padawanThis week I’m in Orlando for the the Presbyterian Youth Workers’ Association winter symposium and (for my first time) the annual gathering of the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators. I brought my family and my parents met us here, so we’re also having some good fun in Orlando theme parks.

The PYWA symposium was a series of workshops led by Michael Novelli, who has developed (and is still developing) great resources for what he calls “Bible storying.” It’s an experiential and formational approach to teaching the Bible that has much potential. I’ve had his book, Shaped by the Story, on my shelf for a while and just haven’t had a chance to read it. It was great to hear many of the ideas behind his concept of storying and to experience some of it myself. I definitely have some thoughts about how to incorporate this approach into my youth ministry work.

What I find most promising about Bible storying is the potential to help youth (and adults) internalize the Bible story as an operative narrative for understanding life and our place in it. While I’m postmodern enough to be thoroughly suspicious of metanarratives, I also know that our worldviews are shaped by the stories we tell. A major challenge for contemporary post-Christendom Christians is the reality that the Bible story is no longer at the center of American culture and is not naturally learned, known, or understood. So we must be more attentive to how we tell this story such that it becomes a significant lens through which our faith communities perceive and understand the world we live in.

I can’t think of a better place to reflect on the power of stories in our lives than Orlando. Yes, it’s all been heavily commercialized, but this town’s theme parks are based on the magic of entering some of the foundational stories of our culture. Yesterday my family spent some time at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. My four year old son was thrilled to see and meet some of the cartoon characters he loves: Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Lightning McQueen, and Mater. He was also mesmerized by a really cool show in which children get the chance to be “trained” as Jedi padawans. (I hope that next time we are here our schedule allows us to sign him up for this.) During the show, Darth Vader himself shows up to tempt the trainees to cross over to the dark side of the Force. They are coached to resist, of course, and end up besting Vader. I cannot imagine a more immersive way for children to internalize the core story of Star Wars.

At the end of the night, we watched the incredible Fantasmic! show, which I believe is the most profound (and entertaining) demonstration of Joseph Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces” I have ever seen. Mickey Mouse, chanelling a host of Disney heroes, battles the forces of evil embodied in a succession of villains morphing into each other. It was a powerful depiction of how the basic hero quest and good vs. evil monomyth is told told in many different ways through a variety of Disney stories. Everyone from my four year old son to my nearly 68 year old father loved it. And when my son “used the Force” to dispel the monstrous villains in the show, I knew which story he had internalized that day.

I’m not saying that we need Bible theme parks—which actually already exist. But I am saying that if we want the core story of Christian faith to shape our young people, we need to be mindful of how we share and reinforce it.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

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