by Bryony Lines
As a member of the Nyra* storying team in Southeast Asia, Ruth has seen God transform many people’s lives through Bible stories. Her colleague June describes sharing the story of the fall with one woman. ‘I felt really satisfied. When I tested the first story, the old woman understood and thought about sin. Her children didn’t want to care for her, so she thought, “This is a result of sin.”’ Through this story, her worldview was beginning to change.
Ruth and her colleagues often spend three or four days travelling by plane, bus, boat, car, and motorbike to run Bible storying workshops around their country. When their children were babies, they brought them along too. Between sessions, they support the workshop participants as they develop sets of oral Bible stories. This can be hard, especially in remote or mountainous areas with limited phone coverage. One of the major challenges is to encourage them to persevere, says Ruth’s teammate Timothy: ‘A good crafting process is necessary for a good story, but it is very difficult when they just want the product [the final story].’
As she continues to demonstrate God’s love for other people groups, Ruth prays for her husband’s people. He is from another ethnic minority, although it’s often considered part of the group she belongs to. After their son was born, she grew closer to her husband. It was then that she began to realise how much their languages and cultures diverged: ‘I noticed different word use, and cognitive differences.’
This people group already consider themselves Christians, she explains, but they mix their faith with the traditional religion. Using another language in church has led to lots of misunderstanding. People don’t realise that Jesus has power over everything, including spirits.
‘People in this area hold many beliefs,’ Ruth says. They believe in spirits of trees, mountain gods and many other spiritual forces. Parents don’t allow children outside after dark for fear that evil spirits will steal their young, vulnerable souls. And when a couple intends to marry, they kill a bull or pig and look at its innards to predict the future; a certain colour indicates a promising future and a healthy family, whereas another predicts death.
A story for every occasion
‘To solve that is not so easy. But we can share a story to connect with them. To see that God is more powerful than what they are afraid of. For every point, we must have a [Bible] story: for the marriage ceremony, how God cares for children…’
This is an important part of the storying process. The team works with communities to identify issues they face, and helps them to select stories that address those issues. For example, in places where there is widespread fear of evil spirits, they might choose the story of Jesus restoring the man possessed by demons in Mark 5.
They also make sure each complete set (usually around 30 stories) covers what a new believer should know. Story sets are told chronologically, and together make up one big story, the story of God redeeming humanity, from creation to new creation.
When a story is approved, the local team records a master copy for future reference. They also begin running story fellowship groups, in which an oral Bible story is used for study and discussion. Group members also memorise the story to share with others.
Ruth knows it will make a big difference to her husband’s people to be able to relate to God in their own language through stories and songs. This is a sensitive issue, though. Many people are not keen to use their own language in church. They feel it’s better to be part of the larger, more powerful group, and to use the same language, as there is strength in numbers. They are united with the larger group in one church denomination, so even the senior leaders are reluctant.
Why do they need it?
Members of the larger group are also cautious of anything that might cause division.
‘They speak our language,’ they say. ‘They understand everything. Why do they need anything else?’ But people clearly don’t understand everything. They don’t understand that Jesus is all they need, and so they mix religions. And there are other challenges when Christians don’t know the Bible well.
‘People don’t know how to share their faith with their children, let alone with non-believing neighbours,’ says regional director Nicholas. ‘It’s helpful to have something that encapsulates a key message, and that’s what Bible stories do.’
Several pastors have said they learnt more about the Bible in one of the week-long storying workshops than in three or four years at seminary. ‘It’s sad in a way,’ says American team member Rebekah, ‘but it really motivates us – not only is there a need for non-believers, but for Christians and pastors too.’
Timothy’s wife and teammate Sarah tells us that people say to her, ‘You are the wife of a pastor; you should go to seminary.’
‘I say, “No need!”’ says Timothy, and everybody laughs. Sarah has memorised about 100 Bible stories in the course of her work.
A story fellowship group
So what are story fellowship groups like? Earlier this year, the team ran a session for a group of Wycliffe staff from the UK, including me, who were curious to experience it first-hand.
Our first challenge: no taking notes. In an oral storying workshop, participants learn by listening and speaking. So we put our pens and our laptops away.
Phoebe, another American team member, begins by telling the story of Elijah competing with the prophets of Baal to settle the question of who is the one true God. It’s a long one: 23 verses from 1 Kings 18:17–39. We’re supposed to remember all of this? But as Phoebe speaks, we see the story.
We chuckle at Elijah’s taunts, and wince inwardly as the prophets of Baal cut themselves until they are covered in blood. The story closes with a hiss of steam and the smell of burning flesh as the Lord’s fire licks up Elijah’s sacrifice, the wood of the altar, and even the water in the trench. ‘And all the people fell to the ground and cried out, “Surely Elijah’s God is the one true God!”’ Phoebe finishes.
‘What did you like about the story?’ she asks, following the usual pattern. ‘I liked Elijah’s jokes,’ offers my colleague Matt.
‘I liked that God answered right away,’ adds Emma.
The discussion continues: What didn’t you like about the story? What does it teach us about human beings? What does it tell us about God? How will you apply it to your life? This stage is about taking it into our hearts – understanding it emotionally as well as intellectually. To help participants learn the story, the team suggests various ways of retelling it – acting, drawing pictures, dancing... This step often helps reserved participants to warm up and join in, too.
We scatter a pot of pens on the table and use them as puppets. ‘You troublemaker!’ the King Ahab says. ‘I’m not the troublemaker – you are!’ replies the Elijah pen. ‘You refuse to worship the Lord, the true God. And what’s more, you lead the people to worship the false god Baal.’
The props were helpful to us, but that’s not always the case. The team recalls one elderly lady who struggled to retell a story using pictures as prompts. ‘Try telling it without the pictures,’ they suggested. Putting the images aside, she told the story fluently. A true oral communicator, asking her to use pictures was like asking a professional cyclist to use stabilisers.
The five women sat in stunned silence. For the last 10 days, they had been eagerly scrambling to be the first to try to retell the oral Bible story they had just heard from memory. But today was different. For the first time they were speechless, their minds whirring as they tried to understand what they’d just heard. Jesus...died?
The Jesus they had heard amazing stories about...the Jesus who had just raised someone from the dead...
‘Why did he die when he was innocent?’ one woman finally asked.
Timothy helped them remember parts of the stories they had learned previously, such as the one in which Isaiah talked about someone who would suffer and die for the sins of many people, sins he did not commit. Then they started remembering parts of other stories that pointed to Jesus’ death and its significance. These Buddhist women, who had only just learned their first Bible stories the previous week, were teaching each other to understand Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Their shock soon turned to amazement about how God had accurately foretold what took place at Jesus’ death.
The next day, when they heard the resurrection story, they were even more surprised…he didn’t stay dead! This is not the kind of story they had expected. They begged Timothy to tell them what would happen next. But he said, ‘You’ll have to come back tomorrow.’
When we come to retelling the story, Ruth and I are partners. As I have never done this before, I go first. I try to get as close to Phoebe’s version as possible, running through the events like a checklist. Ruth points beyond memorisation, though. She explains that in storying workshops, they encourage participants to use their own words, to tell the story in a way that engages listeners, rather than just reciting it.
The stories are deliberately crafted to be memorable. This helps to ensure each retelling is faithful to Scripture as the stories pass from person to person. But the real skill is to tell each Bible story in such a way that it kindles the imagination and stirs the heart. As teller and listener share God’s word, he transforms them both. After all, ‘the word of God is alive and active’. (Hebrews 4:12)
Ruth longs for her husband’s people to experience this transformative relationship with Jesus. But for now she must move carefully. ‘I will just begin with the people who visit my home,’ she says. That’s a lot of people. They live near a hospital and seminary, so for about nine months a year, they have a mixture of short-term and long-term guests. She tells them about how the Lord has used her in this work. If they are curious, she is more than happy to tell Bible stories.
Some of the younger, more junior church leaders are receptive to the idea of using their own language in church. They tend to be the ones visiting the seminary for training. ‘She takes time to invest in them,’ says Rebekah, ‘often using oral stories in their household devotion time in the evening. She has a long-term approach.’ After all, as Ruth says, they may be junior leaders now, ‘But one day, they will be the leaders.’
Wycliffe Singapore supports projects among some of these people groups. Click here if you wish to find out more or support such projects.
*All the names in this story have been changed for security reasons.
Reproduced with permission from Wycliffe UK.