Who would have thought that the loss of “flannel graph” teachers in Sunday School would spell doom for the Presbyterian and other Christian churches?
“We have the greatest story in the history of the world to tell,” renowned author and spea ker Leonard Sweet told more than 500 Presbyterians gathered here for the Evangelism and Church Growth Conferences (ECG 2012), “and we don’t tell it because we use verses and words rather than stories and metaphors” ― what he called “narrafors.”
Showing a variety of television commercials to prove his point Wednesday (Aug. 1) in his second of two keynote addresses, Sweet, author of more than 50 books, demonstrated how dramatically contemporary communication has become one of images and stories, not words.
The consensus choice as the best commercial shown during the 2011 Super Bowl was for Volkswagen and featured a child dressed in a Darth Vader costume. “There’s not a single word in it,” Sweet noted. “You seldom see a product in a commercial anymore because advertisers are selling stories.”
“We were trained to speak to a culture that communicates in words,” said Sweet, speaking of mainline Christianity, whose average age is older than 60. “Now we live in a culture that can’t hear words, doesn’t use them and doesn’t understand them. This culture communicates in narratives and metaphors.”
Teaching using flannel graph storytellers gave way during his childhood, Sweet said, to teaching by memorizing Bible verses. “Our ailment is ‘versitis,’” Sweet said. “The Bible was written in stories and poems and songs, but we keep trying to find the verses. The flannel graph teachers had it right, not the verse-memorizers.
“Remember everyone’s favorite Sunday School song ― ‘Tell Me the Stories of Jesus’?” Sweet queried. “This is the ONE story,” he said, holding up a Bible, “and we’ve carved it up and exegeted it and analyzed it to death.”
Arguing that “the issue of identity is the key challenge of our day,” Sweet said the task for Christians is “more than following the teachings but living the Jesus story. There are four gospels and a lot more ― Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and each one of us. There are two testaments and more ― the Old, the New and each one of ours.”
Sweet said social scientists have been trying to determine why innovation, inventiveness and intellectual achievement among Jewish people has historically been out of all proportion to their numbers. “Every study comes back to Jewish collective memory,” he concluded. “We send our kids out to ‘find themselves’ ― a huge developmental task because we create identity through narrative and metaphor. In Jewish culture, that happens at the family dinner table, told by parents or grandparents, in which the story of the history of the Hebrew people ― that narrafor ― becomes the personal story of that child.”
Sweet, who holds a doctorate is in church history, said, “Every awakening in the history of Christendom has taken place when people have returned to the Bible and read it in the language of their culture – that is, more narraforically.
“God has chosen us for this present age, this TGIF (Twitter, Google, iPhone, Facebook) world,” Sweet said. “The first thing a missionary does before going to the field is learn the language. We have been willful about refusing to learn the language of this culture ― how’s that working for us, folks?”
Christians are called in every age to minister to that age, Sweet said. “God has chosen us to be in ministry in the greatest time in the history of Christianity as the Reformation culture gives way to a whole other culture of Christianity and God has chosen us to lead the church through this transition.”
An admitted lover of Victorian furniture, Sweet said, “I love Victorian culture. Our house is a time-warp. You get to pick your furniture but you don’t get to pick your moment. Come on, church. You led a Reformation once, you can do it again!”