You know that storytelling is a worthwhile, biblical way to move your people’s hearts to worship Jesus. You want to build a culture of openness and transparency in your church, and you know that storytelling will help. And you surely have many other good reasons to start a storytelling ministry.
But you have no idea where to start. What kinds of stories should you try to produce? Film? Written? Photography?
The good news is that you’re not alone. This is a very common question, and if you’re asking it, you are further ahead than we were in the beginning.
How we started
The Austin Stone Story Team evolved over the course of several years. There was no master plan or grand strategy; instead, Steven Bush started small and used what God had placed around him. He was a photographer and had a vision for helping artists serve the church. He gathered together a small group of other photographers, and they started documenting what God was doing in our church.
Over the next couple of years, the Story Team took shape. Steven partnered with our in-house filmmaker to start making documentary short films, and he brought on Ginger Swann, a former magazine editor, to build out a writing team. For the last four years, Story Team has been operating with a team of volunteers, producing written stories with photos, and with a team of staff, residents, and interns producing films, audio stories, and photo essays.
Where should you start?
Our advice on starting out is to use what God has given your church. We started with photography because that was the field Steven was familiar with, and our church has been blessed with a large number of very talented professional photographers. But your situation will be different. You may have great writers, or a lot of professional filmmakers. Let what God has provided guide you. Don’t try to force something that you aren’t equipped for.
But what if you don’t have professional photographers or great amateur writers? What if you don’t have an easy place to start? If that’s your situation, I’d urge you to rethink your assumptions. As I wrote about in an earlier post on finding artists in your church, you don’t need a team full of professionals. You might be surprised at the great talent in your church who are not professionals and would never call themselves an “artist.”
Once you know what artists you have in your church, and if they share your vision for storytelling, that will determine in large part where you should start. But each medium has its own jumping off points to consider for early projects.
While I am certainly biased as a writer, this is my consistent recommendation for where to start. Even if you don’t know it, almost every church has excellent writers in their midst. The internet has democratized publishing like nothing else before it. If you have bloggers who write clearly and understand narrative story structure, you’ve got writers who can tell a story. Working with a photographer, this blogger could start telling stories right away.
There are many publication options you can utilize as well. You can post stories to your website, you can post them as Facebook notes, or you can print them in your church bulletin as we did for several years. The written word is the most accessible and economical way to start telling stories.
Our team started by documenting baby dedication services and baptisms. We would take photos of these events, give photos to the families that participated, and post the best on our website. Every church has events and services that can be documented as testimonies to God’s faithfulness, and these are great places to start.
Another good place to start is the photo essay, or what we sometimes call Storyframes. These projects are more advanced, but are a great stepping stone to film, and allow your photographers to tell a narrative story with their work. The example below is one of our favorite stories in any medium.
This form of story can be very compelling. While it is not easy, it is the kind of project that can stretch and grow your storytellers, and it can familiarize you with some of the peculiarities of editing and audio work, preparing you for producing films down the road.
Podcasting has exploded over the last several years, and that means that all sorts for people now have the technical knowledge required to produce audio stories. What used to be a bit of a dark art is spreading like wildfire, and if you are lucky enough to have a podcaster who wants to tell stories, then you could be set for a very engaging medium.
In our audio stories we interview the subject for 30-45 minutes and then cut the story down to three to five minutes. Our style uses only the subject’s voice and words, but there are many other ways to tell a story. If you have people with the right skills and available time, audio can be a great place to start.
Finally, we get to the medium that everyone is interested in: film. To be honest though, it’s last on this list for a reason. It is very hard to get started in film at a high level of quality.
We started producing documentary short films for the same reason that we advise you to start in any medium—we had the right guy in place. When Story Team started, we had a professional filmmaker on staff who wanted to make documentaries, had worked in Hollywood with Oscar-winning directors, and had gone to film school. I don’t point this out to brag, but instead to say that God blessed us with him extraordinarily. We could not have done what we did without him.
Some churches will absolutely have this kind of talent sitting in the pews, willing to serve. If you do, film is a great place to start. But if you don’t, then starting off with ambitious film projects could hurt your team in the long run.
Storytelling is not that hard
I want to leave you with this encouragement: storytelling is not that hard. You need artists with talent, but that’s not uncommon. You need leaders who love artists, but churches have lots of them. If you have those two things and you soberly assess what talents and capabilities your church has, you can start telling stories in the right medium easily. It’s not hard. You just have to start with the tools God has already provided.