Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. (Matthew 13:34)
Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea by James Tissot, Wikimedia Commons.
Why Tell Stories?
Who doesn’t love a good story? Storytelling is an age-old art form that teaches about the human experience. When we hear a story, our thinking, emotions, and imagination are engaged, as if we were in the story. It affirms or challenges our beliefs and perceptions by showing us how other people think. It encourages discussion and application of the lessons. And telling stories is an easy way to start sharing the best story of all — the great biblical narrative of God’s plan for Man and the world.
Bible storytelling is not new — Jesus himself constantly told parables (stories) using everyday settings, characters and language to teach spiritual truths.
Why Oral Stories?
Many of those Jesus taught were illiterate or had limited literacy. He did not ask them to brush up their reading skills while he wrote down his teachings! He taught them in the way they could learn best — through stories told orally. Both the Old and New Testaments existed in oral form for years (even centuries, in the case of the OT) before being written down. Researchers have extrapolated from literacy statistics and concluded that over 70% of the world’s population today still relies mainly on oral means to receive information. There are also cultures which have a stronger preference for oral communication over written.
Let me make it clear that I still believe that reading and studying the scripture are important for discipleship, and those who desire to really understand God’s will and character should ideally study the written scriptures for themselves. Neither is it my view that a collection of stories should be considered an adequate substitute for the whole Bible. Every storying project hopes that hearing Bible stories will create in the listeners a hunger and thirst for more of God’s word, and that every people group will eventually have the whole Bible in their language.
However, for non-believers who have low levels of literacy or motivation to read, or those with learning or physical disabilities that make reading difficult, hearing stories is a more accessible way to encounter God’s word. There are also those who simply prefer to hear rather than to read. Even in highly literate societies like Singapore, it is still much more effective to share the gospel in speech rather than with a tract, and there is a strongly felt need to share orally with the elderly in a Chinese dialect, or with migrant workers in their own language.
Written vs Oral Communication
Why not just read the Bible aloud? This suggestion overlooks the distinct differences between oral and textual communication. A written text tends to be more precise, sophisticated and formal. It appeals to more literate and highly motivated readers. However, reading a written text aloud is not a very effective means of communication as listeners are likely to find it boring and will probably forget much of what they hear.
In contrast, spoken communication transmits meaning more effectively. Spoken words and sentences are usually less complex and more natural, and supported by non-verbal cues such as intonation, facial expressions and gestures. Listeners learn by engaging their imaginations and emotions to make sense of what they hear.
Storytelling in Missions
As we seek to reach unreached people groups to “make disciples of all nations”, we have to use methods of communication that fit with their culture and traditions. Bible stories are most effective when they are told, not just orally, but also in the style used for important, true stories in that culture, and may involve music, drama and dance as well.
All storying programmes share a few elements in common: the stories must communicate scriptural truth accurately, be clear in its meaning, be told in a natural manner in the heart language of the hearer, and use a culturally appropriate style.
“Story sets” comprising anything from 20 to 100 or more stories are carefully chosen from across the Bible, and are intended to give listeners an overview of the great truths of the Bible. Understanding the host culture will also guide the choice of stories. For example, stories illustrating the power of God over evil spirits have proven very effective in animistic cultures.
As the stories are crafted, they are repeatedly checked, tested and revised for clarity, accuracy and naturalness until they are judged to be ready for wider use. Bible storytellers are expected to remain faithful to the original meaning and not add or subtract from the contents of each story, and they practise until they can tell each story consistently and accurately. With modern technology, a recording of a “master version” can be stored for reference, and as more people learn the stories, they will be able to check and correct one another.
In the mission field, stories are often told or performed in small group settings followed by a discussion about the story. In this way, the stories involve the hearers’ emotions and imagination, and help them understand more about God and themselves. They are then encouraged to learn to retell the story so they can share them with their friends and relatives. This has proven to be an effective and non-threatening method of evangelism and discipleship, with the potential to develop into a full-blown translation project. After all, everyone loves a good story!