Book Tour Interview: Death By Living, N.D. Wilson

Death By LivingThe good folks at Thomas Nelson Publishing recently contacted me about hosting a stop on their blog tour for N.D. Wilson’s new book called, Death by Living. They mentioned his work had much resonance with my own, so I gave it a read and was thoroughly impressed. Not only at the prophetic challenge to live fully into the story God has for each of us, but because N.D. is an incredibly gifted writer and storyteller. It is writers like N.D. who embody the artistic elements of writing. Like a captivating painting or a beautiful lyric, N.D.’s writing has the potential to move you; not just to different thinking, but to renewed action.

I asked him a few questions to give a bit more insight into this work:

1. Death by Living. Based on your intro, it seems this title comes from the perspective that our everyday life is a series of deaths. Or the mundane can overwhelm and run us down. But you’re turning it towards a message of hope. Unpack that for us. Or, if I’m totally misinterpreting, guide us towards your vision behind the title.  

N.D. What breaks us down? What ages us? What, in the end, will all of us die of? We will die of living. Cause of death: life. The point of the title (and the book) is to add an urgency and a gratitude and a joy to our living. If someone gave you a million dollars and told you that you could had a week to spend it before it all evaporated, you’d have a jolly week. But that’s exactly the situation we are in. We have hands, feet, a mind, a heart; we have breath and laughter and sight and taste and songs--but we can’t keep any of it. We can’t keep our selves…we will be spent, the only question is how well.

2. “Did you clothe the hipster and give him his coffee and inverted brand fascination?” 

I just love this quote (and live in a bit of a hipster world myself), so I figured I had to turn it into some kind of question: Hipster’s & God’s Provision. Talk to us… 

N.D. Character irony is everywhere. Hipsters are God’s creatures too. He gives giraffes hilarious necks and llamas goofy faces, and birds of paradise the need (and the flashy ability) to strut. He gives us the ability to be swept up in the faux importance of trends and brands and weird scruples, which we display as if we have found some truly unique plumage. And you know He laughs.

3. Readers of this blog care alot about story.  Not just the communication device of story, but that we are all active participants in a Story that requires our full attention for it to unfold in the way that is not only best for us, but for the whole created order.  You talk about narrative and story through your book.  Invite us into your understanding of story and how it informs your work in this book?

N.D. The lovely (and terrifying) truth about the macro story in which we all exist, is that it doesn’t depend on us to make it unfold in a way that is good for all of creation. Our own choices determine what kind of characters we will be in God’s story (fools, villains, hypocrites, food pharisees or hand-wringing political idolaters), but the triumphant arc and glorious resolution of the Story rest in His hands, not ours. If we suck as heroes, its not like He’ll have trouble crafting better ones. Live as a fool and He might just use you as a thematic cautionary tale. Live as a villain and you will be a vessel of His wrath (like Pharaoh). Live as a self-righteous tick and He’ll use you in His story to show His readers what happens to the proud and the haughty. But live faithfully, by grace, serving and imaging our older Brother who threw down death…and be used for His glory more directly. But like it or not, every creature will be used for glory, no matter how rebellious.

4. In chapter 9 you transport us to your experience walking the holy sites of Jerusalem. You invite us into your Western desire for historicity that often trumps our willingness to simply worship.  You also challenge your reader to engage places like this in that they allow us to see we are each part of a story that requires we know the story of our ancestors who have come before us.  How might our identifying with earlier parts of our story enhance our participation in the story we to live today? 

N.D. There is nothing new under the sun. We live and die and struggle and doubt and love just as many others have done before us. By looking back--especially at the history of our own families (spiritual and physical)--we can see the enormous impact that relatively small decisions (especially moments of faithfulness) had our own lives before we ever existed. How we choose to exist in our own moments will have the same kind of massive impact on future generations. There is no small life--no person with choices in the narrative that don’t matter.

5. What is it you hope your reader walks away thinking, saying or living as a result of this book?

N.D. Live with eyes wide with gratitude, and leave a wake in the lives of others.

Game Time! Good News in the Neighborhood Curriculum

I’m thrilled to introduce the Good News in the Neighborhood curriculum I have been working on alongside my good friend, Adam Mclane.  Exploring the life of Jesus and Paul’s words to the Church of Corinth, this is a resource designed to ignite the hearts and imaginations of teenagers to take seriously they’re call to be good news among their neighborhoods.  We can no longer expect the Good News only to be revealed during church functions within the walls of a church.  Instead, following Jesus and extending his love to all the world requires that we become radically present and intentional in all apects of life; most notably with our neighbors who we are to live life alongside.

We hope this experience will ruin the lives of teenagers for the sake of stepping into radical life with Jesus. 

If you buy it before it comes out… you’ll get it on April 2nd AND you’ll save $15. Here’s the link to buy it now.



This 6-week series will deep dive your students into the practical realities of a radical life with Jesus. Built around six core hopes for community life, students will examine Scripture, gain an understanding of their role in their community, and be challenged by a series of simple experiments they can try. More than a series which teaches your students about being Good News in their community– Good News in the Neighborhood offers practical application based on the life of Jesus and the 1st century Church. Our hope is that your students begin to see how God has called them to become good news in their homes, schools, and neighborhoods.



Week 1: Tuning In (Experiment: Ethnography/Observation)

Week 2: Diving Deep (Experiment: Participating)

Week 3: Crossing Borders (Experiment: Two-fold inviting)

Week 4: Advocating for What Matters (Experiment: Standing up for our neighbors)

Week 5: New Eyes (Experiment: New eyes)

Week 6: Living a New Story (Experiment: Commissioning)



Printable PDF of teachers notes

  • Printable PDF of student worksheets
  • Editable Word version of teachers notes & student worksheets
  • 6 introductory video stories (One for each week)
  • Multiple options for each session to fit the needs of your group (Activity ideas, discussion starters, teaching options)
  • 6 experiments for students to try between sessions

The Science of Storytelling and Listening

This article was originally posted on Fuller Youth Institute’s website.  For full list of statistic sources, click here. 

Although I’ve spent one semester as a seventh and eighth grade science teacher, I don’t claim to be a scientist.

In fact, in high school and college, it was the subject I avoided the most.  Years later, I started to take seriously my role as a communicator and discovered the significance of science in relation to my understanding of how best to engage listeners with the Story of God.

It turns out that learning more about the science of listening can actually change the way you and I teach kids in our ministries.

Neurologically-Friendly Teaching

Listening is central to the growth and development of everyone who can hear. Studies show that 53% of class time for a U.S. college student is spent listening.1  For the same demographic, nearly 12 hours out of a 24-hour day are spent in some form of listening activity.2  The often unspoken reality is that listening does not necessarily constitute learning, content retention or a willingness to believe information.  In contrast, some studies show that we remember a mere 25% of the content we are presented.3

Why so little? Students tend to listen for facts, but get easily distracted.  Their listening is sidetracked by noise, daydreaming, or chasing another topic altogether.  And often, students listen without being interested in the subject at hand in the first place.4

With all this being said, the task of an effective communicator is not to be taken lightly.  Some argue that offering convincing statistics engages the listener and creates lasting impact, but experts also tell us that people quickly dismiss statistics that are inconsistent with their beliefs.5

On the other hand, fictional stories—which often can be processed very efficiently with minimal effort and high recall—engage a phenomenon called “suspension of disbelief,” which can lead to tangible change.6  Employing the art of storytelling, I once wrote and told a story to my teenagers whose main character, Chloe, dealt with depression, loneliness and cutting.  I shared it over the course of a few weeks at our mid-week gathering, but I could see that one teenager was especially impacted.  During my second week of telling the story, this teenager stood up and quickly walked out of the room in distress.  One of our youth workers followed close behind and found out that this teenager also struggled with cutting and could no longer walk alone in the struggle.

This student suspended disbelief and chose to be engaged by story. This ancient form of storytelling—Jewish Agada (Rabbinical Storytelling)—had become so real to her that she began wrestling with some of the biggest issues she’d ever faced in her young life. She heard Chloe’s story and realized that it was her story.  For this reason, some in the medical field have implemented storytelling as a mode of healthcare communication, bringing attention to issues ranging from suicide to AIDS prevention.

Communication expert Dr. Brian Leggett says, “A story is a narrative which actively engages the listener’s sense-making faculties. It helps the listener to make sense of what is being said and to make the right associations. It helps the listener to think widely by stimulating his or her imagination.”7

We’ve discovered that storytelling can break down walls of cynicism and mental distraction and lead listeners toward engagement. The art, then, is in assimilating fiction into belief. In order to practice that art of assimilation, we need to create intentional dialog and discussion.

Less Preaching, More Conversation

As youth workers who are passionate about inviting our students into the Story of God, it is important that we follow in the footsteps of our Rabbi, Jesus.  Jesus was the master storyteller, and true to Rabbinic tradition, one-third of his teaching was done through the art of storytelling.  Similar to Jesus’ parables, modern day storytelling is a method that might provoke more questions than answers. The story becomes a conversation starter, not a conversation finisher. This isn’t always true, of course. As youth listen and engage in the story, they can process some of the answers because the story meets every teenager in a different spot of their faith experience.

Where the story is the conversation starter, the follow-up discussion and dialogue is the conversation continuer. (I would say “finisher,” but most often that’s not the case.) It’s paramount that we communicators open up times of honest dialogue and questioning. Just like a rousing conversation after a good movie, most of the impact and application will occur after we tell the story. It’s like spending a large amount of time setting the table and displaying a beautiful meal, and now it’s time to call our guests to sit around the table and take it all in. We communicators become not simply the primary medium for communication but hosts of a feast of questions and conversation.

Does this mean we simply offer up our opinions and spiritual insights through our stories and then let them all be cast out into a sea of subjectivity? Absolutely not. It’s very important that we keep the group centered on the topic while still leaving room for honest conversation and questions.8

However, we must keep in mind that our teenagers are told conflicting stories and “truths” all the time, whether they’re at school, on the sports field, at home, or in some form of relationship. Let’s allow our teaching to give way to guided, thoughtful, and Spirit-led conversation in the hopes of inspiring them to begin the process of entering into a living, active, and very real relationship with Jesus.

If Only I Had a Guitar in My Hands

I have a friend named Robbie. He’s been a part of our high school community for the last three years or so. For the most part, he attends our gatherings and is well liked and respected by his peers and adult leaders.

Robbie is a guitar freak. He plays it, listens to others play it, and flat-out lives it. And I have no doubt that he’d be proud of that description. He has the long curly locks of most “good” rockers, a penchant for tie-dyed shirts, and an endless supply of Converse shoes. When I ask Robbie what his favorite activity is at any given point in the day, he puts his index finger over his closed mouth and ponders his response. Fitting to his character, he responds, “I would have to say either listening to guitar riffs of my favorite artists on CD or playing my guitar without distraction.” This kid would eat his guitar if such a feat wouldn’t scratch it.

Robbie also is a very intellectual and thoughtful student of the Christian life. He’s not afraid to ask hard questions, and he’s a model to many regarding how to live a life of honest transparency and openness to accountability. I respect him very much. That said, Robbie has a hard time focusing during any kind of teaching because he self-admittedly drifts off into guitar world within about two minutes of the start of the talk. He recently told me (during a time when I was not teaching through story, incidentally) that he was really interested in what I had to say and would like to know more. But he just couldn’t pull himself away from pondering how to “play that A-minor with a harmonic that the Allman Brothers nail every time” in one of his favorite two hundred songs of theirs. (I felt so affirmed and self-assured in regard to my teaching abilities after hearing that—defeated by an A-minor with a harmonic. Awesome!)

As a result, while Robbie would often come to our weekly gatherings on Thursday nights, during the talk he’d either play his guitar (outside) or do his best to listen for at least a few minutes.

Then we started a new story.

I don’t remember the topic exactly, but there was something about it that caught Robbie’s attention. And not the two-minute span I was used to seeing, but twenty minutes of attention followed by thirty minutes of dialogue attention. At this point I began wrestling with some of the ideas articulated above. Scientifically, what was it about storytelling that allowed an otherwise hard-to-capture mind like Robbie’s to actively participate in what I was saying? There had to be something to it.

And apparently there is.

I’m not proposing you scratch all your future teaching and permanently teach through story.  I don’t!  But teaching through the art of storytelling is a great communication tool to add to our communication toolbox as we seek to engage and invite our teenagers into the dynamic Story of God.

Action Points


  • Consider teaching your next topic series through story (i.e. sex & dating, forgiveness, etc…)
  • Instead of preparing a three point propositional teaching, begin to build an outline of your story as a modern day parable, while taking into close consideration your audience and context.  As a 1st century Rabbi in the Roman Empire, Jesus was exceptional at this.
  • Create characters, a setting and plot that integrate Scripture and illuminates your topic.  Try to develop characters and setting that your teenagers can relate to and have fun with it!
  • Prepare follow-up discussion questions that unpack your story, which ground it in the everyday realities of your teenagers.
  • Tell your story with confidence and conviction!  You can tell your whole story in one night or you can tell it over the course of a few weeks and build momentum by ending each session on a cliffhanger.  Your teenagers will hardly be able to wait to come back and hear the rest of the story!
  • Follow up with group conversation, questions and dialog that allow the main points of your story to take root in the hearts and minds of your teenagers.

Constantine, Conversion and the Sales Pitch

This is an excerpt from my book, Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling, which releases in paperback today!

As a direct result of these historical events, the teaching of the religious Christians took a turn in a whole new direction. In response to the clinical baptism that had become so common starting with Constantine, preachers and theologians developed a new genre of sermon that contained threat and appeal. Much had to do with not delaying their salvation and was communicated through solemn monologue and increased theatrics. In reference to the awesome‖ and hair-raising writers of the day, it was said, “A powerful emotional and psychological impression [was put] upon the candidates in the hope of bringing about their conversion” (The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship, 219).

I believe many of us teachers and communicators are prime candidates to fall victim to this arrogance within our teaching. For those of us who‘ve taught for extended periods, it may be easy to assume we can just put it on cruise control. We believe we can fall back into the lap of teaching that was once considered effective and expect our beautiful deliveries filled with humor, irony, and drama to clearly communicate the message of Jesus. Or we may believe that since we‘ve been with these teenagers for such a long time, we know what they need—it‘s simply our role as communicators to feed them their needed spiritual meals.

Or how about those of us who just graduated from college or seminary and believe we‘re arguably the best communicators or theologians since Billy Graham? It all seemed so clear in school, and we got lots of A‘s. So now it‘s time for the easy work of harvesting souls, right? Everyone will be blown away by our superior knowledge and charisma and—BOOM! The masses may now come forward.

Gregory of Nazianzus, who was in Asia Minor during the era of Constantine, once offered himself as “the director of your soul.” We must take our roles as pastors, shepherds, teachers, and communicators seriously, but we must never take ourselves too seriously. It‘s not that we can‘t be confident; it‘s that we can‘t be arrogant. Only then can we be fully dependent on the Spirit. May our teaching never take the form of calling our teenagers to an immediate‖ conversion out of our arrogance based on a personal misinterpretation of who we are and how we view our roles.

Further, I believe this “speed it up” mentality in our teaching can be a direct result of our inability to trust in a God who‘s sovereign over every situation and every heart. Again, we begin to take ourselves too seriously. We avoid story because such a method of communication often prevents us from experiencing the satisfaction of spiritedly pounding home our profound points. But so what? Sometimes that intentional focus on a point may be necessary, but it‘s often more powerful and pointed when attained through conversation.

Don‘t get me wrong—this art of storytelling stuff can be hard on our modern, Western mindsets. Slow. Deliberate. Time consuming. Patience trying. It takes humility and willingness to evaluate our own motives and habits as teachers. I hope we‘ll always leave far more room for the Spirit‘s direction than for our own.

Stories of Redemption

This is an article I recently wrote for Youth Specialties that gives a small snapshot into some the heart and content of my book Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling. For the full article, click on the link below.

As I write this, I am traveling internationally seeking to build common ground between two people groups who have demonized one another through polarizing rhetoric and histories of resentment. Behind the caricatures I am amazed at the dynamic human stories of hope and perseverance that share so much in common with one another. In large part, it is the humanity of these stories I am seeking to illuminate with a group of fellow peacemakers.

Jesus lived and taught in a similar context of polarizing rhetoric, warring ideologies and religious division. Whether the militant propaganda of the Roman Empire or the self-righteousness of the Pharisees, each stood as a potential hurdle in the promotion of Jesus’ unifying story and reign of the Kingdom of God.

In the case of warring storylines, both the ancient and modern, the Story of God has the ability to transcend the rhetoric through the continued advance of God’s Kingdom as was inaugurated in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The Story of Jesus’ reign swallows up the stories of infighting and offers a hope that invites all to participate in his Story of restoration. His Story redeems humanities’ stories.

Interestingly, as Jesus shares the good news of the Kingdom, he often employs storytelling that takes into account the warring storylines of his day. As a first century rabbi, he develops brilliant parables (known as Jewish Agada) that are rooted in reality, but are able to transcend the rhetoric and create a common ground that points to the hope of the Kingdom.

To read the rest of the article go to Youth Specialities where the article was originally published.

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