EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Novelli was a full-time youth pastor for 13 years before he launched his own ministry called Echo (echothestory.com), helping both young people and adults learn through the art of “Storying,” an experiential and dialogical approach to growing deep in relationship with God. He now creates learner-centered events (the Merge Conference), resources, and curriculum for children and teenagers. And he’s authored two books—Shaped by the Story and Enter the Story (both published by Zondervan).
GROUP: Can you talk about your history in youth ministry—how you got to where you are today?
Novelli: Well, I didn’t grow up going to church. My twin brother and I got invited to this youth group in high school, and it was just this vibrant community of faith, so we got connected right away. My experience there just kind of catapulted me into ministry. I wanted everyone to have that kind of experience with God. So I studied ministry in college and, during my sophomore year, I started working in a church part-time as a junior high youth pastor and didn’t look back. I spent 13 years as a youth minister and I loved it—every bit of it.
GROUP: So, tell me what led to you leaving an effective youth ministry to do what you’re doing today.
Novelli: Well I never really left local church ministry—I just stopped getting paid (laughs). I’ve been serving with youth continuously for 20 years. A few years back, I was working part-time as a youth minister and I began writing to earn the rest of my living. I discovered a real love for it, especially in the area of designing curriculum and events. But I still help lead the youth ministry at my church. I love being a volunteer—it’s given me a completely different perspective. The teenagers know you’re not there because you’re getting a paycheck to meet with them. They’re more open and responsive. The challenge is that I don’t have a consistent paycheck.
GROUP: Well how are you paying the bills? (laughs)
Novelli: I spend about 50 percent of my time writing curriculum, mostly in youth ministry, but some for adult ministry and some for children’s ministry. And about 50 percent of my time I spend doing workshops and events in the areas of vital storying and experiential learning.
GROUP: Let’s talk about storying and experiential learning—how do you define these things?
Novelli: For a long time in my work with students, I felt that the primary way I could help them grow with God was through teaching and preaching. So I worked really hard at becoming an excellent communicator—I tried to be engaging and entertaining. And about 10 years into creating high-quality programs and being a great communicator, I realized that my preaching didn’t seem to be the most important thing in these students’ lives! It didn’t seem to really be helping them go deeper. And I wasn’t seeing students really integrate the things that I was teaching about, or even really remember the things that I was teaching about. So I began an internal journey, asking myself how I could help these students more than I was. I know that I only have them for a short amount of time; and I know that their parents are really the ones that are forming them spiritually, more than anyone else. But how can I make a difference? So I shifted my focus to create environments where they could take ownership for their own learning. This was modeled to me, ironically, by my wife’s public school classroom. I noticed they were practicing multi-modal learning, stations-based learning, and even teaching math through a narrative filter. I also had an encounter with a Baptist missionary who taught me the art of Bible storying. So I shifted my focus from being a presenter-preacher to really becoming a guide and a coach. And the primary way I started doing this was through storying, a process that’s been used in a missions context for about 30 years. It involves not only imaginative storytelling but also lively dialogue and creative retelling activities—it’s rooted in the Hebrew approach to learning, where you develop keen observation skills as you learn how to listen imaginatively.
GROUP: So let’s go back 10 years, when you were working hard to develop your entertaining presentation skills—how do you prepare differently today?
Novelli: There’s a much greater focus and concern on context. I’ve always been a storyteller, but the stories that I told before were pretty much supportive material for the message, even though that’s not how the students took them. When I would ask students what they got out of a message—I’m not sure you should ever do that, by the way (laughs)—they always remembered the stories I told, but the stories weren’t really the point. So I think I’ve reversed that mindset—the biblical stories are really the centerpiece of my ministry now. I let the stories be the focal point, and learning is driven out of that. I help guide students out of the story through reflective exercises that help draw out the observations and the meaning.
GROUP: Right now you’re reaching an audience of youth workers who are looking for anything that will help them be more effective. Help them understand how to get started in this process you’re describing. Let’s pick a story from John 5—Jesus walking to the pool of Bethesda. How would you engage teenagers around that story?
Novelli: Well, before I get into John 5, I’m going to paint a picture of the biblical context of what’s happening through a video, or art, or a story that I’ll tell. I’d tell the story in John 5 as a story, as close to the biblical passage as I possibly could. I’d do what I call “stitching together.” I’ll tell the story in five to seven minutes, right from the Scriptures, but I’ll stitch together parts of it—I’ll smooth over some of the language of it. From there, I give students an opportunity to play with the story, maybe think about it from different perspectives, or maybe they retell it, or maybe they imagine themselves as a character in the story. I think the entry point to the dialogue is imagination—you’ve gotta ask them what they see, what they sense, what they think as they put themselves in that story. You’re leading them in a process of integrating the story into their own lives, and you do that through intentional questions.
GROUP: What are those intentional questions?
Novelli: I use three different kinds of questions—wondering questions, remembering questions, and connecting questions. And I usually use them in that order. Wondering questions are: “What did you notice about this story? What did you see in your mind as you listened to the story?” Remembering questions are: “Now what did Moses say when God said, ‘I want you to go and talk to Pharaoh’?” A connecting question is: “What does it mean that we’re created in the image of God?” At the heart of this approach to teaching is imagination and wonder—these are the fuels that drive learning. When we stop wondering and being curious about things, we stop learning. C.S. Lewis said, “Imagination is the organ of meaning.”
GROUP: What does your prep look like now? How has it changed?
Novelli: I think it’s less anxiety-riddled. I was taught to teach in an expository way, and that always made me very anxious. Did I pull up the right points here? Am I using the right illustration? Some of that’s my own neurosis, I understand. But there was this tremendous pressure for me to be the answer-guy—to tell people exactly what a Bible passage says and how it should apply to their lives. Now I feel so much more free because I’m trying to help people engage the Scriptures on their own, to really see the story for what it is, to guide people toward their own learning. That doesn’t mean it’s easier; I spend a lot of time learning the background and context of the story. And I spend a lot of time thinking about intentional and deep questions that are going to help draw out learning from students.
GROUP: What does it feel like to lead students through a “dialogue” instead of simply talking at them?
Novelli: Leading a dialogue is such an intriguing process; I compare it to flying a kite. There’s this give-and-take—I believe the Holy Spirit moves that kite around and imagination moves that kite around and then, sometimes, it heads for a tree and you’ve got to draw it back in by asking a question like: “Where did you see that in the story?”
GROUP: So you’re talking about two skill sets that we need to practice and learn and implement. One is storytelling, and one is the dialogue leader in the learning community.
Novelli: Right. For us preacher-types, the storytelling side is a harder adjustment. But I’ve been developing that skill and I’m starting to enjoy it. Dialogue is something I’ve always loved and been good at. It’s the most important skill for leading student ministry in the future—becoming excellent at asking questions and leading dialogue.
GROUP: Let’s say you’re walking into a youth ministry with five to 10 adult leaders, and you’re trying to teach them this approach to teaching. What resistance will you face?
Novelli: The first thing I do is give them an experience of this kind of process to help them see how they will benefit as learners—that is extremely disarming. Usually there’s a little anxiety about using imagination questions, and whether things could get out of control. So we talk a lot about flying the kite—it’s a guided discussion, not a free-for-all.