Tell me the old, old story

How The Austin Stone uses honest, gospel-infused storytelling to encourage & challenge their church

Leading others in worship with the artistic talents God gave him has always been a passion for Steven Bush. For more than a decade, that included playing bass alongside Aaron Ivey and other members in the band Spur58, but shortly after moving to Austin in 2008, God gave him a new vision for leading others in worship through honest, creative storytelling.

Bush and his family moved to the Texas capital to serve with Ivey and others in the worship ministry at The Austin Stone Community Church. The church already had a filmmaker on staff producing missions videos, but Bush, who had taken up photography a year before, saw a great opportunity to empower volunteers in the church to tell written and photographic stories, which could be produced in a shorter timeframe than most film projects.

“I pitched the vision to (our pastors),” Bush recalls, “and they took a risk.”

Initially starting under the church’s missions department, Bush started the Story Team with a few volunteers. One of their first major projects was telling the stories of individuals in the church who responded to a challenge to go as missionaries to unreached people groups around the world. In time, the scope of their work quickly expanded to telling testimonies of church members and how the gospel intersected their lives. 

Over the past five years, Story Team has produced more than 200 stories and expanded its volunteer base to more than 50 writers, photographers, editors and filmmakers who commit four to six hours per month to “tell honest and encouraging stories of gospel transformation.” These testimonies are told through a variety of media, including written stories, photo essays, audio stories, spoken word and films. Outlets for their stories have included Sunday morning bulletins, the church website, social media and their Story Team Weekly newsletter.

Brian Lundin, an IT strategist for Dell Computers, has been one of those volunteers for the past four years. Having briefly studied journalism in college before finishing with a computer degree, Lundin joined the Story Team after taking a writing class in the church’s “Get Trained” ministry.

“It was an outlet for me as a volunteer who was doing something else for a living but able to use my talent to serve the Lord,” Lundin says. 

“The best part about it wasn’t just the fact that I got to write, but it was the fact that I got to meet all of these people throughout the church who God was doing amazing things in their lives. To hear their stories firsthand and to be moved by them and then have a chance to try to write something that would relay that to the rest of the body was fun, challenging and an honor.”

Lundin served as the writing team leader for two years and recently left his IT job to join the Story Team full-time.

 

Modern-Day Ebenezers

Driving every story at The Austin Stone is a desire to “inspire our people and the church at large to worship Jesus for who he is and to help us to remember what he’s done,” Bush says.

“Storytelling is a form of worship leading; it helps move our congregation, it helps move the hearts of people all over the world who are encouraged and engaged by the stories to worship God.” 

Over the past five years, Story Team has produced more than 200 stories and expanded its volunteer base to more than 50 writers, photographers, editors and filmmakers who commit four to six hours per month to “tell honest and encouraging stories of gospel transformation.”

Recalling the Lord’s command in the Old Testament for Israel to erect Ebenezer stones so they would not forget what he had done for them, Bush says stories are “modern-day Ebenezers done through a creative art form.”

The guiding Scripture for their ministry is Psalm 102:18—“ Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the Lord.”

“The Psalmist has just been brought through this really difficult time, and one of the first things the Lord tells him to do is: ‘Write this down; I don’t want you to forget. And people not yet born are going to worship me because you wrote this down and because of what I’ve done,’” Bush says.

“When people’s lives are changed by the gospel, that’s a story worth telling. The church should never run out of stories to tell; if it does, we’re in the wrong ministry.”

“When people’s lives are changed by the gospel, that’s a story worth telling. The church should never run out of stories to tell; if it does, we’re in the wrong ministry.”

So, the Story Team focuses on telling the stories of The Austin Stone’s members. This includes the raw, gut-wrenching aspects of pain and difficulty associated with a sinful, fallen world as well as the redemption and hope of the gospel found in Jesus Christ.

“You cannot tell the light side of the story without the dark,” Lundin says. 

As they’ve told stories with honesty and excellence, they’ve noticed a culture of storytelling develop in the church, where people are actively sharing their struggles and redemption. While they initially gathered story leads from church staff and small group leaders, they now receive a bulk of their leads from the story submission page on their website.

“It’s fostered a culture that is more open and more vulnerable than even we were before,” Lundin says. 

Bush believes church members trust the team with their stories “because they see the kind of work that we’ve produced; they hear how people have interacted with our artists—we really train our artists to pastor and gospel-counsel people during interviews,” which has allowed them to tell difficult stories on serious topics such as depression, mental illness, abortion and struggles with homosexuality.

“Basically, interviewing in a gospel storytelling sense is gospel counseling,” Bush says. “You’re taking people on this journey to get to where their life was changed and how the gospel changed them. So once you take them to this really dark spot, you’ve got to help bring them back out. You can’t just leave them there.”  

As a result, they have witnessed storytelling as a powerful tool in the church to build community, encourage believers and challenge members to engage in the Great Commission locally and around the world. Many of those now engaging in missions and ministry have told the Story Team that God used others’ stories to inspire their own obedience.

“They saw the stories of goers, and that was the first thing that made them think that they could do it themselves,” Lundin says.

 

Storytelling in the Church

Although The Austin Stone is a large church in a city well known as a magnet for musicians and artists, Bush and Lundin believe churches of any size, anywhere can use storytelling to encourage and equip believers. To this end, they have led sessions on storytelling at the church’s annual worship conference and recently launched StoryTeam.org, a website dedicated to helping churches tell honest, gospel-centered stories.

The Austin Stone recently launched StoryTeam.org, a website dedicated to helping churches tell honest, gospel-centered stories.

During an interview with the TEXAN, Bush and Lundin shared advice from their own experience for starting a story team in your church.

For Bush and Lundin, it all starts with support and buy-in from leadership. Artists must earn the trust of leadership, and leaders must empower and trust artists. Additionally, pastors must believe that stories should inspire worship rather than just serve as a commercial for particular ministries within the church. 

“The first thing would be to have church leadership really consider whether or not they value story and why they do it,” Bush says. “Is it a marketing tool, or are they actually wanting to tell stories because it’s out of a heart of inspiring people to worship God for what he’s done?”

Second, they say churches should not feel intimidated if they do not have members with skills in video. Too often, Bush says, churches think they need outstanding videos to communicate good stories.

“I would encourage churches that video is not the magic bullet,” Bush says. “Story Team’s platform has been built on the written word because we’ve consistently been able to put out written stories with photographs for the last three years or so, and that has helped shape the culture of who we are.”

While he agrees that films are powerful, Bush says Story Team can only make a few over the course of the year because of the time, energy and money needed to produce quality films. 

“Not every church is going to have a filmmaker sitting in the pews, but I’m pretty sure every church in America does have someone that has a gift of writing or photography,” Bush says.

“If a church has a writer and a photographer, they’ve got a story team. Even if you do one story a month or one every two months, you’re still creating these Ebenezers that your church is going to be able to rally around and celebrate.”

“If a church has a writer and a photographer, they’ve got a story team. Even if you do one story a month or one every two months, you’re still creating these Ebenezers that your church is going to be able to rally around and celebrate.”

Lundin agrees, noting that only two of their volunteers write for a living. The rest are teachers, stay-at-home moms, college students, etc. Team leaders should identify people who may not think they’re artists and “fan the flame” of these giftings.

“If you find the talented junior in high school who loves his English class or the English teacher who loves grammar and to edit, that’s the bones of your story team whether they see themselves as artists or not,” Lundin says.

In this same vein, Bush and Lundin say churches must glorify God by striving for excellence in every story, which requires budgeting for storytelling and giving time to develop stories. For example, every written story has about a six-week life cycle, which includes interviews, story submissions and several rounds of edits and revisions. Films have a longer cycle, often following a story for three to nine months, treating it like a short documentary.

Additionally, leaders must see their role as pastoring and shepherding the volunteer artists.

“We want to steward well what God has given our church when it comes to artists,” Bush says. “We’ve created a way, an avenue, for artists that aren’t necessarily musicians—photographers, filmmakers, editors, writers—who are serving God with their God-given gifts.”

This stewardship involves ongoing training and feedback, building community among team members and encouraging collaboration between artists. For example, they encourage the writer and photographer to work together on the story, which produces a better story and opportunities for discipleship.

“When we talk about our team internally, we emphasize investing in our artists as priority 1a, right behind the work,” Lundin says. “In encouraging collaboration, you start to build friendships and relationships and community within the team, which is really important for artists.”

Finally, Bush and Lundin reiterate the need to tell raw, honest stories that are creative and theologically rich. 

“We’re going to fight to creatively tell the dark side of the story because when you do it makes Jesus look that much more beautiful when he steps into any story,” Bush says.

“In the story arc for a believer,” Lundin adds, “all of our stories, all of our struggles are their own gospel storylines.”

And telling these stories serves to build up the local church so that future generations may praise the Lord.

—Photos by Austin Stone Story Team

Texan Correspondent
Keith Collier
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