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Stories

Behind the Scenes: Testing Stories

by Jamie


“If Jesus is supposed to be the saviour of the world, why is there COVID?”

Our story testers had prepared some questions to ask a non-believer about the story of Jesus’ birth – but they didn’t expect her to have hard-hitting questions too! This question led to a long, unplanned conversation. This was during a testing session, which is a necessary step following the story-crafting process. We asked our storying team some questions about testing stories.

What is testing, and why do it?

Like any other new product, every story needs to be “piloted” before it is published for general use. Is what the hearers understand from the story indeed what the crafters intended for them to understand?

Testing is important because the story crafters and facilitators come from a “churched” background. Certain concepts that are familiar to them may be foreign to “unchurched” hearers and create misunderstandings. Testing helps us to know what needs to be revised.

Who do you test the stories with?

The best way to test a Bible story is to tell it to someone who is not familiar with Christianity, and find out what they understand from hearing it. The ideal person to test stories with is an uninitiated native speaker (UNS) – “uninitiated” meaning that they have little or no knowledge of Bible stories or Christianity. This is to reduce the possibility that the UNS is interpreting the story correctly based on prior knowledge. If the UNS can understand the story in the way that it was intended, then we know that the story was crafted well, and not because the UNS already knew the “right answers”.

What insights do you get from testing?

Testing gives us valuable feedback about the UNS’s worldview, the language used in the story, the organisation of the story, and so on. There could be many reasons why misunderstandings occur. Some of these can be very funny, but they can also lead to serious conversations!

For example, a UNS concluded that God’s name was David! We had been discussing what “Son of David” meant, and she said that since she had heard that Jesus was the Son of God, this was her conclusion. We all had a good laugh, but it does show how much we Christians take for granted.

At other times, the UNS’s interpretation of a story can reveal deep differences between a Christian and a non-Christian worldview. When we tested the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the UNS found it hard to understand that Jesus was critiquing the self-righteousness of the Pharisee – surely, since the Pharisee was the one who prayed and fasted and tithed, he must be the “good guy” in the story!

Other misunderstandings occur because a particular word or phrase may have connotations that the crafters didn’t think of. In the story of the annunciation of Jesus’ birth, the translation of the phrase “the Holy Spirit will come on you” (Luke 1:35) in Teochew made the UNS conjure up images of a tangki (Chinese spirit-medium) being possessed by a spirit – which is certainly not what the crafters intended to convey.

What goes on in a testing session?

The testing session has a few sections. First, we play a recording of the story one or more times to the UNS. Next, we ask for general impressions of the story. To check for comprehension of the story, the UNS is asked to retell the story in their own words. Finally, we ask some inference questions to find out how the UNS has interpreted the story. The answers to these questions are not found in the story itself, and there may not even be a right answer to the questions.

Sometimes, a UNS may ask if their interpretation is “correct”. We remind them that we are testing the story, not the listener. If the story is hard to understand, it’s not their fault! We also refrain from jumping in to correct misconceptions at this point, as we want to hear what they think first.

An example: Jesus’ birth (Matt 1:18-25)

Here are some of the questions that we prepared for testing this story:

  • What do you understand about angels? What do you think is their relationship to God?

  • What/who do you think is the “Holy Spirit”? What does it mean that the child is from the “Holy Spirit”?

  • Why do you think Mary’s pregnancy would be shameful?

  • According to your understanding of Teochew culture, is there any significance when someone appears in a dream? How would people normally react to such dreams?

Finally…

After a testing session, the story crafters consider all the feedback, then revise the story in order to produce a clear, accurate and natural retelling. It may be tested more than once before it is considered ready to be used in church groups, or played to non-believing relatives and friends.

The process of testing isn’t only about the results. Just as importantly, it is an opportunity to bring the gospel to people who might otherwise not be open to hearing about God. It is also a way to reach out to the non-believing listeners and build relationships with them.

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