The Power of Biblical Storytelling

by Kelly Malone

Jesus was the master storyteller. He often taught people in the form of parables. Shouldn’t we do the same?

AFEW MONTHS AGO at a church where I was serving as interim pastor, I had the opportunity to give a series of messages on King Saul. I shared stories that were familiar with the congregation, such as Saul’s anointing by Samuel (1 Sam. 9-10) and his visit with the witch at Endor (1 Sam. 28). Although church members knew the stories well, each week anticipation grew to hear the next story and its lessons for life application. People love to hear stories. And biblical stories have the power to produce spiritual change in the lives of those who are ready to receive their teaching.

Jesus’ Use of Stories
Jesus was the master storyteller. He often taught people in the form of parables. These are stories taken from everyday experiences that convey spiritual truth. But not everyone is prepared to receive this truth. When Jesus’ disciples asked him why he taught the people in parables, he responded,

The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak in parables: though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. (Matt. 13:11-13)

Jesus used parables to divide his audience. Those who were spiritually minded, who had some understanding of the things of God and were seeking to know more, received the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” But those who had no spiritual understanding and whose hearts were indifferent to spiritual matters failed to receive the truth found in his parables.

This point can be illustrated in the “Parable of the Sower” (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23). The seed represents God’s word, which is sown among all manner of people, but only bears fruit among those who “hear the word and understand it” (Matt. 13:23). Those who are unprepared for the word due to the work of the “evil one,” “trouble and persecution,” or the “worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth” (Matt. 13:19, 21-22), do not experience the life-changing power that results from receiving God’s word.

God’s word has a cleaving quality. It penetrates and cuts to the very core of our being in a way that causes discomfort and calls for change (Heb. 4:13). This change both purifies the heart and gives new life (John 3:1-8; 2 Cor. 5:17). The word also divides people. At the end of Jesus’ “Bread of Life Discourse,” many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” So “from this time many . . . turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:60, 66). Jesus said that even families would be divided because of him: brother against brother, father against son, and children against parents (Matt. 10:21).

Why We Should Tell Stories
In her book, Telling the Gospel through Story, Christine Dillon emphasizes that stories change people. People who are hostile to the gospel may become sympathetic. Those who see Jesus as a non-factor in their lives may begin to give him some consideration. Those distant from one another may gather into communities because of stories. Small groups may form around storytellers that eventually can lead to the development of new churches. People may develop new ways of understanding God, life, and the world (Dillon 2012, 23-30). But we must also keep in mind that not everyone who hears our stories will become sympathetic. Some may become more hostile to the gospel. They may reject a biblical worldview.

My preparation for mission service included training in Chronological Bible Storying. Sometimes referred to as “Creation to Christ,” this method begins with the biblical account of Creation in Genesis and goes through the stories of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension in the New Testament. The intention is to give an overview of the biblical narrative so that people can understand how it fits together. We were taught that this method was for use primarily among illiterate peoples as an alternative to literate methods of Bible study.

My first thought was, “What does this have to do with me? I am going to Japan: one of the most literate societies in the world!” However, early in my missionary career, I taught Bible at a women’s college in southwestern Japan. Most of the students were nominal Buddhists who had never opened a Bible before they came to my class. Their presupposition was, “I am only here because this course is required for my degree. It has nothing to do with me.” In this setting, it occurred to me that some form of storytelling might be useful to give these students an overview of the biblical message. So I spent the next six years using “Creation to Christ” among very literate Japanese college students.

I witnessed the power of storytelling with my own eyes. Many students who had never read the Bible before became interested in scripture. Some began to ask questions about Jesus. Others became active in chapel and other expressions of Christianity. One student told me, “Most of our classes teach us what we need to know to make a living. But in your class we learn about life.” On the other hand, I saw what Jesus said about the hearts of the unprepared, as well. There were students who rolled their eyes, took the maximum number of excused absences, and made it clear that they thought Jesus and the Bible had nothing to do with them. One student went so far as to tell me she thought the stories were foolish fairytales.  

Who Needs Stories?
My experience in Japan is not unique. Recent research has shown that the usefulness of stories is not limited to illiterate societies. They are useful in post-literate societies, as well. There are many people in the world who can read, but that choose not to. In fact, roughly two-thirds of the world’s people are “oral learners” (Willis 2004, 3-5). These are people who know how to read, but learn best by non-literate means, such as hearing stories, seeing pictures, or watching films. Avery Willis notes,

Many oral learners can read but prefer to learn by oral means. If their culture is traditionally oral, they frequently prefer to learn through oral methods, even if highly educated. When many people in a culture are oral learners, it affects the whole culture and permeates many aspects of people’s lives, such as thought processes and decision-making. (2004, 6)

Recent research has shown that while only about five percent of Americans are totally illiterate, almost fifty percent are not able to function at a high level of literacy. Similar reading levels have been found in other developed nations such as Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom (Willis 2004, 18-19). One reason for this is that people who learn to read while they are in school do not continue to read after they finish school. Many high school and university graduates do not continue to read books after they complete their education. As a result, within a few years their reading may revert to a sixth-grade or seventh-grade level.

In a course I teach on storytelling, I sometimes use this information to warn my students that they need to keep reading. I tell them, “You have spent too much money on your education to only be able to read at a seventh-grade level!” Each time I teach this course, I survey the students to find out the percentage of oral communicators and print communicators. Normally, about fifty percent of my students prefer oral methods of learning and communication over print methods. This is no surprise, since it is consistent with the national average. It reflects a culture in which young people tend to gain their information from television and by non-text means via the Internet rather than by reading books.

We live a culture in which abstract literary analysis paired with theoretical discussion is receding into the past. It is being replaced by the concrete sequential assessment of information consistent with oral learning patterns. In this type of setting, narrative should be paired with visual representations such as art, drama, and symbolic acts in order to help people experience the truth in terms of event. In both scripture and Christian history, there are rich resources for this type of representation of the gospel, beginning with baptism and communion, but also including visual art forms and drama.

Unfortunately, visual representations of the gospel have sometimes contributed to idolatry, so that evangelical iconoclasm has tended to reject their use. In response, we must encourage the development of art, drama, and ritual in appropriate ways to convey spiritual truth. We should also consider the use of “down-to-earth stories” (parables) as well as “diagrams, pictures and artifacts of various kinds” (Hesselgrave 1978, 228-233).

Kinds of Stories
My initial training in telling stories stressed the used of the chronological method, so I came away with the impression that this was the only tool in the storyteller’s toolbox. I used only this method of storytelling for a number of years in southern Japan. When I relocated to Tokyo, however, I found it difficult to gather a group of people that would allow me to tell them Bible stories in this chronological fashion.

On the other hand, I began to develop relationships with new believers who wanted to grow spiritually, but had big questions about how to live the Christian life in a society that was at least apathetic, if not opposed to the gospel. As we met over coffee to discuss these issues, I discovered that I could use Bible stories to teach principles in a way that responded to the issues with which they were struggling.

For example, many stories in the Old Testament teach the importance of obedience to God’s leadership in our lives. Two that were especially powerful were the stories of the call of Moses (Exod. 3-4) and the call of Isaiah (Isa. 6). The story of the witch at Endor (1 Sam. 28) spoke to the issue of ancestral practices, and the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) could be used to explain how Jesus wants forgive our sins. Through this experience, I realized that there was much more to storytelling than the chronological method.

In my storytelling course, I teach students how to use four kinds of stories for evangelism and discipleship.

Chronological Bible storytelling. This is the “Creation to Christ” method that I learned many years ago. The purpose is to enable listeners to understand how the Bible fits together, as well as to see the relationship between important doctrines such as Creation and redemption, and sin and salvation. It is important to make the Christ-event the fulfillment of the biblical narrative, so the Old Testament stories must be told in the motif of promise and fulfillment: the issues of the Old Testament find their resolution in Jesus Christ.

Dialogical Bible storytelling. This is the conversational approach to storytelling that I found so useful in Tokyo. My experience has been validated by the writings of a number of experienced storytellers. Daniel Sheard writes that people who do not read often learn in bits and pieces through the “verbal exchange” that takes place in the context of everyday conversation. In this context, “short stories with simple plots” can become the means that “God uses to draw people to Himself” (Sheard 2007, 12, 18-19).

Christine Dillon refers to this approach as “storying in one-off opportunities.” Her experience is that these opportunities may vary from thirty minutes to three hours, and may allow a person to tell only one biblical story or a whole set of stories. The key is to be aware when God gives us the opportunity to share and then use the time we have available well (Dillon 2012, 173-175).

Eugene Peterson reminds us that Jesus was a master at using stories in the context of everyday conversations in a way that “fit each person and [their individual] circumstances” (2008, 18). Peterson writes that we may be used as God’s instruments to convey spiritual truth, even when we are unaware or unintentional about the process.

The Holy Spirit is as present in our spontaneous and casual conversations as in formal preaching and intentional teaching… The Holy Spirit conveys in and through our language words of Jesus’ peace and love and grace and mercy when we are not aware of it—at least not at the time it is taking place. (Peterson 2008, 22, 24)

Many times when I was in Japan, I have shown up for a disciple-making opportunity with a carefully-planned agenda. Soon, however, I would throw my agenda out the window because the issues the other person was dealing with were not what I had prepared to talk about. Rather than forcing him or her to go through my prepared study, I found myself saying, “Can I tell you a story that may relate to what you are going through?” The response would always be something like, “Yes, please do. Anything you can do to help me would be appreciated.” Then, I would plunge into a Bible story related to this latest crisis, followed by a discussion of possible applications of the biblical narrative to the current situation.

I still use this approach today with college students who show up at my office asking for advice on how to deal with issues they are facing. I have found biblical stories to be a virtual treasure-house of God’s wisdom for today’s post-literate, post-modern Millennials. They do not want to be preached at, but they do enjoy good stories, especially when they understand how these stories relate to their lives.

Contemporary parable. Jesus used parables. It only makes sense that we would follow his example by using these stories as well. However, I have found courses on biblical storytelling seldom cover this most biblical model. I suggest two approaches to using parables.

1. Reset biblical parables for your target audience. If your audience is contemporary city-dwellers in the American Midwest, the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” (Luke 15:1-7) might become a parable about how a child on a field trip becomes separated from her class, and then her teacher leaves the other students to find her. Call it “The Parable of the Lost Child.” Among the cattle-herding Maasai of East Africa, the “Good Shepherd” might become the “Good Cattle-Herd.” And among rice farmers in rural villages in East Asia, the “Parable of the Sower” (Matt. 13:1-9) might become the “Parable of the Rice Farmer.”

Needless to say, there are some potential problems with this approach. The meaning and theological significance of the biblical story may be lost. In order to guard against this, I teach my students to study the biblical parables in their original context in order to understand their essential details: points of the stories that cannot be changed without also losing what the story is about. I also encourage them to find the central theological truth in the parable, and then to try to re-caste the parable in a contemporary setting in a way that continues to convey the same truth.

2. Develop contemporary parables. This is done by following Jesus’ example of taking common objects and scenarios from everyday life and using them to explain spiritual truths. While this is a difficult process, it is important to remember that a parable well told is not just a good story. Rather, it is intended to call “forth a response on the part of the hearer” (Fee and Stuart 1982, 126), challenging him or her to a change of heart or action—calling him or her to either begin to follow Christ or to grow as a Christ-follower.

I inform my students that I am a fellow traveler rather than a guide in the use of parables. I have been learning about the contemporary use of parables for about five years. While I am still early in this process, I have learned that parables have the power to grab the hearer’s attention and to help him or her understand truth that he or she might otherwise miss.

Personal testimony. Sharing personal stories about God’s work in our lives is almost a lost art. Many people are reluctant to make themselves vulnerable by sharing openly about their own experiences. Yet these stories provide irrefutable evidence of God’s love and his power to change lives. I encourage my students to share not only the story of how they became followers of Jesus Christ, but also about how he is at work in their lives today.

If the only story we have to share is about something God did in our lives five or ten years ago, it will leave the impression that God is distant and uncaring. But if we can share about what God is doing now, we give the impression that not only is God real, but that he also loves and cares for us. This use of personal stories provides a helpful bridge to biblical stories which reveal God’s power and grace to a world in need of his transforming love.

References
Dillon, Christine. 2012. Telling the Gospel through Story. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. 1982. How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Academie Books.

Hesselgrave, David. 1978. Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Peterson, Eugene H. 2008. Tell It Slant. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Sheard, Daniel. 2007. An Orality Primer for Missionaries. n.p.

Willis, Avery. 2004. Making Disciples of Oral Learners. Lima, N.Y.: International Orality Network/Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.

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Kelly Malone is associate professor of Intercultural Studies and holds the Jack Stanton Chair of Evangelism at Southwest Baptist University. Prior to coming to Southwest, he trained national leaders to do contextualized theology and evangelism in Japan.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 314-320. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

 

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