I’m a firm believer in the power of Bible storying. During thirty-six years serving overseas in Africa, South Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, I’ve seen stories from Scripture change lives all over the world.
The vast majority of the world’s people are oral communicators—up to three quarters of them. That means 5.4 billion of the earth’s 7.2 billion people would rather hear stories than read print. If we want to communicate the gospel in oral cultures, then Bible storying is an essential approach for making disciples in the world we live in today. Here are three stories that reveal why.
1. Bible Stories Touch the Heart
My hostess sat across the table from me, a cup of tea in her hand, tears rolling down her face. “That story you told was about me,” she said. “My husband doesn’t love me.”
Earlier I led a group of about eighty-five believers in a Bible study using the Oral Bible Storying approach. I told the Old Testament story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. I explained how Jacob loved Rachel at first sight, and how her father made him work seven years before allowing the marriage. The morning after the wedding, however, Jacob discovered Rachel’s sister Leah in the marriage bed, not the woman he had fallen in love with.
Rachel’s father justified his trickery, saying it’s not customary to marry off a younger daughter before the older. He said Jacob could marry Rachel if he worked another seven years. At that point, there’s an interesting phrase at the heart of the story: “And God saw that Leah was unloved” (Gen. 29:31).
Three times Leah gave birth to a son, each time thinking that surely Jacob would love her. But he didn’t. Then a fourth son came—Judah—and Leah said, “This time I will praise the Lord,” because she knew that God loved her and had his eye on her.
Leah’s story captivated my hostess. I listened as she confessed, still crying, that she provides for her husband, cooks his meals, washes his clothes, cleans his house, and has given him children, but he still doesn’t love her. But the story of Leah reminded her that God loves her, and that assurance gave her comfort.
In that moment, I saw that stories from God’s Word have the power to touch the heart. In the book The Sacred Romance, Brent Curtis and John Eldridge remind us, “The heart does not respond to principles and programs. It seeks not efficiency, but passion.”
We must speak the language of the heart if we want to communicate with other hearts, and stories resonate with hearts across cultural boundaries.
2. Bible Stories Reveal Truth
Once, when I was leading a conference on orality and Bible storying in which both Christians and Muslims were participating, I told the story of David and Bathsheba. A Muslim woman who had been listening, stood up to argue. She informed me that King David of the Old Testament is one of their prophets and that prophets don’t sin.
In response, I asked her what the story reveals. But again, she insisted that prophets don’t sin.
The next day, I was surprised when she returned. She asked if she could say something. Hesitantly, I agreed. “David is one of our prophets,” she said. Oh no, I thought, here we go again. But she continued, “and David sinned.”
I smiled, agreeing with her that David had indeed sinned. Then she went even further, observing that God forgave his sin. My smile got bigger, and I agreed that God had forgiven his sin.
“We must speak the language of the heart if we want to communicate with other hearts, and stories resonate with hearts across cultural boundaries.”
I didn’t teach this Muslim woman these insights. The seed of God’s Word watered by the Holy Spirit did. I learned another valuable lesson that day: stories from God’s Word have the power to reveal truth. Eugene Peterson said in Stories of Jesus,that more often than not, stories from God’s Word lodge unnoticed in our consciousness and unexpectedly release insights and new perspectives. “We find ourselves reeling, reaching out for support,” he said. “When the story is allowed to complete its work, the sole support we find ourselves grabbing onto is God.”
3. Bible Stories are Easy to Teach and Easy to Share
A few years ago, I was walking the foothills of a majestic mountain range with the Christian owner of a successful ecotourism business. We were enjoying one another’s company when he made a confession. He shared that he was illiterate—he couldn’t read or write. Consequently, he believed that there was no ministry he could do for God.
“You might be surprised at what you could do,” I said. About that time, a farmer in a nearby field hollered to us, inviting us to join him for some tea. We sat in the courtyard of his humble, rural home, and while sipping the sweet, strong tea, the farmer and his extended family began to tell stories, many of which centered on the folklore of the region.
I volunteered to tell a story. They agreed, so I began relating the story of creation. When I finished, one man said, “That’s a good story.” Another added, “That’s a true story.”
I concluded our time with this family by asking if they would like to hear more of these kinds of stories. Eager for more stories, I said that I wouldn’t be here but perhaps my friend would tell them if he were asked. We said our goodbyes and resumed our hike. My companion said, “Sharing God’s Word. It’s that easy, isn’t it?” I assured him that it’s that easy.
In that moment, another truth of the power of stories from God’s Word became real to me: sharing stories from God’s Word is easy and is reproducible. Even an illiterate businessman can do it.
Ready to Begin Bible Storying?
Steve Evans is communications strategist based in Africa. His primary focus is orality and Bible storying. He and his wife, Carla, have been with the IMB since 1981.
The featured image is a painting called “The Storyteller” by African artist Ben Adedipe. Used with permission.