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Telling God’s Story: Presenting the Bible Orally

“This is a story about God's servant Elisha who lived many hundreds of years before the birth of our Lord Jesus.

Now, one time, there was a famine at his place. During that time, Elijah got a bunch of visitors. Even with the famine going on, Elijah said to his servants, ‘Get a large pot and prepare food for all the guests.’

OK. Strange instruction at the time of famine… but, anyway, the servant started to do what Elisha told him.

One of the guests went out into the fields to look for food as well. He found a plant that he didn't know, but it looked nice, and it had large fruits. So, he picked a lot of these fruits, and he carried home as much as he could. He chopped them into pieces, and he added them to the stew that Elijah's servant was making.

When the meal was ready everybody sat down to eat. But as soon as they took one bite…

Oh, it was horrible! It was so bitter it was impossible to eat!

They spat it out again, and they cried to Elisha, ‘There is death in this food!’

Elijah said, ‘Get me some flour.’

He poured some flour in the pot, and he stirred it. And then all the bitterness was gone and everybody could eat the nice food.

And this is the story which you can read in 2 Kings 4:38-41.”

Irene began the session with this story. She went on to describe how a typical storytelling session would be carried out: telling the story at least twice, sometimes accompanied by drawing pictures, or having the listeners act out the parts. Some details might need more explanation.

Then some questions would be discussed: Why did Elisha ask his servant to prepare food during a famine? What was the motivation of the different people in the story? What were their feelings? Why is it that actions made with good intentions can result in bitterness? What can God do when we make mistakes?

Irene also explained the difference between storytelling to children and to adults – for children, there might be more embellishments such as drama and descriptions to make the story interesting. For adults, the content of the stories is kept close to the Bible text, and they go through a process of checking similar to translating the Bible to make sure that the stories are accurate. However, stories intended for oral retelling use clear and natural language, just as people would use in normal speech. The stories should be easily remembered and be retellable. For many people, stories told in their heart language can be more powerful than sermons as stories have characters that listeners can relate to, and which engage their emotions.

Irene shared about the impact of Bible storytelling that she and her team have witnessed:

Created in God’s image

R and his wife, S, had found it hard to follow the preaching in church as it was in the national language. They knew very little about what was in the Bible. At a Bible storytelling group, they heard the story of God creating the first man and woman. S said that before hearing the story, she had not realised that both men and women were created in God’s image; R said that he had not realised that God intended men and women to fellowship with each other and with God. R resolved to treat his wife better in future! They learned to tell Bible stories, and started a storytelling group in their house, sharing stories with neighbours and relatives. Some of these listeners have become believers.

Intimidated by the big book

SH, an itinerant evangelist, found that the villagers would avoid him when he carried a big book (the Bible) because they were afraid. After he learned to tell oral Bible stories, he could “carry them in his heart” and didn’t need to bring the book when he went to the villages. People started becoming interested in the stories and would welcome him to tell them more.

Especially effective for women

In that traditional culture, women were not permitted to preach or teach. But when they learned to tell Bible stories, they found that storytelling was very effective for evangelism. Many women also found that Bible stories combined with trauma healing were very effective – it enabled them to talk about the heart wounds they had experienced, and the topics discussed encouraged them share their pain and receive healing.

In the country where Irene and her team work, more than 120 language communities have participated in learning Bible storytelling. Some workshops are for crafting the Bible stories in an easily retellable form, and some are for people to learn stories that have already been crafted and checked. In one programme, people learn 24 Bible stories over 3 years, and up to 50 stories by the end of the 6th year. After learning each story, they practise telling them in their communities. Stories are chosen to give a panorama of the Bible from Creation to Jesus, with a few chosen to address specific issues depending on the culture and worldview of that community.

In some of these languages, Bible translation is already ongoing or about to begin. However, many people will always find learning by reading a hurdle because it is not their learning style. Even the more educated find that stories speak to their hearts better than a written text. For many, concepts learned from the Bible text gives head knowledge, but telling stories touches their hearts. Bible storytelling is truly a powerful and effective way to share gospel and learn about God.

About the speaker

Irene has worked in South Asia for over 25 years in Bible translation, the last 14 of them focusing on Bible storytelling. As an Oral Bible Storying consultant, she trains and mentors people to tell stories in their own languages, and also checks their stories for biblical accuracy, naturalness, and clear understanding.

S is a Bible Storying Consultant, and especially focuses on training women as storytellers.

L is a pastor who is also a consultant in training, trains storytellers in several language groups, and uses storytelling in his own church.

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