Bible Storytelling: Eye to Eye, Mind to Mind, Heart to Heart

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Most people believe that Jesus was a good teacher, but did you ever stop and wonder what they mean by that phrase? Do they simply mean a good person who taught others? Or would they agree that the content of His teaching was also good? What about the WAY Jesus taught–the way He shared truth and interacted with people, both rich and poor, educated and illiterate, young and old?

Remember when Jesus talked about the son who wasted all of his money and then came back to his dad? Remember when he talked about the man who was mugged on a journey and all the church leaders walked by on the opposite side of the road? How about the shepherd who went looking for one lost sheep? Or the farmer who scattered seeds that fell on different kinds of dirt? Again and again, the Good Teacher told stories.

How else could Jesus have chosen to share truth? Maybe He could have given stunning lectures full of impressive vocabulary. Maybe He could have spent hours in the synagogue, writing a book of wise proverbs. However, in the words of Matthew 13, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowds in parables. He did not tell them anything without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.’” Jesus chose to open His mouth in parables, not only to the crowds, but to His students and to highly educated leaders and teachers.

Luke 6:40 says, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” As Jesus’ students, being trained by His Spirit to be more and more like our Teacher, it might be a good idea for us to try His tools of learning as we make and teach disciples. British storyteller Christine McMahon asks a great question: “How can we as tellers be as storytellers were in olden times – subversive, challenging and giving voice to the voiceless?” A subversive, challenging storyteller who gave voice to the voiceless is a pretty good description of Jesus! How well does it describe His followers today?

In 1992, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published this statement: “Once upon a time, oral storytelling ruled. It was the medium through which people learned their history, settled their arguments, and came to make sense of the phenomena of their world. Then along came the written word with its mysterious symbols. For a while, only the rich and privileged had access to its wonders. But in time, books, signs, pamphlets, memos, cereal boxes, constitutions—countless kinds of writing appeared everywhere people turned. The ability to read and write now ruled many lands. Oral storytelling, like the simple-minded youngest brother in the olden tales, was foolishly cast aside. Oh, in casual ways people continued to tell each other stories at bedtime, across dinner tables, and around campfires, but the respect for storytelling as a tool of learning was almost forgotten.”

What is storytelling, exactly? The statement from the NCTE continues. “Storytelling is relating a tale to one or more listeners through voice and gesture. It is not the same as reading a story aloud or reciting a piece from memory or acting out a drama—though it shares common characteristics with these arts. The storyteller looks into the eyes of the audience and together they compose the tale…. The audience, from the first moment of listening, squints, stares, smiles, leans forward or falls asleep, letting the teller know whether to slow down, speed up, elaborate, or just finish…. The experience can be profound, exercising the thinking and touching the emotions of both teller and listener.”¹  

Bible storytelling is very similar. Storytellers relate a Bible story through voice and gesture. They don’t add or remove anything from God’s Word; they don’t embellish or summarize any part of the story. Bible storytellers interact with their listeners eye to eye, mind to mind, and heart to heart, and when the story has been told, they engage in conversation the same way Jesus did–by asking questions and listening well.

When I first I heard about this style of teaching three years ago, I had no idea how I would be changed by listening to the Bible stories and listening to the people who discussed them with me. I don’t have the evangelistic gift described in Ephesians 4. I’m not an extroverted, compassionate person with natural charisma. But God’s Spirit has used Bible storytelling, question asking, and the service of listening to train me for the work of every believer: scattering the seed. I had no idea that Jesus would ask me to scatter among illiterate teenagers, incarcerated addicts, homeless girls, junior high campers from broken homes, educated pastors, international missions leaders, kids around the kitchen table, the elderly in nursing homes, a suicidal boy, an overwhelmed mom, my seatmate on an airplane, my low-income neighborhood’s after-school club, a group of 300 church people mixed with kids and their relatives who had never been to church in their lives. Apparently everybody likes a good story.

I have looked into the eyes of people that I would never have encountered before and I’ve realized that the only thing I have to offer them is the seed. What do you say to a woman in jail who has just heard the story of Jesus forcing evil spirits to leave a man, when she asks with tears streaming down her cheeks, “What I want to know is, why won’t Jesus do that for me? Because I have demons.” What do you say to a boy whose mom is controlled by her chemical addiction? What do you say to a twelve-year old after the police show up at her house to take her baby niece because there were allegations of abuse?

God’s Word is living and active. It is a seed that produces life. But not everyone is able to read God’s Word for themselves. Not everyone likes to read at all. Not everyone will listen to a sermon. Not everyone is able to understand or remember an abstract lesson. There are no easy answers for the problems and questions of broken people, but there is a Good Teacher who knows all the answers, who gave us His Story to share, and who modeled a way of teaching that can give us direction when we don’t know what to say. Bible stories told through voice and gesture will capture the heart, get people thinking, and stick in their minds–whether they are educated or illiterate, old or young, Christian or non-Christian. Be a student of the Storyteller who gives voice to the voiceless. Ask questions. Listen. Open your mouth in parables. Scatter the seed.

“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)

¹ www2.ncte.org/statement/teachingstorytelling/

Lauren Ottwell lives in rural Illinois, where she tells stories and listens to a small group of amazing unchurched children in a weekly after-school Bible Club. She is a storyteller with Simply the Story, a ministry that equips Christians to evangelize, teach and disciple through story, questions, listening and responding.

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