by Sandy Gould
I caught the vision for oral Bible storytelling on a bicycle. My good friend, Janet Stahl, and I often ride together, and in 2012 I was Janet’s willing audience as she honed her storytelling skills. I quickly realized that listening to her tell Bible stories drew me into a refreshing new way of engaging with scripture.
I caught the vision for oral Bible storytelling on a bicycle. My good friend, Janet Stahl, and I often ride together, and in 2012 I was Janet’s willing audience as she honed her storytelling skills. I quickly realized that listening to her tell Bible stories drew me into a refreshing new way of engaging with scripture. As we discussed the stories, I felt I understood them better than I ever had. They stuck with me long after we finished our ride.
Janet and her husband, Jim, have developed the Oral Bible Storytelling (OBS) approach at the Seed Company. OBS emphasizes and trains storytellers in solid Bible translation principles through a careful crafting process and telling (and retelling) the stories in communities. The model focuses on equipping local trainers and crafting teams from the first day of a storytelling workshop.
We have used their approach in dozens of languages where there are no Bibles or only partial Bibles. The local people are trained to tell Bible stories and test how well the stories communicate. These storytellers have reached thousands of Bible-less peoples in Asia, Africa, Pacific Islands, and Eurasia with countless stories of impact. Many of those people are so engaged by the stories that they now want their own Bibles in written or in oral form.
Janet practiced her stories with me and eventually I practiced mine with her. I told my first Bible story to an audience of sixteen women at a local Texas church. When I finished, I was perplexed by the fact that some of the women had tears in their eyes. As we interacted about what the story meant to them and how it shaped our beliefs in the character of Jesus, I realized that storytelling opens hearts in ways we can’t imagine. That day started my own personal journey in understanding the power of Bible storytelling and the impact both on the audience and on me as the storyteller.
In that first experience I actually thought I could improve on the story of the Healing of the Paralytic (Mark 2) by telling the story from the vantage point of a fictitious character (the imagined daughter of the owner of the house). Over time, and some gentle coaching from Janet, I realized that Bible stories don’t need any improvement. I have dropped my ‘improvements’ and embellishments from my storytelling.
My first opportunity to use and teach storytelling outside the safe confines of personal friends was to a group of fifth grade girls. I had much loftier goals of sharing my newfound skill with adults, but Bible storytelling for many is still seen as only suitable for children’s ministry. My desire was to serve my church and this was the need presented to me.
Every Monday night for one school year, I presented a new Bible story to five giggly 10-year old girls. After a few weeks of trying to get them to be serious and engage with a story the same way I did, I figured out that their age group tends to giggle through everything. I had zero experience in working with children and so we giggled our way through acting the stories out week after week.
Having grown up as a woman in a conservative American church environment, I was never encouraged (or even allowed) to preach or teach. So I had little confidence in standing before a group of my colleagues to present a devotion. In such circumstances, I defaulted to a personal application of scripture rather than offer a meaningful interpretation of scripture. Today, I tell a Bible story and follow it with a non-leading question like, “What did you like about the story?” This allows scripture to do its work, and is not seen as traditional teaching. Today, I feel quite comfortable telling Bible stories to groups and helping groups teach themselves.
It’s All in the Details
Learning and internalizing a Bible story takes a lot of work. The storyteller must pay careful attention to voice inflections, facial expressions, and hand and body movements. These should be rehearsed and scrutinized for accurate meaning. All these features contribute to the communication of the story.
An example of the importance of this is in the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well (John 4). The body language of the woman at the well will clearly communicate her attitude towards Jesus and her social standing in the community. I had researched what mannerisms would have likely characterized her response and interactions with Jesus.
How a person moves while telling a Bible story also adds or detracts from the story. One distraction I must consciously eliminate from every storytelling performance is my habit of pacing and of using too many hand movements.
A storyteller’s presentation style also factors into the communication. A very dramatic presentation may be more entertaining and the audience passively accepts the performance as such, but a simple telling of a story draws the audience into the story by igniting their imagination.
Storytelling Gives Women a Voice
In 2013, the Seed Company launched an initiative for empowering women to participate in the Bible translation movement by training them in storytelling. We saw that many women in our first project were left hopeless through poverty, marginalization, neglect, and having few basic rights in their culture and no recourse. We believed that God could give the women courage to have a more public presence through Bible storytelling.
For our pilot project, Janet chose stories of women in both the Old and New Testaments that would give the women hope in their daily struggles. Throughout the series of workshops spanning a two-year period, the women found their voices as Bible storytellers. Their self-confidence and smiles grew. As the women began to engage with the Bible stories, they discussed their own life stories.
Back in their home villages, they gathered groups of people together to tell the Bible stories. People listened and asked for prayer and God touched their lives. They stood up to persecutions with courage and perseverance. For some, their pastor-husbands began to incorporate their wives’ storytelling with good results.
In the reports that we receive back from women storytellers, many have also found their ministry voice. Women who have lived in the shadows of their husbands and had little or no effective ministry have suddenly come alive through the empowerment of God’s word told orally in their own storytelling style.
Storytelling Allows Us to Connect with Those in the Bible
Bible storytelling helps people to connect with the storyteller and with the truth in the story. The interaction that ensues can evoke emotional, physical, and spiritual healing. I discovered that the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead provokes me to tears as I am compelled to remember my own brother’s death. This is true for others as well.
People experience a measure of healing more strongly when the story of Lazarus is told than when reading it from a printed page. Lazarus rising from the dead evokes some fairly strong emotions from people who have ever lost of loved one. Mary’s plea to Jesus, “If only you had been here my brother would not have died,” comes alive in the telling of the story.
Told well, this plea can be so real that it draws the audience into a compassionate response to Mary. Somehow, the image of Lazarus walking out of the tomb in the strips of cloths wrapped around his body reminds listeners of the hope of eternal life for ourselves and for those believing loved ones who have died.
Storytelling as Worship
One Christmas, I told the story from Luke 2:26-55 of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel. I included Mary’s visit with Elizabeth and ended with the Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat. Each time I got to the line, “My soul praises the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” I was so full of worship that I always got a little choked up with joy.
Storytelling expresses worship. Many of the cultures where we work will spontaneously incorporate song or dance (or both) into or after telling a story. Storytelling is a natural form of expression of what the Spirit wants to express.
Getting Started in Storytelling—The Importance of Practice & Groups
I found it difficult to find the right audience for storytelling in America. As I mentioned earlier, many in the Church associate storytelling with children’s ministries. I was more effective persuading people when I told them a story rather than talked about storytelling.
I have benefitted from asking home groups or Bible study groups to be surrogate audiences where I can practice telling stories. Christians seem eager to help missionaries prepare for their ministry overseas. And more often than not, some of my audience are drawn into scripture in a new and engaging way, and in so doing catch the vision for Bible storytelling and understand why I am so passionate about it.
Additionally, we have a weekly Storytelling Guild in our office. This is a safe place to practice telling a story and to get feedback. We have some regulars and several who attend only occasionally. This gives us a chance to showcase our storytelling model when visitors tour our office or when they come to experience it themselves. For several years, a local pastor came every week to help us hone our skills. He would often rehearse Bible stories that he was preparing to give the following Sunday.
Another good place to get started with storytelling is in group devotions. Most stories take only five to seven minutes to deliver, and a well facilitated conversation that follows can help identify how our stories intersect with God’s Story. My colleagues know that if I’m leading devotions, they will hear a story. It takes me a full week to research and internalize a story.
Internalization involves reading the story in a couple of favorite versions. I read about the characters, geography, climate, and political situation so I can best understand what life was like for the people in the story. If I am learning the story of Hannah, for example, I try to feel Hannah’s grief at being childless and mocked by the child-rearing other wife of Elkanah (1 Sam. 1). This is an essential part of the OBS approach that Jim and Janet developed and that we are also using in developing oral Bible translation methods.
As I am going through the internalization and rehearsing of a story, the words of the story influence my attitude as well. My faith is built up and sometimes I am convicted in a new way of a Bible truth. Whenever I tell Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who went to the temple to pray, for example, I am convicted of my lack of humility.
There was a period of about six months where I did not tell a single Bible story. I found that I was being too prideful when I got a lot of audience applause or when they were moved by a story I told. I vowed to not tell a story again until I could figure out how to keep the focus on the story and on the Lord and instead of on myself.
My experience with ego and pride has not ended, but I started telling stories again and am working through all the ways storytelling impacts me throughout the entire process.
Telling Bible stories is an amazing gift both for those of us who share the stories and those who hear them afresh with each telling. If you haven’t yet experienced the art of oral Bible stories, I invite you to begin to learn more about it. I have been radically changed through this method of learning more about God and his word, and my hunch is that you will too.
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Sandy Gould is vice-president for Bible Translation Administration at the Seed Company. She oversees the work of the Oral Strategies team and has supported Bible translation for twenty-seven years.
EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 2. Copyright © 2017 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.
Questions for Reflection
1. How can congregations as large and as old as Beulah Alliance Church reach migrants (or Scattered Peoples) in their cities? How would these congregations work to reflect multicultural diversity in ministry initiatives and in staff workers? How would larger and older congregations appropriate budgets to balance overseas and local ministries?
2. In what way(s) could a traditionally diaspora/ethnic-minority congregation such as South Edmonton Alliance Church reach out to the native/host/dominant population? How can ministries be intentional in reaching out to migrants and the second and third generations? What kind of church government would it be willing to adopt?
3. Although Crosspoint is a relatively young congregation, it has positioned itself with contextualized ministries. What could similar size and aged congregations do to attain maximum impact with migrant communities?