This is an article from the November-December 2013 issue: Unleashing the Gospel Through Storytelling

Important Points to Remember When Storytelling

Important Points to Remember When Storytelling

As a Bible storying trainer, I approach the subject of mistakes carefully. For missionaries, mistakes can lead to broken relationships, misunderstanding, and error in teaching. At the Asian Rural Life Foundation training center in the Philippines, the motto is: “We want to be the first to fail in order to learn, so you will not need to fail.” Failure for Bible storyers often results from falling into various traps that the missionary and non-missionary worker will want to avoid if at all possible. Below are some of the lessons I and others have learned over the years.

  1. Your interpretation of a story or expositional teaching from the Bible story is not as important or powerful as the story itself. This does not mean that neither interpretation nor exposition should be used. With pastors whom I have trained, I have provided scripture-based interpretations (letting scripture interpret scripture) and exposition as they were able to handle. But for the average listener, I have learned to trust the stories and to let the discovery activities be sufficient. 
  2. Knowledge of local cultural and spiritual worldviews is vital. Fortunately, none of my gaffes were serious enough to break relationships. But I soon found that certain stories which were sensitive to worldviews really caught the attention of the listeners. This was how the story sets for women began to succeed. During my early days of storying, I learned that stories that worked well in the animistic cultural Christian worldview of the Philippines did not work as well with those of other Asian religions. Again, when local worldviews were taken into consideration, the stories began having greater impact. When I taught many stories, I noted that trainees selected certain stories for their use as these related intuitively to their people’s worldview.
  3. Test stories or items in stories that may hinder a receptive hearing. Some stories need to be contextualized or adapted in order to prevent initial rejection of the stories because of social or cultural taboos. This is because the listeners either did not understand first century culture or who Jesus was. Over the years, I have learned to carefully listen to what the oral learners did to stories when they retold them. This allowed me to see what they kept or changed in telling the story. 
  4. Adequately prepare listeners for stories. For example, with the story of the prodigal son, the storyteller may get a response he or she did not expect: the father is the culprit in the story because he gave everything to his two sons. The older son is now head of the household; therefore, the father should have consulted the older son before welcoming the younger son back into the family. Another example is the story of Esau and Jacob. In a listener’s culture, the second twin born is evil and should not live. Yet God blesses the “evil” twin over the firstborn. 
  5. Simplify stories. Since I had to work mostly through interpreters, I learned to simplify stories and be very careful about using names instead of pronouns in stories, especially those found in the four Gospels, which contain a good amount of dialogue. This way, my interpreters could correctly follow who said what to whom. 
  6. Be patient. I learned to not assume anything, and to be very patient as even my interpreters sorted out story details. On one occasion, I was a bit exasperated because my interpreter kept asking for scripture references in order to see what his Bible said. When I challenged him to mark his Bible with passages we frequently used, he informed me that his people did not mark in holy books! I taught from a well-annotated chain reference Bible, but realized that, at times, I neede d to have a clean copy in case someone wanted to see my Bible. I also had to learn patience if an interpreter wanted to back up and correct an earlier mistake they made. This usually happened the first several times I worked with a new interpreter
  7. Oral learners are people just like us. In the early days of Bible storying, I believed what had been shared with me about oral learners: that they had a marvelous capacity to hear something once and remember it forever. I soon learned that was not true and had to learn the patience of retelling and repeating as often as needed, first to get the original understanding, then to correct or refresh stories that had drifted culturally, or were simply fading from lack of being exercised by telling often.
  8. Oral learners have a very practical memory system. They learn best what they consider to be practical information that either explains gaps in their knowledge or that is directly related to their everyday lives. While oral-learner pastors may ask theological questions, the average listener will be more concerned about matters relevant to his or her daily life. In most cases, then, the post-story discussion needs to be simple and not too heavily laden with facts since oral learners have to remember the facts as lists—a difficult task. Oral learners can tire easily if discussions are overly detailed and long. 
  9. It takes time before understanding is reached. Among some listeners, discussion is initially difficult because listeners have not yet heard enough stories to begin to see the connection and direction of the stories. As the number of stories continues, there usually comes a tipping point, during which the stories begin to make sense and the larger picture begins to emerge. Never force discussion of the stories before the listeners are ready to talk.
  10. Tell Bible stories to the larger group if possible. If an individual is led to make a decision alone without the consent of his or her community, there is often hostility. Gather the larger community if possible to hear the stories as a group–this way they can be led as a group to the same invitation. That said, it is not uncommon for individuals to be present at Bible storying sessions and respond to the stories and then take the stories back to their people, or be the gateway to invite the Bible storyer to come and share the stories.
  11. Never go it alone in planning, selecting, and preparing stories for telling without bathing each step in prayer for wisdom, guidance, and patience.

Here are two more points to consider:

  • In many places, true stories may only be told at a certain time and in a certain place. Several apocryphal stories have circulated about how missionaries have attempted to tell their stories without regard to knowing where sacred or true stories were to be told. 
  • Some younger Bible storyers whom I have trained have had difficulty getting their elders to listen. They were viewed as too young to teach their elders. We often got around this by giving the young storyers a set of teaching pictures that gave them credibility and a status that set them up as worthy to tell and teach their elders. On the other hand I also learned that giving pictures to all those being trained was expensive and limited the scope of the training due to the need to import large numbers of picture sets. My using pictures conveyed the message that the trainees needed to use pictures as well. On more than one occasion a former trainee reported that he had not told any stories since training because he did not have any pictures. 

I’ll end with a personal account. For several years, a Tamil driver took me to the places where we were teaching the Bible stories. The driver was literate but had no formal theological training. One day, after being away for some time, I discovered that he had taught his wife and children to tell the Bible stories; the family then told their neighbors and planted a church. 

After an absence of ten years I met him again. He was now pastoring a church that met in his home and still telling the Bible stories in his preaching and outreach. If I had it to do over, I would spend even more time training pastors and others who were willing to learn the stories, who lived among the people, and who caught the vision to tell the stories of Jesus until he returns. 


I do appreciate your bringing this article in light of the need to expand our worldview giving us new tools to utilize.  My worldview has both a grassroots and theological background and frankly I remember if we as academics get to caught up in historicity the seeker may lose heart.

I am gratified that you are in the vineyards of the world where there is a great need and desire to reach those ripe to come to the knowledge of the Lord and His saving grace….the techniques of story telling is one of my greatest tools.  What I too have discovered is that people learn in different ways and telling the Bible stories orally gets their attention.  The Global Bible Commentary opened my eyes to viewing the stories of the Bible of other cultures through their eyes.

You mention using interpreters to communicate the stories. We’d LOVE to have you or a colleague present on any aspect of this in a conference panel on communicating scripture through interpreters. May 29 - 31, Germersheim, Germany. I have sent the Call for Papers to various people known to me in the “storying” movement”,and posted it on the Orality Network, but without response so far. Deadline Nov 9th. Please publicise this.The CFP follows, with link to the conference website.

Call for Papers for a panel at a University conference May 29 – 31, Germersheim, Germany
Abstracts up to 300 words, including examples and references, to co-chair Jill Karlik (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) by Nov 8th 2013. Please send advance expressions of interest a.s.a.p.
Oral and signed presentation of Scripture – contexts, practices, product
Submissions are invited on any aspect of the rendering of Scripture by means of oral or signed performance by interpreters, preachers, or others who mediate biblical discourse (more-or-less) spontaneously. Little research has been carried out on the phenomenon, whether at the sociocultural level, the interactional level of communication-situations, roles and modes, or the level of performed text. Together with a twin panel on “Interpreting in Church”, this panel seeks to carry forward an exchange of ideas begun in Germersheim at EST2013.
The public reading of Scripture is included in most worship services in Christian and Jewish settings; frequently three passages of different text-types. Owen (EST 2013) has pointed out that in a bilingual service, the interpreter generally reaches for a target language Scripture translation and reads aloud from the page, but interpreters working in BSL have no Bible to reach for. They bear the responsibility of providing the translation simultaneously and must perform it at the speed of normal reading aloud. Similarly, in worship services in minority oral languages where there are no written Scriptures, the only available format of Scripture may be a rendering from a language of wider distribution by an interpreter or mother-tongue preacher (Karlik 2010). Biblical discourse may also be rendered spontaneously in situations of “Bible storying” (teaching from Scripture narratives); and short quotations are rendered during sermons and other phases of all these events, and in impromptu drama.
Concepts of norms, ideology, role and audience design within Interpreting Studies are being rethought to take into account the dual linguistic and religious/spiritual role of the church interpreter (Hokkanen 2012). The aim of this panel is to apply this process to the oral and signed rendering of Scripture by the cross-fertilisation of ideas between Interpreting Studies (Pöchhacker 2011) and Bible Translation (De Vries 2012), drawing from a variety of academic perspectives, communication-situations and working practices, around the question:
What contributions can studies on the signed and oral rendering of biblical discourse bring to Translation and Interpreting Studies and/or Bible Translation? Or vice versa.
When sign language interpreters render written text, given the nature of sign languages, reference to the ST while interpreting is generally limited to its delivery in aloud-read mode. Interpreting from aloud-read text occurs also in such situations as lectures or court hearings, and into oral languages, but there is as yet no agreed term for the mode; it is hoped that this panel will contribute to naming it.

De Vries, L. (2012) Local Oral-Written Interfaces and the Nature, Transmission, Performance, and Translation of Biblical Texts. In Maxey, J. and Wendland, E. eds. Translating Scripture for Sound and Performance. Eugene: Cascade, 68–99.
Karlik, J. (2010) Interpreter-mediated scriptures: Expectation and Performance. Interpreting, 12(2), 160–185.Kaufmann, F. (1994) Interpreters in Early Judaism. The Jerome Quarterly 9(3)
Owen, A., (2013, in press) One among a thousand: Interpreting in Christian Settings. Wakeman Trust: London.
Pöchhacker, F. (2011) Researching Interpreting. In Advances in Interpreting Research: Inquiry in Action (99) 5–26

Puzzled why you make no mention of (or provide the link to) ‘Simply the Story’ who not only have wealth of specialist training material on the art but just as useful a large expanding resource of anecdotal news about the exciting & encouraging results and developments from around the world?  In addition, the associated, fantastic tool of Megavoice players.

Because it was a Call for Papers with a focus on the interpreter-mediation of Scripture in any setting, not necessarily in Bible Storying, and there was a strict word limit. As a panel proposed for the “2nd International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translating, we were looking for academic research into the process at any level - sociocultural background, interaction/role, textual analysis etc - in a variety of Christian domains. Although interpreters are used in the domain of Bible Storying, when I wrote to a leader in the movement in 1999 seeking help for interpreters who were expected to do it, the reply was, “Mostly we just start storying and the interpreter does his or her best.” And that is still the same today in some places, by my observation. However,some Bible Storying practitioners have given more thought to the way they use the services of interpreters since then, and we were hoping for a contribution from one such, to bring together research into the use of interpreters in Bible Storying and research arising in other Christian domains where interpreters render Scripture. In fact, there is a contribution on the way (thank you, J.O.), though not in time for this particular conference.
This panel is linked with two other panels, proposed for the same conference, on the more general non-professional interpreting which goes on in Christian settings, including sermons and teaching on the biblical passage. It is a new area of research in the last few years, mainly driven by professional interpreters and reseachers who are also voluntary church interpreters; a panel with 7 papers on the topic at the 2013 congress of the European Society for Translation Studies in August was a first, as far as we know.

Thank you Jill for your very prompt and detailed reply.  However, you were seemingly careful to avoid any reference to those I referred to, even though I think they would say they combine storytelling with interpretation, especially participatory?  Was Dorothy Miller for example invited to present a paper, in view of the vast experience of STS with indigenous storytellers/interpreters?

The sad fact is that we had not realised until the final couple of weeks before the deadline that we were meant to invite participants ouselves, rather than the more usual kind of CfP where the conference organisers publicise the suggested panels and call for papers. So I hurriedly put it out in various places where I thought it might meet with a response from interested potential contributors from other fields than worship service interpreting. I am gratified to get your response.
Thanks for your suggestions. I hope to make good use of “Simply the Story”, in praxis, but I have drawn a blank on references to empirical research on interpreter-mediation of either Scripture or the teaching that accompanies it within the field of Bible Storying, beyond anecdotes and general references to the fact that it happens. Could you point me to some please? At any level from culture to text.

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