A couple weeks ago, a few of our ministry team attended a screening for the Catalyst Leadership lectures. This was another great series of speakers & leaders such as Andy Stanley, Bob Goff, and Louie Giglio. One of the talks I was most compelled by was from author Donald Miller who wrote Blue Like Jazz and Scary Close. It turns out, that he does a lot of work in advertising and discussed how this relates to leadership and ministry. He spoke about the major plot points in movies and narratives, as well as the roles that leaders should have in others’ stories.
The power of story. “Story is the most powerful tool to compel the human brain”-Donald Miller. Agree with this or not, there are multi-billion corporations that are currently fed by selling stories. From movies, books, and video games, these are all just platforms for telling, and retelling, stories. A captivating story can steal my heart and many hours from my day. As a branding and marketing guru, Miller dissects what stories are and how they impact the human brain. In fact, in his research, he concludes that people don’t always buy the best product. They buy the one that communicates the most clearly. To truly understand what makes stories so compelling, he went to a secluded cabin for a couple days to watch some of the greatest movies to derive their formula. 

Story is the most powerful tool to compel the human brain.

Conserving calories. Limiting calories when watching movies is hard enough with Raisinettes and buttery popcorn. Although, watching calories has an impact on storytelling as well. There are two points Miller makes when talking calories and movie screens. #1- The mind is trying to survive. People only care about their story or what information influences it. #2- The mind is trying to conserve calories. When something appears to be a “waste of time” an audience will not listen and trim the unneeded voices out. Humans are drawn to stories that organize information in a way for them not waste time or energy… or calories. The story, or brand, that communicates the most clearly will win.
Anatomy of a story. Here is Miller’s formula of story and its major plot points. Be grateful, he watched a lot of movies to provide this for us.
  1. A Character: There is a character and she has to want something. She appears typically in the first few minutes of the movie. The want must be something specific and sought after. Remember, the mind wants clarity and to conserve calories.
  2. A Problem: Next, there has to be a problem. This is the story. It stands in the way of the character and what she wants. There should also be a villain or conflict that stands in the way. The character cannot get what she wants on her own, if she could there would be little conflict and no resolution. She must have…
  3. A Guide: The hero must meet a guide. For instance, this could be Rafiki, Morpheus, or Yoda. This person (or animal) speaks into the life of another’s story and does not take the limelight away from the hero. Fun fact, heroes are looking for people to guide them along rather than another hero.
  4. A Plan: The guide gives the hero a plan. This defines and sets the course for what must happen for the hero to get what she wants. Blow up the Death Star? Go to Pride Rock? These plans usually mask and coincide with an internal conflict.
  5. A Call to Action: A pivoting factor or moment occurs when the hero must decide to go with the plan. Is there an evil uncle that has taken over the pride? Did Agent Smith kidnap Morpheus? The hero must not be passive, but show confidence in her decision.
  6. A Result: Did the plan end in success or utter failure? This climax keeps the audience engaged. The ending must be compelling and memorable.
  7. A Consequence: What’s at stake? This is the language that the brain speaks in. If you don’t go this way, pursue good, or realize there “is no spoon” what will happen?
So, who’s story is it? In ministry and leadership, we must ask ourselves who’s story are we concerned with. Are we the hero of our own story, or trying to be the guide in others’? Leaders must be guiding and teaching the heroes how to survive and thrive. If you want to be convicting and have an impact, “Never position yourself as the hero in the story” Miller says. Understand peoples’ context and speak to them with a clear message.

Never position yourself as the hero in the story.

Characteristics of the guide. As guides, we should be striving to be more like Yoda, not Luke; Rafiki (for he knows the way), not Simba. For one, we must be empathetic. People want to be cared for by someone who shares some kind of common ground. Leaders must be knowledgeable and have authority. People want a guide that has experience, or at least a bit of information that pertains to their story. We must aid in resolving internal conflicts, not just those that are on the surface level. “Companies sell external problems, people buy fixtures to internal ones.” And again, be clear. If you confuse, you’ll lose.
Every hero experiences insecurities and wonders if he can overcome the situations in his life. As we disciple and lead others in their story, we must participate in their transformation. Remember, this is about them, not us. Anyways, the transformation/training of superheros in movies is the best part. Jesus operated the same way. He wasn’t selfish and did not act as the hero. He was (and is) a servant and a guide to others. To be true leaders we must allow for others to be the heroes in the story as we provide a path to follow and call them to action. We must be clear and worthwhile as we participate in their transformation. As guides, we understand what people want, the internal struggles that they have, and serve in their transformation to become the heroes they were born to be.