by Paul Trinh
Being the master of storytelling, Jesus presents his stories in various ways. So do other storytellers in the Bible. They offer simple ways to transition a normal conversation to Bible storytelling as soon as possible.
Many believers understand the Great Commission which they have been given to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). They would like to share the gospel. Nonetheless, they face a dilemma: how to begin. They worry about offending people or making them feel uncomfortable if they witness to them. Specifically, they have difficulty in transiting a daily conversation into a gospel presentation. Likewise, orality expert J.O. Terry shared with me that a transition remains the most difficult part of Bible storytelling.
Some people call a transition a bridge or pre-story dialogue time. It provides a connecting point between storytellers and listeners. It helps make both parties feel more natural and comfortable in their meeting.
Being the master of storytelling, Jesus presents his stories in various ways. So do other storytellers in the Bible. They offer simple ways to transition a normal conversation to Bible storytelling as soon as possible. In order to tell the story, they use a brief statement, a request of permission, or nothing. Their examples could encourage us to tell Bible stories more often.
A Brief Statement
The opening words of storytelling in the Bible are usually short. A long transition makes the story boring and wastes time. Jesus often introduces his stories with a brief statement. For example, while telling the Parable of the Sower, Jesus begins with the terse word “Listen” (Mark 4:3). It appeals for careful attention from the audience and alerts their mind to understand the truth (Wessel 1984, 648).
On another occasion, while dining with Simon the Pharisee, Jesus teaches him the Parable of the Two Debtors by a simple presentation, “Simon, I have something to tell you” (Luke 7:40). This short statement catches the undivided attention of Simon (Morris 1988, 162). Thus, he answers, “Tell me, teacher.”
Similarly, other biblical characters in the Bible use the same technique to connect themselves with their listeners. They start with a short statement to intrigue their audience. Then, they transition into the story.
For instance, Joseph lived at home and received favoritism from his father. His brothers, however, hated him and did not talk to him kindly. Despite such a hostile circumstance, Joseph told them his first dream, “Listen to this dream I had.” The dream makes his brothers hate him more. Yet Joseph reported another dream to his father and brothers, “Listen, I had another dream” (Gen. 37:6-9). While Joseph might be unwise and naïve, he does grasp the opportunity to share the divine revelation with his family.
Likewise, the chief servant obeys Abraham to get a wife for Isaac. As dinner is set before him, the chief servant tells Laban, “I will not eat until I have told you what I have to say” (Gen. 24:33). This sudden interruption gives unusual urgency to his testimonies (Kidner 1967, 148). In the New Testament, Stephen and Paul also make a short statement to connect themselves with their audience: “Listen to me” (Acts 7:2; 13:16; 22:1).
Other biblical characters discover different unique ways to tell stories. Some solicit for help from their listeners. Others volunteer themselves to help potential listeners. For example, the Tekoa woman pleads with King David, “Help me, O king!” David asks, “What is troubling you?” It gives her a chance to share her fictitious story from Joab. Eventually, Joab succeeds in his effort to bring Absalom back to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 14:1-24).
In the New Testament, Philip obeys the Holy Spirit to stay near the chariot on the desert road. Having heard the Ethiopian eunuch reading the Book of Isaiah, Philip proactively asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” This question prompts the eunuch to express his need, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” Then, he invites Philip to ride with him, and Philip grasps the opportunity to tell him the story of Jesus. Philip leads the eunuch to faith (Acts 8:26-35).
Often, it is wise for a person to ask a higher authority permission to tell stories. In the Old Testament, while seeking the freedom of his brother Benjamin, Judah begs the Governor Joseph, “Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word to my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, though you are equal to Pharaoh himself” (Gen. 44:18). Recognizing the high position and power of Joseph, Judah respectfully requests permission to explain his family’s tragic story. His sincerity wins their reconciliation.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul waits for the permission of authority to tell his story. In the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, as a visitor, Paul does not tell story until he is invited to speak (Acts 13:14-16). As a prisoner, he always waits for approval to tell his story (Acts 21:40; 24:10; 26:1). Once permission is granted, he courageously shares his testimony.
Although some biblical characters request permission to tell their stories, many others proactively tell stories without seeking permission. Jesus tells many stories without asking for permission. When his disciples pick some heads of grain to satisfy their hunger, the Pharisees blame them for breaking the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-4; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-4). According to the Pharisees, picking grain means reaping and is forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus, however, countered their condemnation with the incident of David eating the consecrated bread (1 Sam. 21:1-6). Jesus recounts the story of David without asking for permission from the Pharisees.
In the same way, without seeking permission, Jesus tells the parables of people choosing honor seat at wedding feast (Luke 14:7-10), the Great Banquet (Luke 14:16-24), the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost Son (Luke 15:3-32), and the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
Some people might argue that being a prominent rabbi, Jesus could talk to anyone at any times without requesting permission. Everyone would be willing to listen to his stories. In fact, some biblical characters tell stories to higher authority without asking for permission as well. For example, while speaking to King Saul about fighting Goliath, the boy David proactively shares his testimony of killing a lion and a bear. Saul grants him the permit to fight Goliath, and David wins the battle (1 Sam. 17:31-54).
Likewise, while talking with his father King Saul, Jonathan recounts the victory of David over Goliath. Jonathan does not secure permission beforehand. His father listens and agrees not to kill David (1 Sam. 19:4-6).
As seen above, some storytellers in the Bible transition into storytelling, while others do not. Even Jesus sometimes does not use transitions. In several parables, he simply starts by a brief phrase such as, “A man,” “A certain man,” or “There was a man” (Luke 10:30; 14:16; 15:11; 16; 1; 16:19; 19:12). Then, Jesus continues with his story.
Biblical characters often tell stories to their family without using transitions. The nine sons of Jacob return home after their first trip to purchase food in Egypt. They report their happenstance to their father. Without transition, they directly tell the father about their conversation with the Egyptian governor (Gen. 42:29-34).
While on the sick bed, Jacob wants to rehearse to Joseph about his experience with the Almighty God at Luz and the burial of Rachel. Jacob does not use any transition to tell those stories (Gen. 48:3-4, 7). Also, the wife of Manoah receives the message from the angel of the Lord about giving birth to a son. While recounting the experience to her husband, she does not need any transition (Judg. 13:6-7).
In the same manner, biblical characters in social interaction sometimes do not employ transition when telling a story. When the priests and the prophets condemn Jeremiah to death, some elders recall the prophecy of Micah. Without any transition, they remind the whole assembly about Micah. Like Jeremiah, Micah delivers similar judgmental prophecy. King Hezekiah, however, listens to him and escapes disaster. Consequently, the story of Micah saves Jeremiah from the death penalty (Jer. 26:10-19).
In the New Testament, the ex-blind man shares his testimony with the curious neighbors. He starts straightly, “The man they call Jesus” (John 9:11). Likewise, when Festus recites the story of Paul to King Agrippa, he reports directly, “There is a man here” (Acts 25:14ff.). Both use no transition to tell their stories.
After examining the above storytelling models from the Bible, I believe that each storytelling situation is unique. Transition is important to connect the storytellers with their audience. Storytellers could decide for themselves which transition is appropriate in their particular situation.
According to the discussion above, a few brief transitions could be suggested. Biblical characters have used them successfully. Today, Bible storytellers have also used them effectively. With these transitions, we could reduce our anxiety about offending our listeners. It would make us more comfortable during storytelling. Each of us, however, could supply other similar and related transition statements. These statements include the followings:
• “Listen to this story.”
• “I have a story to tell.”
• “Could you help me to understand a story?”
• “This story might help.”
On rare occasions, we might need to request permission to tell Bible stories. For example, in visits to the sick or to people struggling with deep emotions, we could offer to pray for them. Most people would accept this offer, and God delights to reveal himself by answering prayers (Wiles 2010, 100). Then, we could request permission to tell a story before praying (Senapatiratne 2009, 53).
In addition, in order to tell Bible stories to our friends from other religious background, we could first listen to their stories. Then, we could ask for permission to tell our faith stories (Dillon 2012, 169).
At the same time, it is alright to tell Bible stories without transition. If we have a hard time making the transition, we should not worry about it. We can skip it and just tell the story. We should not let the issue of transition hinder us from obeying the Great Commission.
I realize that the transition might hinder believers to witness. At the same time, I believe storytelling could overcome this obstacle. Following these transition models in the Bible, we can share the words of God in a natural way of life. The Holy Spirit will guide us as we decide to tell Bible stories. In case where we do not know what to say at the beginning, we can still tell Bible stories without transition. I love the motto: “If you can’t do anything else, at least tell the story!” (Terry 2008, 86)
Dillon, Christine. 2012. Telling the Gospel through Story: Evangelism That Keeps Hearers Wanting More. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books.
Kidner, Derek. 1967. Genesis: An Introduction & Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. London: InterVarsity Press.
Morris, Canon Leon. 1988. Luke. Rev. ed. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press.
Senapatiratne, Nalin and Linda. 2009. Telling God’s Story. Peradeniya, Sri Lanka: The Publishing Unit of Lanka Bible College & Seminary.
Terry, J. O. 2008. Basic Bible Storying: Preparing and Presenting Bible Stories for Evangelism, Discipleship, Training, and Ministry. Rev. ed. Fort Worth, Tex.: Church Starting Network.
Wessel, Walter W. 1984. “Mark.” In vol. 8 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House/ Logos.
Wiles, Jerry. 2010. No Greater Joy: Power of Sharing Your Faith through Stories and Questions. New Kensington, Penn.: Whitaker House.
Paul Trinh is a Bible storyteller, trainer, and DMiss candidate. Previously, he served as church planter, pastor, and missionary to Dominican Republic.
EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 4 pp. 446-450. Copyright © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.