Can Stories Really Change the World?

From Jeff: This is a guest post from Chris Marlow. Chris is the Director of Help One Now, a nonprofit that seeks to end extreme poverty and injustice. You can connect with Chris on Twitter @ChrisMarlow or via his blog.

If only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy…
—Mumford & Sons 

One of the greatest dangers in our world is apathy. I’ve dealt with my fair share of it, as have most people.

Stories Change the World
Photo credit: Dennis Photography (Creative Commons)

Through that experience, I’ve learned compassion isn’t something that comes naturally to most of us. We have to learn to do good, seek justice, and right wrongs.

And story plays a critical part in that process.

Have you ever marveled at people who adopt orphans or take care of widows? How they seemingly serve without any hesitation?

Maybe that’s not the whole story. Maybe they’re not Mother Teresa reincarnate. Maybe they’ve just been practicing compassion longer than the rest of us. And maybe we can do the same.

We are all called to this

My faith compels me to serve those who are suffering, to love the unlovely. But this is a universal calling — to serve your fellow man and woman, to reach out to those in need.

But this calling is often easy to ignore. Sometimes, it’s too simple too painful to pay attention to. The reality is it’s impossible to ignore; pain is all around us. Here’s the good news:

Each of us can make a difference in the world — if we choose to open our eyes and hearts to being moved.

Yes, it will hurt. But the joy of doing the right thing is always worth the pain of discomfort. Trust me. Apathy is, indeed, an enemy. But there is a way to destroy such an adversary.

How do we vanquish this foe? With story.

Storytelling can crush apathy

I know the power of story firsthand. I remember watching a video from Invisible Children in 2007 and weeping bitterly over the story of Emmy.

For the first time, the plight of the poor had become real to me. After watching the 11-minute documentary, I wanted to jump on a plane to Africa and help Emmy and his mother (who was dying of AIDS). A few months later, I did.

When I arrived in Africa, I didn’t find Emmy, but I found hundreds of starving orphans in Zimbabwe. And I didn’t stop there.

Story helps you find your purpose

This launched me headlong into my calling, my life’s work.

Because of one single story, thousands of lives have been changed through Help One Now, the nonprofit I helped found. And it continues to guide me in my life as I seek to live a good story.

I don’t know you or what you’re called to do, but I’m guessing story has some part to play in your life.

Why is story so powerful?

Story is the pathway to connection. Give me a stat, and I don’t give a damn. Tell me a story, and I weep like a baby. (If you agree, you might want to tweet that.)

We are most alive when we live in the midst of great stories. And this is why art has been thrust back into the forefront of humanity, why we are seeing a resurgence of world-changing movements catalyzed by creativity.

Storytellers are the prophets and poets of the 21st Century. The pen (or keyboard), film, photography, music, art — they all inspire us to live better lives, empathize with those who are suffering, and call us to do something about it.

Story drives action and mission

Reality can be painful, but story can point us forward. It gives insight to our indifference and compels our hands and feet to move towards action.

Many artists and storytellers are stepping up to tell stories that matter. But there is a whole world full of suffering and injustice out there. We need your help.

Everyone has a story; we know this. Somewhere in you, there is a story waiting to be a told. But there is also another story waiting for you — out there in the world where people don’t have access to the tools you and I take for granted.

It may be a story of poverty or injustice or incredible suffering. This is a story that needs to not only be told but transformed. And someone needs to start the change. Will it be you?

Become a part of rewriting the story in Haiti. After the earthquake, a group of 120 children lost everything. Some lost parents, others homes, and all of them lost their school. Help leave a legacy by contributing to a project that will change the future of Haiti. Find out more here.

What’s the story you’ve been given to tell? Share in the comments.

48 thoughts on “Can Stories Really Change the World?

  1. Great post.  Stories are powerful.  They connect us even when we might not think we have anything else in common.  Pain and struggle is universal and it has a way of connecting hearts.  Thanks.

  2. My story about being the child victim of a cult, although no best-seller yet, strikes a deep chord with many who read it.  It’s an emotional roller-coaster about the healing process from any sort of abuse in life and readers almost always report a sense of catharsis after reading it.  This is a great feeling: knowing that I was able to take my own unfortunate circumstances and weave it into a captivating story that can help others to heal.  What a gift.  “A Train Called Forgiveness” is the first of a trilogy about forgiveness, mercy, and redemption. 

    1. I looked up your title on Google & found an excerpt. I will read the book, not only because I’m personally invested in the topic — but because your life sounds like a study in bravery. Your courage living your childhood, and your courage leaving your childhood and its scars, on a train both real and metaphorical.

      1. Thanks, Kendrick.  It took me 30+ years to get to the point of writing and publishing the story, but I believe it’s a task I was given and that others may benefit form the story as well.  Thanks for looking it up.  I hope you find the book honest and thought-provoking.   

  3. The crazy thing is that I ‘ve written about love and apathy for the last few days too! I think if we got a hold of real love, and practiced it in our everyday, walking around life like never before, then the world would never be the same! Someone once said “all we need is love” and I know that this is true. Love can overcome even the darkest fear and when love “does” apathy does not stand a chance. 

  4. I had to opportunity to travel to Kazakhstan for the first time at the age of 17. Ever since that trip and along with the other 3 trips I have taken there, I am telling the story of orphans. 

  5. I find apathy hard to understand – bewildering sometimes. Apathy and ignorance can be just as wicked as abuse  in its results. It has sent me into the deepest depths of despair, on occasion. Was I born with the ‘compassion gene’ switched permanently to ‘on’? I don’t know. I have had to learn that I can’t save the world, but if I can help challenge people to think differently, maybe it will have been worthwhile. If such a thing is possible. Thanks for posts such as these, Jeff. You have no idea how much they are worth. God bless.

    1. Sandy, 

      A agree. We can’t change the world in the way we wish the world would be. (our worldview) But apathy leads selfishness and serving leads to impact and change. Inch by inch is my motto. 🙂 

  6. This was brilliant, Chris. Story not only got you started on a path to making change, but I imagine that story is the primary means you use to recruit others into your non-profit.
    Do you think it’s good for stories to be backed up by statistics? I can very much get the emotional connection of a good story, but if someone were to come back with a statistic – something like “54% of children live like Emmy” – then I could see it really having a profound impact.
    One of the potential downsides of story, especially for large movements, is that many become suspicious that these are isolated events not representative of the whole. I was wondering if you had used statistics or other info to help with that.

    1. Loren, 
      Yes. Stats have a vital role. We believe in high transparency  Stats/data are used to process if the mision is on course and if we are solving the problems that we desire to solve. 

      Story moves people to action, data helps define the direction of the mission and what changes need to be made. 

  7. My life was forever changed when my wife and I were part of a church plant that adopted a low income housing project.  To be honest, the first time we reached out to the families I was motivated more by doing the “right thing” than by compassion. However, when my story collided with theirs, I was forever changed.  Often, to overcome apathy, we have to activate our will and step out our front door. We cannot live our world changing stories from the couch.

  8. It does the heart good hearing someone address apathy.  The Seven Deadly Sins grew out of The Eight Bad Thoughts gnostic ammas and abbas taught as they wandered the desert after the death of their Savior.  The Bad Thought that was lost was acedia, which is apathy or dejection.  Apathy is a danger point, and we seem to have traveled to that point in droves. 

    I’ve been given several stories to tell, but the one I keep telling over and over is the value and power of a father’s love.  I couldn’t see that story until I’d finished three major projects, all diverse but identical in theme.  Now I’ve moved to the rural South and the heart of American poverty.  Generational poverty.  My husband is a teacher and I substitute.  The stories we see are shattering, the loss of so much youth into the abyss of hopelessness heartbreaking.  We’re still in a state of shock and getting our footing, but we both feel we can’t have been thrown into the midst of this without having some responsibility, some call to tell the story in one way or another.  The only thing that can stop us is getting used to what we’re seeing.  Becoming apathetic. 

  9. The story I have share is one of witnessing drug abuse, physical abuse, a broken home, and how anyone can overcome it.  That your background and upbringing doesn’t determine your outcome.

    Also a hope for orphans, how children are suffering without parents, and that we can make a positive impact.

  10. My story is still being written.  I turned 40 at the end of September and have dedicated my year to doing spiritual and corporal works of mercy.  If you told a few months ago I would be doing something like this I would not have believed it.  In such a short time I have learned so much about myself by learning about others suffering.  One of the simplest and most significant things I have learned is that I can make a difference.  Once you really understand that, apathy becomes something you strive to eradicate in others, because it no longer exists within yourself.  I share my experiences serving others at

  11. Yes, I have seen first hand the power of stories.  I’ve been sharing the stories of the homeless in my community and now am writing a book. A homeless outreach has started months ago at our bridge, down the highway from you in BG. My post today shows some of the successes of that ministry.  We would love to have you come visit us at our bridge…just 45 minutes away;)

  12. I agree wholeheartedly! I have so many stories to tell, but have no idea where to start. Do I go back to the very beginning and tell some childhood stories, or do I start when I was homeless? I’m just not sure which direction to go and this has kept me from telling it. You have presented some excellent things to ponder. Thanks so much for such a heartwarming and beneficial post. Great job!! Thanks for all you do.

    Deb 🙂

  13. So true, stories are so powerful. For years I traveled around sharing this powerful ministry I was a part of. And women would nod and listen. But they looked a bit glazed over. Then I started telling them my story…and invited them to share their stories. And that’s when the tears flowed and the warmth and connection filled the room. In some ways, this is the difference between telling and showing. 

  14. this posting is so true – and we must learn to be loving , compassionate – and willing to become involved. But sin keeps us from loving and acting we need God’s help 

  15. Deeply grateful for the stories that have shaped and continue to shape me and my family. Grateful that we’ve been able to be part of a great story together my friend!

  16. I’m working on my story right now…a memoir of life growing up with some craziness in Detroit, my fallen city.  But I’m also really trying to figure out the BEST way to tell story on my blog…basically how do I craft a good blog story (I confess, Jeff, that I’ve been trying to write for everyone and in some ways has very much been to my detriment).  Anyway, I believe what your saying here, Chris with my whole heart and i pray I’ll be able to not only tell a good story, but write a good story & ultimately LIVE a good story.  a kingdom worthy story.

  17. Story is everything.  We are story.  We relate to story.  Story makes us who we are and to answer your question, YES, stories can change the world.


  18. I just finished teaching a class at our church, Writing Your God Story. I was astounded by the stories of my students. They’ve been in the darkest of places and now they’re living God-transformed lives. People need to read stories of transformation. It gives them hope that they can leave their dark places. I’m sold on the power of story.

  19. This is just what I felt deep down in my heart, but was afraid to believe in, and manifest  Thank you for being my everyday inspiration.

  20. Just to verify what you have said, I recently posted the story behind a raggedy ol’ table I always kept on my front porch and which later moved to my son’s back porch. He happened to read the post and commented: “Now that I know the story behind that old table, I just might give it another coat of paint.”

    You are right, Jeff.

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