Nestled in the heart of the Rockies, a couple dozen college students gather around a campfire to tell stories. For students on StoryRunners® Rocky Mountain Summer Mission, these stories are not about past adventures or embarrassing moments. They’re telling and learning about the life of Jesus.
Jake Rankey, a student on the StoryRunners® Rocky Mountain Summer Mission, talks about how his dyslexia affects how he studies the Bible.
Surrounded by cascading mountains and glistening lakes, hikers from all over the world hear gospel stories. Unlike most ministry tools, these stories aren’t told from a booklet or an app or even a Bible. Students learn the stories from Scripture with the objective of sharing them from memory.
StoryRunners serves oral communicators across the globe. An oral communicator is someone who learns and understands information best from oral storytelling, rather than a written form of communication. Through Story Fellowship Groups, StoryRunners trains and equips local community members to facilitate conversations about God’s Word without needing a written copy.
Though oral communicators are common among unreached people groups, storying is a technique that can be used anywhere. According to Todd Norvell, a StoryRunners staff member, storying has immense potential with younger generations.
“In Western culture, the millennial generation and Generation Z don’t learn through reading books; [they] learn through interaction and connection with people,” Todd said.
By telling stories rather than using a physical Bible, spiritual conversations and Bible studies are more accessible to the average person.
“A lot of people have a negative association with Christians and with Scripture, but telling a story, people’s curiosity gets the best of them a lot of times, so it’s a lot easier to start up a conversation,” said Ellie*, a student on the mission in 2018.
In 2019, 17 students participated in StoryRunners’ Summer Mission. For 10 days, students learned Bible stories and how to share them with hikers they encountered along the trails of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
Maria Pickerill (left) and Katlynn Gilmore practice sharing their faith through the Knowing God Personally booklet. Each morning, students learn to use different stories and evangelism tools before hitting the trails to tell hikers about Jesus.
Katlynn relates a StoryRunners® story using hand motions. Students study eight stories over the course of 10 days.
Jake Rankey’s journal reveals how he best remembers the stories. Storyboarding helps him. “It’s just what my brain pictures,” he said. “Because of my dyslexia, I didn’t think I would learn best by just sitting down and plowing through the Bible. So I was really intrigued by the other ways the Bible could be told.”
Student Kortny Overhiser shares the story called “Astonishment: Jesus Calms the Storm” with hikers in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Sarah Castor (center right) leads a Story Fellowship Group in the StoryRunners® camp. Instead of reading from a text, participants recount and discuss a Bible story. These groups are nearly identical to what StoryRunners teams pull together for oral communicators across the globe.
Noah Franklin (standing) participated in the StoryRunners® Summer Mission as a student. “[Storying] completely changed how I view sharing the gospel,” Noah said.
Kortny Overhiser and Gerardo De La Cruz practice storying with hand motions. As individuals learn different techniques, they come up with their own hand gestures for some stories as a way to both remember and teach more effectively.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a major tourism destination, especially for hikers. This is, in part, why StoryRunners® chose this location for their stateside summer mission. The volume of people and the diversity of tourists at the park give students an opportunity to share stories with people from all walks of life.
An elk walks behind students in the campground. Though days are spent on the trails of Rocky Mountain National Park, StoryRunners® staff members and students set up camp for their seven-night stay in tents and RVs, surrounded by other hikers and families visiting the park.
Storying doesn’t end on the trails. Kirk Wrobley (speaking) shares a story with a family staying in the same campground as the StoryRunners® group.
Students gather for a pancake dinner, camp style. As a young believer, Jake was encouraged to see the passion his summer mission peers have for the gospel.
Summer mission students share work at their Glacier Basin campground.
During the summer mission, students adapt to camp life. Because it’s a group campsite, staff and students share a wide-open space with other large camping groups.
Students gather to roast marshmallows, make s’mores and talk about the day’s events.
Kirk, Noah and Jake gather in their tent at night to study the Bible together by the light of their headlamps. Some language used in the Bible can be tricky for people who don’t believe to understand. To avoid confusion, StoryRunners® selects common words to describe biblical themes. For example, instead of using the word “Messiah,” a StoryRunners storyteller might say “teacher,” “promised Savior” or “Jesus” to maintain clarity.
The sun paints passing storm clouds as it sets. The beautiful landscape of Rocky Mountain National Park appeals to many students as they consider Cru® summer missions.
Jake leads Arel Neuenschwander, Marissa Buechler and Leah Golde across a river as they look for hikers. “I felt that, because I was so new in my walk with the Lord, I needed to have an educational summer mission,” Jake said. “When I heard about StoryRunners®, I thought it was perfect. I learn best orally and I’ve always been taught stories by my parents, so I thought it would be a very good fit.”
Arel (left) and Kortny (sitting) take a break and high-five hikers as they pass by, encouraging them along their journey. Kortny appreciates the simplicity of the StoryRunners® Bible stories and the way they highlight universally relatable topics. “Everyone can listen to a story and pull something out of it,” she said. “I want to bring that skillset — that relational but also really intentional way of sharing my faith — into whatever God has for me next.”
Katlynn (left) shares a story with two women taking a break on the trail. One appeal of storying as an evangelism tool is its accessibility. “It’s a great seeker study to have,” Todd said. “Nobody has to be embarrassed about not knowing how to find things, or if they don’t know much about the Bible, that’s fine. We’re just talking about the woman at the well and Jesus’ interaction with her.”
Lea Thompson (left) and Kortny share a story with a hiker near Bear Lake. Jake said he encountered an older couple while on the trail who seemed to have lost hope in the younger generation, but after talking with him and his group, “They were so touched to see college students who were able to have the courage and faith to go out and share the Word of God,” Jake said. “We ended up praying with them, and one of the ladies actually ended up in tears by how moved she was and how inspired she was by us.”
Students shared the story of Jesus calming the storm with hikers from India. People from all over the world travel to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. One student, Arel, even shared part of a story in French with a different group of hikers. The stories used by StoryRunners® are available in many languages on their website.
After hiking for five miles, students stop at Sky Pond to take a break. While most of their days on the trail are spent on mild hikes, one day is dedicated to doing a more extreme hike. Sometimes, students and hikers connect and spend the rest of the day hiking together, often continuing spiritual conversations as they go.
Arel, Marissa and Leah pause along the trail. Though students may not always witness someone come to Christ during their conversations, the people they talk to are left with food for thought. It’s common to run into people along the trail more than once; occasionally hikers will mention that they’re still thinking about a story they heard.
StoryRunners® students join a troop of Boy Scouts who stay in the same campground. The troop leader noticed the students worshipping and asked them to join his group. Summer mission students explained what they were doing in the park and shared a couple of stories with the troop alongside worship.
Elk are common in Rocky Mountain National Park. Staff members and students kept food and scented toiletries, like toothpaste, safely tucked away so they wouldn’t attract bears or mountain lions.
*Name changed for security purposes.
How have you used stories to share Jesus with others?
Sarah Wontorcik serves as a journalist with Cru® in Orlando. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a degree in journalism. She is inspired by stories of God moving in extraordinary ways through ordinary people.
Ted loves zigzagging the globe, capturing photos and stories of what God is doing. Originally from California, he serves as a missionary photojournalist with Cru® in Orlando, Florida. Ted also ministers to international scholars who come to Orlando to study.