to empathize with people who do bad things.

But there is another outcome from looking at things from this perspective. Over time we can begin to no longer see things as bad. We numb ourselves to the degree that we even forget that what they are doing is bad. We can see this trend in real life. When there is a shooting, a terrorist attack, a rape, an affair, riot or a robbery—the media often takes the angle of exploring the motivation and looks for some justification for the crime.

While it is helpful to know the motivation for the crime, let’s not forget that a bad thing is still a bad thing.

It’s called sin… and we are all guilty.

And as for justification… there is only one sure path to that.

“That we may be justified by faith…”


Deceived from Encounters by Chuck Neighbors

What Do You Want?

What do you want?The actor I was directing was just saying his lines. There was no feeling, no thought, no sense of character. The only thing I could get out of his performance was the sense that he was afraid he would not remember his lines. He spoke too quickly, his sentences ran together without pause. I knew the feeling… I have been there many times.  He was afraid if he paused he would forget what line came next.

Actors learn that one major key to a good performance is knowing what your character wants–its motivation. If you don’t know your lines, you can’t play the scene with the true intent of the text. Instead of wanting to achieve the objective of the character, you are completely obsessed with remembering your next line. And anyone watching the play will be able to tell.

If acting were just memorizing lines and being able to repeat them, it wouldn’t take much talent or skill to be accomplished. But acting is so much more than that. In training actors we emphasis the importance of owning your lines–knowing them so well you don’t have to think about what comes next. I tell actors you can’t act until you know your lines.

In an earlier blog I talked about the importance of knowing “who you are,” a key question for any actor playing a role. But equally important as knowing who you are, you need to be able to answer the question: What do you want? This is true for the play in general but also for every moment the actor is on stage. The big picture may be to defeat the villain or to win the affection of the princess, but it also applies to every little moment on stage. If you need to move from one side of the stage to the other, you need to move motivated by a reason that the character understands.  When the actor speaks, he needs to understand why he is saying what he is saying. He needs to know what he wants.

Acting–good acting–is a reflection of real life. I sometimes wonder what my life would look like if I took the time to actually stop and think about “what I want” as I go through each day. I think most of us may have it figured out on the big scale. We want to be happy, to make a decent living, have a good marriage and loving family. Some aspire to fame, fortune or adventure. Some to make the world a better place and work on the cutting edge with a sense of calling in faith and service. We may know what we want in a big picture sort of way. Some of us are moving forward and achieving our objectives.

But sometimes I think I may be living my life a bit like that actor I was working with. Struggling to remember my lines. So obsessed with just getting through the day that I may have lost sight of the big picture. I need to be reminded of “what I want” and move forward with the proper motivation to achieve my objective.

What about you? What do you want?

Who Are You?

Who Are You?For a number of years I toured with a professional theater ministry. One popular sketch we performed was called “Who Are You?” A man on the street would be repeatedly asked that question. First responses were followed with obvious answers like the man’s name but the questioner persisted with the simple question causing the victim to struggle for a better answer. He would give labels: father, son, husband. Then he would struggle for more answers: his job, his race, his religion, his citizenship, his political party.  Still not satisfied the questioner repeated, “Who are you?” Finally the man answers in frustration; “I don’t know who I am.” The questioner then says: “Now we can begin!”

As an actor, discovering “who you are” is also where you begin and is a big part of the job. The script may give you a brief description, but usually not enough information to really create a character. “A successful salesman” might be all the script tells you, but as you work through the script you may discover a salesman who is struggling to keep pace with a new, younger generation of employees, a man whose marriage is failing and who spends a hour at a local bar before returning home from work. Now we are beginning to get a glimpse of this guy, but really just a tiny glimpse. There is more to the guy than those tidbits and the actor’s job is to flesh it out… to make it real, to get inside the guy’s head and figure out why he is threatened by the new employees, what is wrong with his marriage, what his favorite drink is at the bar and how many of those he has before going home. Sometimes as an actor, you may feel you know more about a character you are playing than you do about yourself. It can be safer to ask those really tough questions about a fictional character than to answer those same questions about yourself.

I have been contemplating my own life lately and asking that “who are you?” question again. Life changes tend to do that to you. Sometimes I coast on those surface labels: husband, father, Christian, actor… those tell you a little about me but it doesn’t tell you everything. And some of those labels are evolving. New labels, like empty-nester, soon to be grandfather, guy who gets the senior citizens coffee at McDonalds, are becoming more prominent.

There is a famous adage that has been going around a lot the last few years: “You are who you are when no one is watching.”

That can be a jarring reality, and one that I am not always comfortable with. If I am being totally honest, I don’t always like that guy. Sometimes the “me” that others see is more who I want to be than who I really am. I want to be that guy on my Facebook page where only what I want you to see is posted. The me that I am when no one is watching can be lazy, envious and sometimes thinks thoughts that are too much like the bad guys I play on stage.

Who am I, really?

Truth be told… the truth that I cling to when I have those moments of doubt and confusion about my identity is found in the way that God sees me. Only through the filter of his mercy and grace does my life really make sense at all.

What do you think?

Who are you?

Do Not Avoid Eye Contact!

airliner-cramped-0809I‘m a pretty seasoned traveler, and for domestic airline travel I am a big fan of Southwest Airlines…most of the time. Lately it is pretty rare to get on a SWA flight that does not have every seat booked. And like most airlines, they are moving the rows closer together and making the seats smaller. Air travel is a truly uncomfortable experience. For the uninitiated, SWA does not assign seats so it’s first-come first-served when you get on board. There is no “First Class,” however you can earn or pay your way to “A-List” status which allows you to be among the first 60 on the plane and have first choice of the seats. I am one of the “elite” as I fly enough to have earned A-List status and my preference of an aisle seat is always waiting for me. The exit rows (more leg room) and aisle and window seats go first. The last to board get the dreaded middle seat. You always know that the flight will be a full one long before the plane is full because the flight attendants will begin urging the people to fill the middle seats. One of their favorite lines is “do not avoid eye contact.”

Eye contact! It’s not something most of us consciously think about. The boarding process is a great lesson in non-verbal communication—like putting it under a microscope. We are sitting there looking at our books or hand-held devices, or eating our sandwiches. We are sending out all kinds of non-verbal signals that scream, “do NOT sit in this empty seat next to me!” We sprawl over into the middle seat; place our coats on it to make it look like it is already taken. Put in those earphones so we can’t hear the unavoidable question, “is this seat taken?” A few people (not me, of course) have been known to cough and blow their noses loudly to dissuade others from considering the seat. Then the announcement comes, “do not avoid eye contact.”

That’s the game-changer. Now we know someone WILL be sitting in that middle seat. We might have a bit of power however,  because we just might be able to control WHO will sit in that middle seat and occupy our space for the next 2 hours. The implication is that if we make eye contact, the person contacted will assume we want them to sit beside us!

You begin to scan the bodies in the aisle—you want somebody pleasant to sit next to you. It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You don’t want someone too big, too loud, or too perfumed. You want somebody “just right!” You scan bodies avoiding the face until you spy just the right size person then you risk a look up to the face and the chance for eye contact. I typically want a female in that center seat, not for any salacious reasons, but simply put, they tend to not hog the armrest like a man does. I make eye contact, if I like what I see I will add a smile and hope for the best. Sometimes it works. But often I get the big guy whose one leg equals the two of mine. What you have to remember is that this game goes both ways, the person in the aisle is looking for just the right people to be wedged between for the next 2 hours. “Oh that guy has skinny legs, I’ll sit there.”

I pleasantly stand to let him in as I cough and blow my nose loudly.  (You did remember that I am an actor right?)

It is an interesting lesson in human nature. Something we actors are supposed to know something about. We observe people as a way to make ourselves more believable on stage. It occurs to me that something similar to “Do not avoid eye contact” should be happening in our churches every week as well. In some churches I see people giving off similar signals to the people in the pews each week. Many of us have our favorite places to sit, favorite people to talk to and routines that are comfortable. We often don’t stop to think that some of the people who are coming to the church are just like the last to board a SWA flight. They are looking for a place to fit in. We don’t usually want to admit it but we are saying all kinds of things to them without saying a word.

We need to come to church, and indeed to life in general, with our eyes wide open!

When Transparency and Authenticity become TMI! –

InvestigatorI Wish You Hadn’t Told Me That!

“I really liked your transparency in the sharing of your story.”

I appreciated the compliment. I had just finished sharing my presentation of “Go Ask Your Mother… A Father’s Story.”  In the presentation I share some of my personal struggles as a father in raising my three boys, as well as some reflections on my own father.

The compliment affirmed my goal and belief that telling honest stories based on real life experience would connect and communicate with my audience. Yes, I had been transparent… up to a point… but I didn’t really tell the whole story. There were parts that I purposely didn’t share. Parts that I held back because I didn’t want the whole truth about me to be revealed. Parts that I felt would have been TMI–too much information!

When sharing about my Dad, I didn’t share the details of the angry thoughts I had when I felt he was being too hard on me.

When sharing about my sons, I didn’t share about the times my temper got the best of me and I said some things I regret and came close to striking them in anger.

There were thoughts and actions in some of those stories that I left out because to reveal them could have caused my audience to turn against me… to not like me. I am all for honesty and transparency until it goes to a place that is too dark and makes me look bad. Especially if the story doesn’t redeem those thoughts and actions.

Is it possible to be too honest? Too transparent? Where does one draw the line?

Have you ever been watching a good movie and then have to turn your head away in disgust because the images on the screen were too disturbing? It’s a good story but why did the have to show that?! Sometimes the details of our stories can have that same effect on our audience.

I remember a sermon where the pastor shared some of his personal story. It was great up until he shared some of his thoughts that went a little too far. As we left the church my wife said “I wish I hadn’t heard that part.” The part he shared was a little too dark and now her feelings about that pastor will be forever changed because he shared too much information. It would have been fine if he had alluded to his dark thoughts, but in sharing them in detail, he crossed a boundary. He created a distraction that caused some in the audience to miss the point of the story.

Who among us hasn’t had those dark thoughts? Who among us hasn’t done things we regret? It’s part of being human. We get angry, we get greedy, we get tempted, we lust, we sin.  When it comes to casting the first stone, I would be one of the first to walk away.

It is good to share some of these stories with others. Some of my favorite stories are stories where the teller reveals their humanity, their weakness, their faults. It is what makes it relatable. I identify and it feels good to know that I am not alone. It helps me to realize that I’m not the only one who struggles, who fails, and who gets back up again after being knocked down.

But sometimes in the public telling we can go too far.

Authenticity is a cherished virtue in our culture today. Look at reality TV, the Internet and social media. We have a constant stream of “reality” hitting us from every angle. Sometimes this can be a good thing. But it can also distract us from the main point. Like watching that gory scene in the movie it’s TMI! Too much information!

Some stories are best served with some details left out. They are better for confessing to a close friend, a doctor… or to God. You don’t want your audience to walk away with things they can’t un-see or un-hear!

Pros and Cons to Working at Home

File this under “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”MessyDesk

Being “your own boss” and working at home does have its perks…and it also has its downside. I have seen the looks of envy from those who think working at home would be the best job in the world and I have seen the knowing looks from those who work at home who would beg to differ…including many of my pastor friends. I started this little list on my Facebook page and was quite surprised at the response:

Pro: Easy commute–you can sleep in longer and work in your pajamas.
Con: There is no Starbucks en-route to the office.

Pro: You can have a messy desk and no one else sees it.
Con: You have a messy desk.

Pro: Clients can meet you in your office at your convenience.
Con: You have a messy desk and work in your pajamas.

Pro: You are in charge…you don’t have to worry about someone else screwing things up.
Con: You are in charge…there is no one to blame when you screw things up.

Pro: No time clock. You can make your own hours, take time off whenever you like.
Con: No time clock. You can make your own hours, and work around the clock forgetting to take time off.

Pro: No more being asked to pick things up at the store on your way home from work.
Con: You have to make a special trip just to pick up something from the store.

Pro: You are your own boss.
Con: Sometimes the boss is a jerk.

So what can you add to the list?

Living In The Moment

Living in the Moment!

Living in the Moment! —Watch out for that tree!

Vacation in Hawaii! Lorie and I had planned this trip for a long time and by using our frequent flyer miles and a securing a special deal on a condo we were looking forward to a time of no stress, rest, and recreation. I had worked diligently to make sure all bills were paid and other business matters were attended to, so we could enjoy this vacation without thought of anything else for two weeks. We were going to live “in the moment” on vacation—life at home and at work was on hold.

We stayed at an airport hotel the night before departure to take advantage of the free parking. As we are about to board the shuttle to the airport Lorie said, “Oh no!”. I looked at her as she turned pale and begin to shake and then start to cry.

“I don’t have my ID” she said, as she frantically looked through her purse, her pockets and her backpack. Our vacation dream of living “in the moment” in Hawaii was suddenly in jeopardy by the thought of not being able to board a plane. Panic was the moment we were living in. THINK! What to do? No time to go home and come back.

Then a thought emerges seeming from out of nowhere. “Do you have a copy of your passport?” I ask. We had traveled enough overseas and had learned to always kept a photocopy of our passport in our luggage.

“Yes!” Sure enough there it was tucked in one of the zippered pockets of her suitcase. That along with some prescriptions in her name and a much too personal body search were enough to convince TSA to let her board the plane. Sigh of relief… back to vacation!

Then the email came. A business decision needed to be made and action taken immediately. It wasn’t something that I could postpone until I got home. The decision would have an impact on several people and their livelihood. I needed to consult with my board, make phone calls, and explore the opportunity placed in front of me. For the next several days I was either on the phone or emailing. When I wasn’t doing those things my mind was consumed with the decision I needed to make and the actions I would need to take once the decision was made. I didn’t sleep well. So much for a stress-free vacation.

As an actor, you learn the value of being “in the moment” on stage. It is the key to making each performance feel fresh and new for each audience. You may have performed the play a thousand times but the audience needs to feel like you are saying those words and living that experience as if it were the very first time. Intellectually, you know what happens next, but the character you are portraying can’t know—he has to live it in the moment.

Actors get into trouble when they stop living in the moment. It happens, and often the audience can tell. If an actor lets the outside world in while they are performing they can cease to live in the moment. A forgotten line, a camera flash, or thinking about things unrelated to the scene can take you out of the moment and ruin a scene. To live in the moment is force yourself to live as if the only thing that matters is what is happening right now in the present.

We are often forced to live in a moment not of our choosing, as happened to me on my vacation. Both our past experiences and our vision for the future can impact how we handle those situations. Here are three things that can help us to live more effectively in the moment:

 Listen – We actors often forget our lines because we are thinking ahead instead of staying present in the scene. If we would simply listen to the other actor we would often know exactly what comes next. The same is true in real life. How often are we in conversation but our mind is elsewhere? Learning to truly listen to the person we are talking to or to listen even to the sounds around us with new ears can help us live in the moment. I could have chosen to become angry at my wife, clouding my thinking in frustration. Instead listening and allowing my mind to focus on the situation allowed enough calm to remember the passport copy.

 Respond – Respond to what is in front of you. Answer the question, ask the next question. Take out the garbage, set the table. The old adage “actions speak louder that words” applies. Do things that show you are connected to the moment. Take action in response to an immediate need. Experience what is in front of you. This is often where a past experience might just inform your present situation.

What comes next? – Instead of dwelling on things that will happen tomorrow, or next week, or next month, focus on what happens next! You need to write that speech or prepare that financial report then take the next step and do it. Often I find the things I am dreading are keeping me from living in the moment. While getting caught up thinking about the future can be a distraction from the moment, a little thought about what happens next can be the best way to live in the moment. My while my business decision was a “future” thing I had to think ahead in order to make my decision now, in the moment.

Worry is one of the biggest things that can keep us from living in the moment. We worry about things we have no control over. We let a past mistake or failure keep us from moving forward and enjoying the present. Moments can change, as my story about my vacation illustrates. I had to abandon one moment to deal with another. Sometimes life is like that. I think Jesus gives us the best advice on how to live in the moment:

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:34

Living in the moment will help us all  to live a better story!

Spice Up Your Story

storyspiceHave you ever heard two people tell very different versions of the exact same story? Happens in our house all the time. I can recount an event and tell it to someone in less than 30 seconds—a “just the facts, ma’am” approach. My wife’s version of the same story might take a good 5 minutes and she will add details that I never noticed; sometimes I am convinced she is making things up.  We remember things differently and when we retell them, our versions are greatly influenced by how the event affected us personally. It might have been no big deal to me but a very significant event for my wife. My version is boring; hers is animated and full of life.

Telling a good story is more than just recounting details and facts. A good story engages the listener in ways they can identify with you and compels them to listen.  Here are 5 tips to help you spice up your story:

  1. Sensory Recall: What did you see, hear, smell, taste? Don’t go overboard, and don’t try to hit them all. This is a story for telling, not a novel. But adding a little “color” to the retelling will give people a feeling of being present in the story with you. “I walked into my parents’ home and smelled the apple pie baking in the oven.” Immediately you have struck a chord with those listeners who have had a similar experience.
  2. Commentary: “Fresh apple pie was one of the ways I knew my mother loved me.” Adding a little commentary on some of the things you mention can be a great way to enhance your story. It lets people see more of who you are, unlike simply recounting facts.
  3. Humor: When an audience laughs they identify with what you are saying. Laughter sets both you and the audience at ease. However, don’t tell jokes! Many comedians use observational humor in their routines–they might be telling a story but they add a few funny lines about whatever they are talking about. You could take the subject of “apple pie” and then talk about all the products you use every day that you wish smelled like apple pie: candles, deodorant, toilet paper, etc… Or maybe you have a funny story about biting into an apple and finding half a worm. Mining your story for humor will always be a winner with your audience.
  4. Dialog: Your story will be most effective if you can bring a sense of “now” to it. One very effective way to do this is to include dialog in the story. Instead of just telling us what happened, give voice to your characters. When you walk into the house, imitate your mother and say, “Honey, I made your favorite apple pie.” You can replay entire dialogs with a little change in voice and body posture. Your listeners will love it!
  5. Embellish: If you’ve seen a movie that starts out with a disclaimer “based on a true story,” you automatically know that some of what you are about to see is not exactly the way it happened. Dramatic license has been used. It’s okay to embellish and borrow from your life history to make a better story in the retelling.  I’m not saying to lie or to make stuff up, but you might have two different stories about your Mom’s apple pie. There was the time she mistakenly added chili powder instead of cinnamon and the time you ate a pie that was being saved for a special occasion. They are two separate but true events and there are elements from both stories you want to tell but time doesn’t allow you to tell both. You could turn both stories into one story. You ate a pie that was saved for a special occasion only to discover that your mother had used chili powder instead of cinnamon. You can embellish on your thoughts as well. The events happened when you were a child and I doubt you remember exactly what you were thinking or exactly what you said when you ate that pie. It is perfectly fine to add details that are true to who you are but may not be exactly what happened. You might say, “I felt so guilty for eating that pie” because it serves the point of your story. However, the truth might be you didn’t feel guilty, you felt disappointed because it tasted bad. It might have been hours, days, or weeks later that you felt guilty.

Adding some spice to your story will turn a good story into a great one. It will make your story more entertaining, and while entertainment may not be your goal, your story won’t make an impact unless you are entertaining in the process!

Shaping Your Story

StoryShapeIn my last blog I shared some triggers to help you get started in crafting your own library of personal stories. Our stories are a powerful way to connect and communicate with others, both from a platform as well as in every-day conversation.

We all have stories worth telling, but we have also listened to stories that we wished would end long before they did. While I believe everybody has good stories, not everyone tells their story well. Your story could be a life impacting story for the listener, but in order for that to happen it will likely need some editing and shaping.

Here are a 5 things to help you in shaping your story:

Write It: That may seem obvious to most, but many are tempted to think that because they know the story first-hand, they don’t need to write it out.  However, those who try to tell their story extemporaneously are often the ones who will put their listener to sleep. Writing it will help you distinguish between what needs to be said to move the story along and what is unnecessary or “fluff.”  In addition, writing will help you make discoveries. You will discover more applications for your story in the writing process. Of course after you have crafted it in the writing, commit it to memory. Tell your story, don’t read it!

Follow Simple Structure: A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In improvisation, actors work on simple story structure that applies to all storytelling.

1) Establish when and where.
2) Something goes wrong (aka a crisis occurs).
3) Quest to solve the crisis (what did you do in response to the crisis?).
4) Resolution. Once you get to this place the story is over.

Paying attention to this structure will keep your story focused and prevent it from meandering off course.

Edit: “A friend told me” may be all we need to say vs. “My friend, Robert, who I knew since high school, who was the best man in my wedding, and is the Godfather to my children.” That may be important to you—but not to the listener. Ask yourself: “Does this serve the point or is it a rabbit trail?”

Make it Now!: Strive to tell your story in the present tense, not in the past tense.  Obviously it is a story of something that happened in the past, but try to tell the story so we feel you are experiencing it now.  In my presentation Truth Be Told…from A Guy Who Makes Stuff Up, I share a story about an embarrassing incident that happened on stage in front of a live audience. I “relive” the incident so the audience feels like they are experiencing it with me. I share my thoughts and emotions as if it were happening now. This helps to put the audience in the situation with you and helps guarantee they will identify with your story!

Don’t Sermonize: Even if your story is part of a sermon, resist sermonizing the conclusion. Don’t let your desire to give a message overpower the story. Trust the story to speak for itself. It is likely the lesson you learned from your story wasn’t evident at the time… it may have taken years for the story to have new meaning. For many of my stories that happened years ago, I have only recently discovered applications to my life today. Leave room for the audience to make their own discoveries by reflecting on their own stories.

In storytelling, “the medium is the message.” It may be hard for many pastors and teachers to learn to trust that.  But think of Jesus, the master storyteller.  In telling the parables he didn’t explain them, at least not right away.  He would often say, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” He trusted the story to the listener. He only offered explanations later, if necessary. Learn to trust your stories and you will find eager listeners.

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