Warning - this blog post is longer than the average - and it's about attention. I dare you to read it all the way through.
When I was in my late teens I worked in a small Christian bookshop in my home town. It was a Saturday job, stacking shelves, serving customers, making coffee - surrounded by books. When you spend that amount of time around books, including everything from The Purpose Driven life through to Stong's Extended Concordance to the Bible - you begin to know what you like when it comes to literature.
During these formative years of faith I began to attempt to absorb as much knowledge ABOUT God as I could. Who was he? Where was he? What did he want from me and how on earth was I going to live up to that? So I lapped up the works of Wesley, Edwards and the late and great John Stott - hoping that in and amongst those pages I would learn enough to develop a deep understanding of God's plans and purposes for me and the world.
The problem is - that while theology is important. Right. True - it can sometimes be - well a little flat. Studying the conflicting views of transubstantiation make tickle some people's fancy - but not really mine. For most people I meet that also seems to be the case. We desire emotion, narrative - story. And if you hang out in the New Testament for any length of time - you will find Jesus was pretty keen on it too.
As I travel the country meeting with pastors, teachers and theologians I seem to be seeing the same problem time and again - how do we get people to engage in church? How will we see the church grow? How do we get our young people to stay on past their teens? Questions as old the church itself no doubt, but today I think we cannot answer this question without story.
It is no surprise to some that our attention spans are shrinking - the average according to recent research by the BBC saw teenagers showing attention spans as short as 11 minutes, compared to the average of 20-26 minutes of the past 30 years. Social media and mobile technology is rebooting the brains of our young people (myself included) and when those little machines come back online their RAM is already overloaded by texts, emails, phone calls, tweets, status updates, adverts, blog posts and people in the street trying to corral them into donating to Children In Need (a worth cause but there has got to be a better way guys?).
So no wonder - with this social ADD rife in our youth population that holding that attention when they walk through the doors on a Sunday is a challenge.
This is why I think we need to return to storytelling - on and offline - if we have a chance in all of Christendom of getting people engaged in the message of Jesus.
Storytelling in a real-time world
If you take a look at any of the major social networks you can clearly see that the silicone valley elite are determined to usher in a "real-time web" - an internet where all things are accessed in real-time and where the word "archive" is sometimes delivered with a bitter tone. Whether you are scouring the "Stream" on Google+ of delving through your Facebook "News Feed" the emphasis is on "now" and the "live".
The great thing about living in the real-time web world is that we be constantly in the know - but I think this constant focus on what is happening right now is training us out of being able to understand story, which requires reflection and imagination to speculate about what is coming.
We see this creeping into our interactions with all sorts of media, whether its monitoring #bbcqt during Question Time, focusing on the "most highlighted" book passages on the Kindle or constantly flicking between a speaker and the TwitterFall on the screen behind them. Our attention is being tested - and often we are the one wielding the whip.
Story telling in this world of constant distraction, particularly from the stage or pulpit means we need to drastically rethink the way we communicate - doctrine, theology and discipleship in the form of the sermon needs to move from being "delivered" or "preached". We need stories that can be "told" and "experienced".
Recently in our church our leader gave a talk on healing. He outlined how we see Jesus heal in the Bible. A model for healing, of laying on hand and praying in the power of God's spirit. But do you know what the real kicker was? The bit that captured the hearts and minds of the people - when a young women from our Student Group got up and told the story of how her serious heart condition was healed through that very model of prayer. Of what she felt when she realised God had touched her life. Of the relief and fear and anger and then unbelief and joy and love of those who prayed for her. Of how the Doctor the following day couldn't explain what happened and how he would have to take her of the heart donor list.
That's a story. That's what gets us hooked and coming back again and again and again.
If you have been inspired into telling more stories please check out a project by a friend of mine Richard Littledale, whose short Christmas story "The Littlest Star" is helping raise money for the charity Shooting Star Chase.