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The Power of the Modern Parable

The following is a modern paraphrase of something Luther once said: “If you’re not communicating the Gospel in a way people can understand, then you’re not communicating the Gospel at all.” As we connect with youth, it’s important that we communicate in ways they understand. How many phrases do we use that our audience can’t comprehend? Most youth directors have theological training and know the jargon involved, but such things are a disservice to those we serve if we cannot connect them to the Gospel.

At Christ Lutheran in Lincoln, Neb., we often use contemporary media (which is very familiar to the congregation) to create parables that illumine life-lessons from God’s Word. What follows is an examination of the basic principles we use every week when determining what media to use.

Jesus communicated in parables, which was typical for his day. In the pre-modern historical context of Jesus’ life, people commonly used dramas and stories as a way to share concepts and ideas. We know from Scripture that Jesus would first share a parable and then ask if the people knew the meaning. If they did not, He would explain it. We now live in a post-modern society, but people are much the same as in Jesus’ day; we must communicate in much the same way.

However, today such communication could include stories, drama, movies, and other videos. Regardless of which media you use, the principle is the same as Christ’s: Share the parable; explain the meaning. Let people think about what they’ve seen. When we first began using media, we tended to explain too much of our “parable” before sharing the video or drama. This generally lessened the storys impact. By allowing the “parable” to speak first there is more often an “ah-ha” moment during the explanation where everything clicks. And in time, you sub-consciously train your people to look for the meanings in the media on their own.

It is important to also consider which media to use. This is where current events are really important. When selecting media, the first step is to decide what you are trying to communicate; this must always be the focus.  The second step is to brainstorm a list of possible “parables.” These “parables” may be drama, television, movies, pre-produced clips (i.e. Highway Video), or custom made productions. Try to change your media. Your group may get bored watching the same type of “parables” every week.  After brainstorming, review many of the clips to see how well they connect to your point. Make sure to do this early in the process. For example, a clip containing foul language is probably not appropriate for use in church settings. Since we have slowly become desensitized to this type of offensive content and thus may not remember its presence in a given clip, careful preview of all material is necessary.

Ask yourself, what is allowable content? Ultimately, that is up to you, but there are a few points to ponder:
  • Know your people. Your students are most likely watching current movies. You may be able to give the content a positive spin by using it in youth group.
  • Finding something that is completely clean is very difficult and may take you away from material that could really connect to your point.
  • Editing out some of the vulgar content may detract from the “parable.”

This is not a license to use anything that may seem to speak a good message in spite of the graphic content. Be careful. If the movie has a lot of bad content and you would not recommend it in its entirety to your young people then look elsewhere.

In some cases, artistic editing might soften an otherwise inappropriate clip. We were recently doing a series on forgiveness and used a clip of Kim Phuc who was injured by napalm in the Vietnam War. The video clips we had were in color and very graphic. We ended up changing the video to black and white, thereby changing the tone.

In terms of media outside of movies, one big hype still on the air is reality television. What is it that keeps an audience glued to the TV for the duration of these series? It’s not the game, but the relationships between the “cast” that make the show interesting. It is relatively easy to produce your own reality TV show. We did a four-week series based on “The Amazing Race.”  To make it interesting, we did not do the cliché thing and have the winning team be the young Christians who were nice to everyone. In the series, we assigned different character attributes to each team. These attributes were found in the Proverbs: One team was always making a plan and strategizing; another was always seeking advice; another cheated; another was prideful and arrogant. For a script, we wrote up a rough outline of what would happen and then let the teams improv the dialogue. We picked couples from the church with real relationships so there was not a lot of fake acting. By the fourth week, the race ended “live” and not even the pastor knew who would win. In order to keep suspense in the series, there were lots of twists; the cheaters won in one service, and the prideful team in the other. Why would we do this? Well, in reality, the cheaters and the prideful do often win in the short run. In the long run, those who cling to Christ will win eternity with God. In a testimony to how this type of series kept interest, we had a family on vacation in Colorado when the two teenage children realized they were going to miss the last week of the series. On Saturday night, they convinced their father they needed to be at church the next morning, so the family drove back through the night in order to attend worship!

It must be mentioned that for all the benefits of packaging a message in modern media, there can be downfalls. Do not use media simply for the sake of using media, and don’t overdo it. Pick one point or concept for your message, then make sure everything you do connects to that point. We always have some excellent dramas, music, or video clips we want to use that never seem to fit our message. Trying to force media into your class will not be effective. If you do this, you will often find yourself customizing your message to the media instead of the opposite, and this tends to diminish your point. You should try to have continuity between your music, your media, and your message.

Who is your competition in all this? The current media outlets and television. Students watch broadcasts that are nearly flawless, flashy, fast-paced and exciting. They go to concerts with lots of lights, video, and big sound. And like it or not, it is not all just glitz without reason. Whether you like the content or not, mass media communicates effectively. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Knowledge is Power;” today, “The Communication of Knowledge is Power” would ring more true. If the other guy can communicate his message more effectively than you can, he often wins in the short run.

So how do you compete with mass media? You don’t have the same budget as Fox News or U2, but you probably do have access to equipment that is similar to MTV and Reality Television. All you need to add is some creativity.  There are also many resources on the web:
  • Digital Juice (http://www.digitaljuice.com/)  find stock footage, animations and tutorials. Watch for their incredible deals!
  • DJTV (www.DigitalJuice.com/djtv) view well-produced videos on how to make great productions on a budget.
  • Highway Video (http://www.highwayvideo.com/) Highway has some great out-of-the-box videos and nice subscription rates. Also, use their elements for your own productions.
  • MediaShout Store (store.MediaShout.com) Media Shout’s Store has become a large repository for many vendors. Start here to find elements, packaged shorts, and great ideas to get you going.
In addition to creative and resources, keep these things in mind:
  • Be a student of the culture and know what your people are watching and doing. Use these things to connect. Are you where meeting them where they are?
  • Set the objectives for your message as well your desired outcomes. Make sure your message has continuity. Keep downtime to a minimum. Silence distracts a post-modern person.
  • Don’t use media needlessly. Sometimes a small clip, drama, or song can go a long way. You don’t want to overload or confuse your audience.
  • Use the web to provide further resources. When you’re discussing a deep topic, you can’t always share everything. Place those extra resources on your website where your group can access them. Also provide little cheat sheets online so when your youth share with friends they have some notes from your lessons.
  • Try to reach all the senses. When was the last time you used smell, taste, or touch to connect with your people?

As you begin to use these tools in your work, please make sure to share ideas with your colleagues and collect their ideas as well. Over the last two years we have tried many different things in our worship services. Some have worked well, and others haven’t. Feel free to take a look at www.Room211.org and let me know if you have any questions.

Blessings on you and your ministry!

Published February 6, 2007

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