This is an article from the March-April 1997 issue: The Dramatic Arts

Storytelling: Why Do It?

Is it an Essential Skill for Missionaries?

Storytelling: Why Do It?

Bree said, "And now, Tarkheena, tell us your story. And don't hurry it--I'm feeling comfortable now." Aravis immediately began, sitting quite still and using a rather different tone and style from her usual one. For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays. C.S. LEWISMy developing skills in the Ifugao language and culture finally made public teaching possible. I enthusiastically developed a number of Bible lessons that followed the topical outline we received in pre- field training: the Bible, God, Satan, humanity, sin, judgment, and Jesus Christ. Once listeners were introduced to the authority-base (the Bible), I quickly moved on to the second part of the outline (God), and so forth. I presented the lessons in a topical, systematic format. My goal was not only to communicate the Gospel, but to communicate it in such a way that the listeners could effectively articulate it to others.

But as I taught, I soon realized that the Ifugao found it difficult to follow the topical presentations, and found it even harder to explain the content to others. I was astonished and perplexed.

Some changes were necessary, so I added a number of stories from the Old Testament to illustrate the abstract (theoretical) concepts in the lessons through pictoral (concrete) characters and objects (e.g., creation, the fall, Cain and Abel, the flood, the escape from Egypt, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Tabernacle, Elijah and Baal). The response was phenomenal. Not only did the evangelistic sessions come alive, the recipients became instant evangelists, telling the stories to friends enthusiastically. From then on I integrated stories in all my evangelistic efforts.

Storytelling has become a lost art for many Christian workers. A number of hollow myths raise questions about the purpose or usefulness of stories. For example, stories should target children because they provide excellent entertainment. Adults eventually outgrow the need for stories, replacing them with the more sophisticated objective, propositional thinking. In that character derives from dogmas, creeds, and theology, never waste time telling stories. As a result of these and other related myths, Christian workers have often unwittingly set aside storytelling. To help reconnect God's stories to evangelism-discipleship, I will highlight seven reasons why storytelling should become a skill practiced by all Christian workers.

1. Storytelling is a universal form of communication. No matter where one travels in this world, people love to tell and listen to stories. Age does not deter this desire. Whether young children, teenagers, or senior citizens, all enjoy entering the life experiences of others through stories. Whatever the topic discussed, stories often become an integral part of the dialogue. Whether used to argue a point, interject humor, illustrate a key insight, comfort a despondent friend, challenge the champion, or simply pass the time of day, a story has a unique way of finding its way into the conversation.

Stories can be heard anywhere. One can hear stories in church, the court house, the movie theater, the home, the bus, the car, the locker room, prison, or on a walk in the woods. Geographic location does little to deter the flow of stories.

Not only do all people tell stories, they have a need to do so. This leads us to the second reason for storytelling.

2. More than half of the world's population prefer the concrete mode of learning. According to David Barrett, the illiterates and semi- literates in the world probably outnumber literates. People with such backgrounds tend to express themselves more through concrete forms (stories and symbols) than abstract concepts (propositional thinking and philosophy).

A growing number of Americans prefer the concrete mode of communication. This is due, at least in part, to a major shift in communication preference. One of the reasons behind this shift (and the dropping literacy rate) is the television. With the average TV sound bite now around 13 seconds, and the average image length less than 3 seconds (often without linear logic), it is no wonder that those under its daily influence have little time or desire for reading which helps develop and reinforce linear thought. Consequently, newspaper businesses continue to dwindle while video production companies proliferate. If Christian workers rely too heavily on evangelism and teaching strategies based upon abstract, literary foundations, argues Herbert Klem, two-thirds of the world may be by-passed.

3. Stories connect with our imagination and emotions. Effective communication touches not only the mind, it also touches the heart and emotions. One of the best modes of communication to accomplish this is the story.

While stories provide dates, times, places, names, and chronologies, they simultaneously produce tears, cheers, fear, anger, confidence, defensiveness, conviction, sarcasm, fantasy, despair, and hope. Stories draw listeners into the lives of the characters (people, animals, or objects, real or fictitious). Listeners (participants) not only hear what happened to such characters; through the imagination they vicariously enter the experience. Herbert Schneidau eloquently captures this point when he states: "Stories have a way of tapping those feelings that we habitually anesthetize."

People appreciate stories because they mirror their total lives of fact and feeling. Stories uniquely interweave reason, mystery, and reactions, causing listeners to reflect on personal / group beliefs and actions. Stories unleash the imagination, making learning an exciting, life-changing experience.

4. Every major religion uses stories to socialize its young, convert potential followers, and indoctrinate members. Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity--all use stories to expand (and limit) membership, assure ongoing generational conversion, and bring disciples to maturation. Whether Paul was evangelizing Jews or Gentiles, the audience heard relevant stories. Unbelieving Jews heard about cultural heroes, such as Abraham, Moses, and David (Acts 13:13- 43). Unbelieving Gentiles heard about the powerful God behind the creation story (Acts 14:8-18; 17:16-34). Maturing believers heard the same stories with a different emphasis.

All major religions use stories to differentiate true members from false, acceptable behavior from unacceptable. Stories create community. Could one of the reasons for this be that stories provide an inoffensive, nonthreatening way of challenging basic beliefs and behavior?

5. Approximately 75 percent of the Bible is narrative. Figure 1 depicts the three basic styles of literature that dominate the landscape of the Scriptures: narrative, poetry, and thought-organized format. The narrative sections are predominant. Writers over the centuries have documented the actions of a host of characters: from kings to slaves, from those who follow God to those who live for personal or collective gain, from animals to objects. Such stories serve as mirrors to reflect our own perspective of life and, more importantly, God's. Charles Koller astutely points out:

"The Bible was not given to reveal the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but to reveal the hand of God in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; not as a revelation of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, but as a revelation of the Savior of Mary and Martha and Lazarus."

Poetry covers approximately 15 percent of the sacred text. Songs, lamentations and proverbs provide readers and listeners with a variety of avenues to express, and to experience deep inner emotions. These portions of Scripture demonstrate the feeling side of people (affective domain), and the God behind such emotions. The thought- organized format comprises the remaining 10 percent. The apostle Paul's Greek-influenced writings fall under this category, where logical, linear thinking tends to dominate. Interestingly, many Westerners schooled in the tradition of the Greeks (including myself) prefer to spend the majority of time in the Scripture's smallest literary style. If God communicated the majority of His message to the world through stories, what does this suggest to Christian workers?

The reader will notice I note the above percentages are approximate. It is very difficult to isolate the exact percentages of the various genres, especially since most (all?) Bible authors incorporate ingeniously several genres within their writings. For example, notice the use of poetry set in a narrative context in Isaiah or other prophets (see NIV translation). Why is it that Bible authors chose to communicate their contribution to the sacred Storybook in multi- genres, most often framed in narrative?

6. Stories create instant evangelists. People find it very easy to repeat a good story. Whether the story centers around juicy gossip or the Gospel of Jesus Christ, something within each of us wants to hear and tell such stories. Suppressing a good story is like trying to resist a jar full of one's favorite cookies. Sooner or later, the temptation becomes too strong. The cookie gets eaten; the story gets told. Told stories get retold.

Because the Ifugao could relate well to the life-experiences of Bible characters, they not only applied the stories to their lives, they immediately retold them to family and friends, even before they switched faith allegiance to Jesus Christ. Stories create storytellers.

7. Jesus taught theology through stories. It is interesting to note that Jesus never wrote a book on systematic theology. Yet, he taught theology wherever he went. As a holistic thinker, Jesus often used parabolic stories to tease audiences into reflecting on new ways of thinking about life.

As Jesus' listeners wrestled with new theology introduced innocently yet intentionally through parabolic stories, they were challenged to examine traditions, form new images of God, and transform behavior. To remain content with past realities became uncomfortable; yet to take up Jesus' challenges to step out of the boat, taste new wine, display the golden lampstands, turn from family members, extend mercy to others, search for hidden objects, and donate material goods and wealth to the poor was not a comfortable choice either. Whichever direction the listeners took, they found no middle ground. They had met God. Jesus' stories, packed with theology, caused reason, imagination, and emotions to collide, demanding a change of allegiance. Jesus' example demonstrates forcibly that stories can communicate theology effectively.


The Bible begins with the story of creation and ends with a vision of God's recreation. Peppered generously between alpha and omega are a host of stories. While stories dominate the Scripture landscape, they rarely enter the Christian worker's evangelism-discipleship strategies intentionally. Leland Ryken cogently asks:

Why does the Bible contain so many stories? Is it possible that stories reveal some truths and experiences in a way that no other literary form does --and if so, what are they? What is the difference in our picture of God, when we read stories in which God acts, as compared with theological statements about the nature of God? What does the Bible communicate through our imagination that it does not communicate through our reason? If the Bible uses the imagination as one way of communicating truth, should we not show an identical confidence in the power of the imagination to convey religious truth? If so, would a good starting point be to respect the story quality of the Bible in our exposition of it?

Is it not time that today's Christian workers revitalize one of the world's oldest, most universal arts--storytelling? Such revitalization will not only increase communication between Christian workers and audiences, but will also increase storytelling as members of the community of faith repeat the stories to family and friends. ,Reprinted by permission from Chapter 8 of Tom Steffen's book, Reconnecting God's Story to Ministry: Cross-cultural Storytelling at Home and Abroad. You may order this book from William Carey Library. See p. 14 of the resource catalog in this issue.


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