The Power of Parables in Nonprofit Storytelling

Parables have a way of getting around our defenses, short-circuiting our stereotypes, and making us think in new ways. In this episode, we’re looking at the role of parables in Jesus’ ministry, and how you can use stories to break through walls in your nonprofit’s messaging.

Parables are not morality tales, they’re not explanations, and they’re not any of the essential stories I typically teach on for nonprofit storytelling and fundraising. I usually recommend that you’re crystal clear on what you’re saying. Yet in the parables we see Jesus circling around, telling stories that make his audience work to get the message.

A parable keeps the message at a distance. It slows down comprehension. It blocks automatic prejudice, prejudicial reactions. It dismantles stereotypes. A parable comes up on the listener, obliquely, on the slant.

Eugene Peterson, Tell it Slant

Peterson calls the parable “a pebble in your shoe,” which I love. Because when you have a pebble in your shoe, the only thing you can think about is that pebble in your shoe. A parable will do that. This is a story that stays with you and makes you think.

Peterson quotes John Dominic Crossan, who says, “The parable is an earthquake opening up the ground at your feet.” Hmmm. So it’s a pebble in your shoe and an earthquake opening up the ground at your feet? I assure you, it is.

Why we need parables

Cognitive bias is an error in thinking that affects our decision-making. One form of cognitive bias is confirmation bias–we process new information in a way that is really heavily influenced by our existing beliefs, and our expectations of how things work in the world. If the new information doesn’t agree with our existing beliefs, we tend to distrust it. We’ll even make up stories to explain the new information away, even risking great harm to ourselves and to others. 

Both the pebble in your shoe, and the ground opening up at our feet get our attention and force us to look at things a little bit differently. We can’t ignore either. We have to deal with them. A parable has the power to confront our bias with truth, to challenge our assumptions, without arguing or preaching at us.

Check out Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13, and his answer to the disciples when they ask why he tells so many stories.

A parable is a little story package that helps to overcome this bias, and the defenses we build up. Stories, like a pebble in the shoe, irritate the conscience so that we have to either consider the new information, or harden our hearts against it.

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Jesus taught according to the readiness of the soil, or the readiness of the listener’s heart. In the case of these parables, he hid the meaning within a story so that the good soil could receive it, and the bad soil remained barren, fitting with Isaiah’s prophecy “Though seeing they do not see, though hearing they do not hear or understand.”  

As a leader, you sometimes have to deliver hard messages. Sometimes, people come to you because they want to be involved in what you do, but they have certain ideas about your work or about the issue that are not true and are not helpful. Or perhaps there is a great deal of misunderstanding around the issues or stereotypes about the populations you work with, or assumptions about the work you do. How can you help people see something in a new way without lecturing them? How can you help them reconsider long-held, entrenched ideas?

Carefully-crafted stories can help you meet people where they are and nudge them into a new understanding. By carefully opening up seams in the ground, and placing pebbles in shoes, you can prompt the thoughtful consideration your cause deserves.

Here’s my challenge to you today–to identify an area in your work where stories can begin to overcome myths. 

Next Steps

  1. Brainstorm. Make a list of misconceptions, bad information, political twists, outdated approaches, prejudices, myths, and stereotypes that show up around the work you do.
  2. Now write out the ways those things affect the people you serve or the work you do.
  3. Think about the stories you could tell to nudge people toward a better understanding of the issues and the work that you do. Write these down.
  4. Make connections. Which stories address which myths?
  5. Carefully consider when, where, and how you can share these stories.

Resources

Tell it Slant: a conversation on the language of Jesus in his stories and prayers, by Eugene Peterson (affiliate link)
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