‘Adults won’t listen to Bible stories. They’re for children’.
When Bible storytelling was first introduced to me, I dismissed it as irrelevant. I believed that I didn’t need another tool for evangelism. I had more than enough work doing evangelistic Bible studies and apolo-getics. I was wrong.
My first attempt was in a busy photo developing shop. My creation story was unpolished but that didn’t seem to matter. Each time a customer left, the owner looked expectantly towards me. Next time I visited she asked, ‘What’s the next story?’ Hard-earned ways to start gospel conversations were no longer needed.
Many evangelistic methods – sermons, courses investigating Christianity – can only be done with people already interested in finding out more. Storying allows opportunities with those who are anti-Christian or haven’t yet considered that Jesus could be relevant to their lives.
Once, during a flight, I met a man from Pakistan. After initial chit-chat he was surprised to discover I was a Bible storyteller and admitted he knew little about the Bible. I offered to tell him the Bible’s first story. After each story he said: ‘What’s next?’ I shared an entire Bible overview in 14 sections. Storying can turn someone like this into a seeker.
People love stories
People frequently say, ‘We can see story-telling suits cross-cultural situations but Westerners are different.’
For the last ten years I’ve been telling stories to adults all over the world. I’ve told them to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists. I’ve told them to young and old. I’ve told them in Western and non-Western contexts; to the illiterate and to those with PhD’s. There has been almost no difference in how they’re received. Repeatedly I’ve discovered that ‘people love stories’. This should be no surprise to us. Movies make billions out of the story business. Secular research also emphasises ‘Say it with stories and people will listen.’ Or ‘postmodern people are resistant to being ‘lectured’ but will listen to stories’.
How did Jesus communicate? ‘He did not say anything to them without using a parable’ (Mark 4:34). I do not believe that Bible stories are the only stories we should be telling, but I certainly believe it is worth making them a significant proportion of our communication. Since using Bible stories I have never had so many deep, spiritual conversations.
Many Westerners are deeply antagonistic to the Bible. They view it as a book of myths, so why would they want to study it or go to listen to someone preach it? Strangely, defences haven’t been raised against Bible stories.
Steve was a house painter from England vacationing in the Philippines. One morning Steve said, ‘I’ve talked to numerous religious leaders but they’ve never been able to answer my questions satisfactorily.’
‘What were your questions?’
‘The main one is, why is there pain and suffering and why doesn’t God, if there is a God, do something about it?’
‘Could I share something I’ve learned using a story from the Bible?’
‘I don’t believe the Bible.’
‘That’s no problem, I hope you’ll find the story helpful anyway. ‘
From the beginning
We started with Creation and God’s intentions for his world. ‘...God said, “Let us make people in our image”. So he made a man out of the dust of the earth and breathed his spirit into the man and he became a living being...’ Steve’s two children and his son’s girlfriend drifted over to listen. I filled them in on the story so far and continued with the start of all pain and trouble (Genesis 3). That story contains the strange hint of hope: ‘The snake and the descendants of the woman will hate each other. The snake will strike her descendant’s heel, but one day a descendent will crush the head of the snake.’
One of the listeners said, ‘I know you’re going to say that Jesus is the one coming to crush the snake’s head, but how will he do it?’
‘It will be easier to understand if I tell you a few more stories before Jesus.’
So we continued with the stories of Abraham, the exodus… each story set up the one that followed, emphasising the nature of the human problem and how desperately we needed a Saviour. Between each story there was lively discussion.
After an hour, we reached the end of the Old Testament.
‘Come on, don’t leave us in suspense. Tell us how Jesus saves!’
Outside the beach beckoned. It was a perfect day for snorkeling, and this family had escaped winter to play in the sun. Today the beach might not have existed.
After stories of Jesus’s birth and ministry we finally reached his death and resurrection. ‘Do you remember what the temple curtain in the Old Testament symbolised?’ I asked.
‘The separation between God and people.’
‘What was the only way people could be forgiven and be friends with God?’
‘A representative had to prepare himself, kill a perfect sacrifice and take its blood through the curtain.’
‘So what did it mean when the temple curtain tore just when Jesus died?’
They started hesitantly: ‘I guess it means … that because Jesus died … the barrier between us and God has been dealt with… so we can once again be friends with God’.
‘So Jesus was like that perfect sacrifice.’
‘Yes, but he was also the representative,’ chimed in another.
Two days later
At last, I called an end to the storying before we’d exhausted ourselves and lost the joy of discovery. Two days later, Steve said: ‘I’m going home to find my Bible. If those religious experts had told me such relevant stories, I would have happily gone to their church and wouldn’t have given up searching’.1
Learning Bible stories has also been of personal benefit. Although learning the first few was tough, the task has become easier. Along the way, I have delved deeply into God’s Word. Tiny scriptural details lead to exciting discoveries. My love for the scriptures and passion for telling them has grown. My faith has also increased as I discover most people are willing to hear stories.
Last year, during a five-day hike in New Zealand, we were praying for a story opportunity, but it wasn’t until the fourth night that God provided such cold weather that people huddled around the stove. An Australian man was intrigued to discover I was a ‘storyteller.’ We welcomed his family to join us for our nightly Daniel story. We started again from the first story. Between each story they joined in our discussion. We explained the ‘rules’: everyone must give a different answer, in a maximum of two sentences and based only on this story.
1) What part did you like? Why?
2) What questions might someone have?
3) What can we learn about God?
4) What can we learn about people?
After four chapters, the family was told that they could hear the final two stories after dinner if they were interested. In the break, two came to me, ‘We can’t wait to hear the last two parts.’ After the final story, discussion continued for over an hour.
Discovering we were catching the same bus the next morning, I said, ‘If you want to hear another story tomorrow, we’ll have one prepared.’ During the bus ride, another group member told the Genesis 3 story and there was rigorous discussion. The family thanked us profusely for a stimulating discussion and the wife reflected: ‘These stories demand a response’.
Christine Dillon is with OMF-Taiwan
1. Opening illustration in Telling the Gospel Through Story: Evangelism that Keeps Hearers Wanting More (IVP, 2012)