by Tom Steffen
Please, tell us your stories, the villagers said to the newcomers. The villagers were all silent and smiled as the Enlightened began telling the truth. But they did not tell stories.
Please tell your stories, the villagers said to the newcomers. The villagers were all silent and smiled as the Enlightened began telling the truth. But they did not tell stories. They opened thick books, treatises, commentaries, confessions—the crystallized results of their work. And it is reported that, as they spoke, the stars began to fade away till they disappeared, and dark clouds covered the moon. The sea was suddenly silent and the warm breeze became a cold wind. (Alves 1990, 71)
The above quotation reflects all too well my own experience among the Ifugao of the Philippines. They wanted stories; I gave them systematic theology. They wanted relationships; I gave them reasons. They wanted characters; I gave them categories. And the stars began to fade away, the warm breeze turned into a cold wind, clouds covered the moon’s brightness; that is until the Ifugao reintroduced me to the power of story. This article documents my surprising, and sometimes reluctant journey into evangelistic use of narrative. Its application will extend far beyond tribals to include postmoderns.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
The Ifugao must receive credit for rerintroducing1 me to another way of learning—story. They challenged my take-it-for-granted understanding of the way people learn, forcing me to reconsider the pedagogical method I had unconsciously accepted. We tend to teach as we were taught; I was no exception. The teaching I received focused heavily on the cognitive, presented in a logical manner (at least to me). The only problem was that the Ifugao did not find my Enlightenment-based logic or emphasis on the cognitive either appealing or logical. More importantly, they could not reproduce it.
The Ifugao did not appreciate the mental gymnastics I forced them to do in order to follow my teaching. The gospel message was lost in my pedagogy. I had two basic choices: (1) keep on with what I was doing and distance my hearers, or (2) become a learner and change. I chose the latter. That decision began a journey like that of Abraham’s—I had no idea where it would lead me. How could I have missed it? It seemed so obvious—the Ifugao learn through stories. From birth to death, stories play the predominant role in socialization, teaching beliefs and behaviors that separate them from other people groups. This flew directly in the face of the learning theory I had accepted. After all, I considered stories as entertainment, designed for children, and frowned on by adults. If stories were to be effective, a professional storyteller became necessary. Certainly they could not be used to teach theology.
My formal educators rewarded abstract, linear thinking, not stories that integrated the imagination, emotions and facts. Stories were viewed as subjective, messy, open to multiple interpretations. From these mentors I learned to read the Bible as a textbook, to value word studies and to marshal proof-texts to construct “objective” truth. Their bias soon became my bias, as evidenced in the volumes that comprised my library.
After some experience on the mission field, however, I came to appreciate the evangelistic value of story. Two seemingly contradictory theories then fought for supremacy in my mind: definitions or descriptions, categories or characters, left brain or right brain thinking, rationality or relationships, explanations or events, propositional statements or the stories about people.
I decided to buy into stories, but not completely. I simply added stories to my linear, propositional lessons. The Ifugao considered this a good first step, but insufficient. More negotiation took place as I wrestled with the pros and cons of story. I was deeply influenced by my Philippine missionary colleague, Trevor McIlwain. His Chronological Teaching model,2 a seven-phase story presentation of biblical theology designed to integrate evangelism and follow-up, caught my attention. I began experimenting with the use of stories alone, relying on the discussion that followed for feedback. Now I was getting somewhere. Not only could the Ifugao grasp what I was teaching, they were also able to effectively communicate it to others. For the first time I felt a church-planting movement among the Ifugao was actually a possibility.
That initial use of story taught me an important lesson. I soon discovered that missionaries were translating McIlwain’s sixty-eight evangelism lessons (Phase 1) verbatim. I knew that this would not work among the Ifugao because it was too many lessons. The Ifugao are busy people and would never attend that many lessons. A second reason was their focus on animal sacrifices, something virtually absent among the Palawanos among whom McIlwain ministered. The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18) was a must inclusion for the Ifugao. This led me to conclude that effective cross-cultural storytellers do not begin by translating or telling existing stories. Rather, they must first engage in 1) story analysis (learning how the particular audience tells stories), and 2) story crafting (designing challenging, contextualized stories). While both of these activities take time and personnel, we found the results well worth the effort. But is story more than just a powerful pedagogical tool?
HOW LITERACY BLINDS LITERATES
My narrative journey continued after our ministry among the Ifugao. The experiences I enjoyed with illiterate and semi-literate Ifugao3 made me wonder how literacy may have short-circuited the role of narrative for literates. M.T. Clanchy’s observation intrigued me: “The most difficult initial problem in the history of literacy is appreciating what preceded it” (1993, 1). I soon concluded that the Western educational system had little appreciation for oral tradition, and that this bias placed blinders on literates in a host of ways.
SACRED SCRIPTURES AND NARRATIVE
I began to wonder about the percentage of narrative found in the Bible and the sacred texts of other major religions. I soon discovered that between sixty-five to seventy-five percent of the Bible is in the narrative genre. This raised a number of questions that would consume my thinking, teaching and writing. Why do so many seminaries and training institutions require numerous courses in systematic theology but give little attention to biblical theology, and virtually overlook narrative theology altogether? Is the absence of a narrative perspective of Scripture, one of the main reasons evangelicals give the New Testament (twenty-five percent of Scripture) most favored nation status over the Old Testament (seventy-five percent)? Why does most Western evangelism begin in the New Testament?4 Why is our understanding of Christianity so truncated? Why has the awe of God been virtually lost? Why is it that homiletic courses usually use stories to illustrate the three-point sermon rather than as the main point of the sermon? Does the narrative genre play as strong a role in other sacred texts outside of Christianity? Why did God choose to deliver his word predominantly through narrative? What does this teach about God’s character? What does this teach us about teaching his Word? Why do we tend to teach doctrines as abstract ideas rather than through the lives of concrete characters?
ACADEMIC DISCIPLINES AND NARRATIVE
I then attempted to discover the use of narrative in the various disciplines, such as anthropology, psychology, business, medicine, apologetics, history. Business was replete with books that promoted the use of story to cast vision and values, tell the stories of heroes and heroines and provide cautionary tales to encourage preferred behavior within the organization. Anthropology, slower to enter the game, is definitely on its way. Anthropologist Paul Bohannan raises some serious questions.
The mainstream of cultural anthropology is only just beginning to ask: How do we use stories? How do other peoples use stories?…Does such a concern with story take us the next step beyond fieldwork? (1995, 151, 150)
While psychology may be the strongest in its use of narrative, I soon discovered that every major discipline relies heavily on narrative to convey its ideas. I wondered if the evangelical church would be the last to jump on board. To address this question I designed a graduate course for the School of Intercultural Studies of Biola University in 1995 entitled “Narrative as an Educational Methodology.” Two texts were written to support the course, Reconnecting God’s Story to Ministry (1996) and Business as Usual in the Missions Enterprise? (1999). I wrote the latter in narrative format, realizing it was time to practice what I preached.
WORLDVIEW, IDENTITY AND NARRATIVE
Another area that I chose to investigate was the role that narrative plays in the construction and reconstruction of reality and relationships. A number of influential writers argue forcibly that one’s worldview and identity is story-based. For example, MacIntyre’s After Virtue, J. Bruner’s The Culture of Education, editors Hauerwas and Jones’ Why Narrative?, and Fisher’s Human Communication as Narration all argue for the formation of “worldview-by-means-of-story.” But I felt that these writers overlooked the powerful foundational role of symbol as developed by anthropologists such as Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz. For that reason I chose to state it this way: “symbol-based narrative constructs and reconstructs individual and community social values and social relations” (1998). Since symbol-based narrative serves as a metaphor for life, it behooves missionaries to collect and analyze the stories of the people they wish to reach with the gospel. As I will show below, investigating stories and related symbols just may be one of the strongest, integrative means of cultural analysis.
GOD AND NARRATIVE
It was time to identify narrative’s connection to God, if such a connection existed. While Scripture is multi-genre, narrative dominates. Why did the Lord make such a choice? If symbol-based narrative provides the foundation for people’s identity and worldview, from where did that originate? Fisher provides a starting point when he calls the human race homo narrans (1987, 62). People, by design, he claims, are storytelling animals. While my experience confirmed this, I felt compelled to go beyond Fisher. We are storytelling animals because the greatest Storyteller of all created us. The human race, made in God’s image, is homo narran because the Creator is Deus narran. God and narrative are inseparable. More of the disconnected narrative dots came together.
RELATIONSHIPS AND NARRATIVE
I discovered the interrelationship between learning culture, building long-term relationships and narrative quite by accident. As I took the time to listen to the personal and collective stories of the Ifugao I was not only learning their worldview and identity, but more importantly, these times laid the foundation for building deep relationships with key members of the society. While I began the process by collecting stories randomly I soon realized that to paint a more accurate picture of Ifugao reality and relationships I would have to collect numerous stories that represented both genders and each generation from the different geographical areas.
Requesting to hear the stories of Ifugao led automatically to story swapping as they wanted to hear my story. Just as the Ifugao stories helped me to understand their culture, so my stories helped the Ifugao to understand this “longnose.” If story swapping proved so valuable in building relationships and defining worldview, would not telling one’s faithstory (testimony) do the same?
FAITH STORIES AND NARRATIVE
More dots began to connect in the nebulous world of narrative. If symbol-based narrative is foundational to the (re)constructing of one’s worldview and identity, would not the same be true of one’s faithstory? Would not faithstories begin to define the ideological differences that separate traditional Ifugao from those who follow Christ, as well as establish acceptable spiritual behaviors for the young community of faith? I began to collect the faithstories of Ifugao, many of which were sung for me, looking for repeated terms and themes from the different genders and generations. This was not difficult because most followers of Christ were anxious to tell their story (experiential apologetics) to anyone who would listen. I never had to convince or challenge them to tell their stories as story telling happened naturally. With no evangelistic outline or supporting verses to memorize (evidential apologetics), anyone could witness for Christ just by telling their faithstory.
I found that personal testimonies were stories with which all could in some way identify. While women tended to focus more on issues related to their spouses, children (symbol of blessing) and Catholicism, men tended to note issues related to the sacrificial system (symbol of health, wealth and long life). The youth repeatedly mentioned the Bible (symbol of truth). Faithstories became a very natural, powerful evangelistic and discipleship tool that (re)constructed the Ifugao’s interpretation of Christianity.
CONGREGATIONS AND NARRATIVE
As a professor who teaches a course on church growth I had become increasingly dissatisfied with the typical types of analysis used to discern the growth and health of a church. Collecting cold statistics on people, programs and pennies seemed helpful, yet dehumanizing and even deadening. How could analysis move beyond numbers to names? Should the watershed stories that help form relationships within and without the community of faith be collected? If symbol-based narratives are the foundation for worldviews, it would seem only natural that they also communicate a congregation’s character and self-perception.
This conclusion led to a meeting with Doug Green, pastor of North Hills Church in Brea, California. He graciously invited my church growth class to participate in a study that would culminate in a service dedicated to revisiting the birth and development of the then seven-year-old church. Since statistical data had already been collected, stories were added. During the service, individuals who helped birth, guide and challenge the church, told their stories. Attendees shared their stories as well. A former unbeliever told how he was drawn to Christ and North Hills Church through the love demonstrated by a member. Also, each attendee was given different colored paper to write down important events related to his or her experience in the church, such as when they were baptized, married, became a member, had a baby dedicated or held a leadership position. These were placed on a large seven-year timeline on the platform for all to celebrate God’s work over the years. The service not only refreshed memories by reviewing the past, but it also provided hope for the future. And what was really interesting was that the stories revealed the same needs as those highlighted by the statistics.
My journey into narrative has required major paradigm shifts. I’ve moved from having no use for narrative to seeing the genre as: a great pedagogical tool; the dominant genre of Scripture; the foundation of worldview; showing God as the greatest Storyteller; playing a role in developing deep relationships; having power through faithstories and being able to identify a congregation’s character.
I would like to take narrative, what Gabriel Fackre calls the “idiom of the earth,” into a number of new areas. One of these would include honoring the life and legacy of followers of Christ. Part of this would include the stories of the persecuted and martyred, which will no doubt strongly impact missions in the future. For example, the story of Martin Burnham—the American missionary to the Philippines who was kidnapped by a Muslim separatist group—should never be forgotten (Burnham 2003). I would also like to investigate the interrelationship between story, symbol and ritual. I have a growing suspicion that when these three intersect, major themes of the culture or subculture can be identified.
I’ve also concluded that narratives have limitations just as do propositions. Propositions require narratives for origin and clarification. Narratives require propositions for outline and focus. It is not an either/or. May the paradigm shifts continue so that the warm breeze will return, the dark clouds will disappear, the brightness of the stars and moon will reappear, and dreams will return during sleep, not only for us, but also for those we wish to reach with the storyline of the sacred Storybook.
1. As a young child I can remember listening to a host of stories read to us by Mother. While I never caught the racial issues in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, I did not miss the emphasis on relationships. The stories I learned in Sunday School added to my expanding world. The Ifugao took me back to my narrative roots lost somewhere over time in formal education.
2. The Chronological Teaching (CT) Model began with New Tribes Mission of the Philippines in 1980. Trevor McIlwain taught the model in seminars attended by New Tribers from a number of countries. Later he would write the multi-volume series Building on Firm Foundations and From Creation to Christ.
3. By this I do not mean to insinuate that there are no literates among the Ifugao. Many were graduates of high school and college.
4. A seven-minute OT introduction has recently been added to the Jesus film. While this is a welcome improvement, demonstrating recognition of the story nature of Scripture, it remains insufficient for most unreached people groups.
Alves, Ruben A. 1990. The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet. The Edward
Cadbury Lectures. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International.
Bohannan, Paul. 1995. How Culture Works. New York: The Free Press.
Burnham, Gracia. 2003. In the Presence of My Enemies. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.
Clanchy, M.T. 1993. Memory to Written Record. Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
Fisher, Walter R. 1987. Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Values, and Action. Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina.
McIlwain, Trevor. 1992. Firm Foundations: From Creation to Christ. Sanford, Fla.: New Tribes Mission.
____. 1987. Building on Firm Foundations: Guidelines for Evangelism and Teaching Believers, Vol. 1. Sanford, Fla.: New Tribes Mission.
Steffen, Tom A. 1996. Reconnecting God’s Story to Ministry Crosscultural Storytelling at Home and Abroad. La Habra, Calif.: Center for Organizational & Ministry Development.
____. 1998. “Foundational Roles of Symbol and Narrative in the (Re)construction of Reality and Relationships.” Missiology: An International Review. 26(4): 477-494.
____. 1999. Business as Usual in the Missions Enterprise? La Habra, Calif.: Center for Organizational & Ministry Development.
Tom Steffen served twenty years with New Tribes Mission, fifteen of those in the Philippines. He is Professor of Intercultural Studies in the School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University in La Mirada, California where he directs the Doctor of Missiology program.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 200-206. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.