Christine Dillon looks at how can we tell stories that can be understood by everyone—old and young, male and female, educated and uneducated—and help them see the Bible’s relevance. It provides pointers on how to choose a set of stories and includes a sample conversation to lead into the Zacchaeus story.
Christine Dillon’s parents were OMFers in Taiwan from 1964 and she feels privileged to have gone to Chefoo School, Malaysia and Faith Academy, Philippines. She returned to Taiwan in 1999 where she has been involved with church planting among working class people since 2004.
A Journey Worth Taking
Mission Round Table vol. 11 no. 1 (January 2016): 22-27
A brother and sister I know went to a church, but after about four months they left. “We couldn’t understand what they were talking about and they kept putting pressure on us to believe in Jesus.” I was disturbed because their other sister was a good friend and she longed for her siblings to trust Jesus. I asked if I could come and share stories with them. They were suspicious about having anything to do with another Christian, but finally agreed to one meeting. To their surprise, they loved the stories and several months later both came to new life.
Churches in Taiwan long for their members to be able to share Jesus effectively with everyone they know. Sharing Jesus can be done in many ways: through testimonies, invitations to church events, serving people and Bible studies. The question we need to ask is whether our friends understand what we’re trying to communicate. Christians often use special vocabulary and talk in abstract ways that non-Christians don’t understand. Sometimes we jump straight to Jesus and proclaim he is the “answer” to everything, even though our friends don’t even know what the questions are!
How can we share in a way that shows the Bible’s relevance and also can be understood by everyone—old and young, male and female, educated and uneducated? How can we share so that people’s whole way of viewing the world is transformed, so that deep and not simply superficial changes can be made? We are often impatient, but something as deeply held as worldview takes time to change. Storytelling specializes in changing worldview, for if we change the stories we believe in, then we change. This kind of deep change is what “making disciples” is about. Storytelling isn’t just for evangelism. From the first story it is doing the work of discipleship.
I was a reluctant convert to storytelling. I immediately put it in the category of “children’s ministry.” Since I did little children’s ministry, I dismissed it as simplistic and “not suitable for adults.” I was also busy enough leading evangelistic Bible studies. Even if I had been interested in this tool I could see that changing my communication style would require a significant investment of time.
Although I first dismissed it, I learned I was wrong. Thankfully God pressed me to “give it a try.” My first attempt was in a busy photo-developing shop. While I didn’t do a particularly good job with the story and a constant flow of customers meant numerous interruptions, I was astounded by the response of the hearer. She loved the story and wanted to hear more. Suddenly I was no longer having to start gospel conversations from scratch. Instead people were asking me to tell them about the Bible.
When I met the woman in the photo-developing shop, it was easy to ask if she would listen to a story. The subsequent visits were also easier because she naturally asked me for the next one in the series. And if someone doesn’t ask, we can simply say, “May I tell you the next story in the set?” This is far easier than spending ages praying for a natural opening to start a gospel conversation. Going from ordinary topics to the gospel is hard work and takes much practice.
Since the first experience in 2004 was so positive, I continued experimenting. I quickly worked out that the model of story I received was too long and complex. In fact, it was multiple-stories-in-one with teaching and explanation in the body of the story. So over the next couple of years I decreased the lengths of my stories.
It wasn’t until five years into my learning process that I met John Walsh, an American storyteller. I discovered much from him about learning stories, leading discussion, and using poetry, song, and drama to help the story dig its way deeper into our hearts. He demonstrated to me how to tell biblically accurate stories using only his voice and hands as his tools. No sophisticated technology or visual aids.
While my stories improved over time, they were still summaries and contained some teaching “asides” along the way. So I kept shortening the stories and coming ever closer to the biblical text. This was easy with a “miracle” story like Mark 2:1–12, but what does one do with lengthy stories like the one about Noah? For a long time I summarised that story by selecting the parts I thought were important and leaving other parts out. The problem was that I had three years of theological education which equipped me to recognise the main points while many locals hadn’t learn this skill. It simply isn’t part of their education system. Another problem with a summarised story was that those I taught were trying to replicate my story (which was influenced by many things, including my personality). Since they weren’t “me” and didn’t think like me, they struggled to learn the stories.
In 2014, I had a chance to attend “Simply the Story” training. The main training took three days, with an extra two days added for those wanting to learn how to train others. One of the significant strengths of this method is the way it teaches people how to learn stories and its limiting stories to sixteen consecutive verses or less. This means that when my team and I wanted to tell the Noah story, we had to look at the whole story and decide, “If we can only do up to sixteen verses which sixteen verses should we do?” In the end we chose Genesis 6:9–22. But since this story concludes with Noah and his family going into the ark, what do we do about the rest of the story? I generally no longer tell it. Instead, in Taiwan OMF and SEND have worked together to produce a series of “mini-Bibles” that contain about four chapters of the Bible. I say to (literate) people after telling a story, “This little booklet contains the story you just heard and tells you what happened afterwards.” That way, I’m encouraging people to read God’s word. If the people you work with prefer not to read, then a similar thing could be accomplished through recording the Bible or Bible portions to match the stories using a variety of digital technologies.
I love this way of storytelling because the standard is now God’s word. People know when they’ve really learned the story or whether there still are gaps or bits they need to work on.
How to learn a story
The easiest way to learn a story is to read (or listen to) the story out loud. Reading out loud slows you down and brings out the details. Once you have read the story, close your Bible and immediately retell (out loud) as much of the story as you remember. Don’t worry if the first time you tell the story you leave big gaps. The next time you read the story you’ll pay particular attention to the parts you forgot. Repeat this process three or four times and then start practicing with everyone you meet.
Introducing the story
Most stories need a short introduction. The story should be placed in its context and any specialised words, like “Sabbath,” explained. For example, the introduction to Genesis 16 could be, “Many generations passed after Noah. One day, God spoke to one of Noah’s descendants, a man called Abraham who lived in Babylon (Iraq). ‘Leave your people and your father’s household and travel to the place I will tell you. I will make you into a great nation and bless you. Through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed.’ Although Abraham was seventy-five years old he followed God to the land of Canaan (now Israel). When he was eighty five and his wife, Sarah, was seventy five, this story happened.” Then tell the Genesis 16:1–10 story.
Another important thing to do when presenting the story is to clearly differentiate between the introduction and the actual story. You can do this by opening or closing the Bible or simply saying, “Today’s story starts here … and ends here.”
For the last twelve 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 PhDs. There has been almost no difference in how they’re received. Repeatedly, I’ve discovered that “people love stories.” This should not come as a surprise. Movies make billions out of the story business. Secular research also emphasises the point: “Say it with stories and people will listen.”
Once, on a short holiday, I met four older women who were staying at my hostel. They were curious when they heard I was a storyteller. “What kind of stories do you tell?” they asked.
Thinking it was a one-off opportunity, I told them Genesis 1–3.
“How many stories do you know?”
“I usually tell a series of fourteen.”
When they heard I was at the hostel for three nights they said, “Can we hear all the stories?”
So each evening, after hiking all day, I would tell five stories to them in Taiwanese. They loved our story times and as I was leaving on the final morning to catch my bus they said to a new couple who walked in, “You ought to ask this lady to tell you one of her stories.”
So the young couple also heard Genesis 1–3. They asked so many questions that I nearly missed my bus because I had to tell them six Old Testament story sections. Even though my time was limited, I was able to leave them with the web links so that they could discover the fourteen stories on their own.
Storytelling makes it easy to start a conversation
Though starting a conversation can be intimidating, offering to tell a story may well break the ice. Often we only need to say, “I’ve just learned a story and need to practice it with someone.
Would you have five minutes to listen?” Few people refuse. Another approach is to introduce yourself: “I’m a teacher” or “I’m a market salesperson” and then add, “but what I really love to do is tell stories.”
Once you’ve learned a few stories, pray that God reveals natural opportunities to say, “That reminds me of a story,” or “I know a story that deals with that issue.” Mr. and Mrs. Lim, handbag sellers, had just experienced a natural disaster that buried their hometown in three metres of mud. They shared their grief and pain, which enabled me to gently ask, “Why do such terrible things happen?” Their viewpoint was formed by their religious upbringing.
They wondered what terrible sin their townspeople had committed to result in this disaster. After listening to them I said, “I know a story that helps explain why this world is such a painful place.” I told them the Genesis 1–3 stories, starting with creation, to show the contrast between the perfect world God made and the current one marred by sin. I was able to explain that it is because we live in this broken world that terrible things happen; they are not always the result of our sinful choices.
This initial conversation opened the door for them to hear many stories. They are still afraid to follow Jesus as they fear their parents’ rejection and anger. However, their worldview has been strongly impacted. In 2012 there was a prophecy that the world would end on 21 December. As I passed their stall, Mr. Lim called out, “Are you frightened that the world is ending this Friday?”
“Jesus tells us that no one knows when the world will end, so I know it won’t be this Friday. But he could return anytime. Are you ready if he returns today?”
Mr. Lim asked, “What is our ark?”
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“Well, when the world ended last time, God prepared an ark for Noah to escape the flood.”
When I asked, “What do you think is our ark now?” Mrs. Lim answered, “We have to trust in Jesus and then we’ll always be safe.”
Bible storytelling helps people begin to understand and apply the Bible into their own lives.
Listeners often express deep truths simply
A thirty-year-old man owned a bicycle shop. After I’d been building a friendship with his family for a year, an unexpected thunderstorm forced me to seek shelter from the rain in front of the bike shop. The owner asked me how long I was going to live in Taiwan.
“I plan to live here thirty to forty years, but at any time God might ask me to go elsewhere.”
“You mean you just trust God and follow wherever he leads you?”
“Your comment reminds me of a story about a man who followed God even though he didn’t know where God was leading him.”
I told him the Abraham story. At the end he burst out, “You are a descendent of Abraham because you are carrying the blessing he was given to us in this town, at the ends of the earth.”
When I heard this man say this I believed that he would become a follower of Jesus. After hearing Bible stories every week for a year he was baptised and now tells stories to others.
Russell Gray used flip charts in the 1970s to illustrate Bible lessons.
My learning journey continues
I have loved the challenge of Bible storytelling, but at times I’ve wished I didn’t have so much to learn. People that I train now have the benefits of my twelve years of mistakes and the refining that has improved the process. For instance, while I have greatly benefited from “Simply the Story,” I do not follow its every detail. This is particularly noticeable by the discussion method we use. “Simply the Story” is storyteller led and requires a great deal of training. Since we aim to train anyone to lead, we wanted a simpler method and have formulated one that usually only takes two to three times for someone to grasp and be able to use.
Discussing the story and training others
The following set of questions works best in a small group but can be used with individuals.
The role of the facilitator is to ensure that things move forward. While you don’t actually lead the group, you should work out a simple way to have different group members read and lead a question.
The facilitator should inform the group: “We are going to answer six questions. The rule is that everyone should answer every question and each answer should only be one or two sentences long. [This puts limits on those who are prone to preach!] Your answers to the first four questions must be different than everyone else’s.”
Six questions are printed on cards. Turn them over and everyone in the group chooses one or two cards. Whoever has question one reads out that question. The person who holds card two goes next and so on.
1. What do you like about this story? Why?
Since this question has no wrong answer, it allows people to relax.
2. What questions might someone have about this story?
The idea is that everyone can raise multiple questions and the story teller doesn’t need to answer any of them! While this may sound counter-intuitive, try it first for several months and compare it with your previous situation when questions were answered.
There are many reasons why “not answering” is a benefit. Personally, I love answering questions and so this discipline was difficult for me. However, after three months of not answering I discovered that when we answer questions, we often close off the learning process. Not answering allows the important questions to be puzzled over for days and weeks. It stimulates people’s curiosity to read the Bible for themselves. We also found that this method avoided the “answerer of questions” becoming the authority in the group. Rather, people went to the Bible for answers or just kept thinking. We also helped solve a leadership issue because many people were afraid to be leaders because they felt they had to know a lot. With this method, however, they only need to be able to facilitate rather than answer every question. When people feel they need to answer a question the answers were often shallow and sometimes completely incorrect.
This question also helps people to know that it is okay to ask any question. I have had numerous Christians admit to me that they have many questions about the Bible but have never dared to ask them. This format gives them a way to express those questions without feeling that others are judging them.
Possible questions include the following. “I wonder how they built the ark?” “Were people vegetarians before Noah?” “What does it mean to walk with God?”
3. What can we learn about people from the characters in this story?
If a story includes many characters, you can group them and ask something like, “What do we learn about people from the priests? the crowd? the disciples?”
4. What can we learn about God/ Jesus/the Holy Spirit from this story?
Only ask about the member of the Trinity who is mentioned in the story.
5. After reading this story, what do you want to change in your life this week? State your answer in the form “This week I want to…”
We have found that this question helps people to be concrete and to learn that truth is meant to be applied and not just talked about.
6. Who else needs to hear this story?
We want people to get used to the idea that stories are meant to be passed on and not simply learned. With these last two questions we are saying “it is normal to obey God and to pass on his word to others.”
In our town there is a group of social workers who are employed by a Christian organisation. Even though most of the employees aren’t Christians, their company requires that they attend an hour of Bible study each week. Last year, two of us were invited to tell stories during this time. When we started, we only asked the first four of the questions since many of those in attendance weren’t Christians. However, we soon felt prompted to ask all six. From the third story, we were encouraged that three non-Christians shared the story with other colleagues who had missed it. Sadly, the believers in the group were more reluctant to repeat the stories. One week, after hearing an Abraham story, the oldest woman in the group said, “God always fulfils his promises. However his timing is sometimes much slower than ours and so we are tempted to try and help him in our own ways. This ends in disaster. What we need to do is wait for his timing.”
Choosing a set of stories
Another significant stage in my storytelling journey began in May 2015 when I was challenged to decrease my story set. Since we want locals to feel, “I can do this,” a set of fourteen stories was thought to be too daunting and may well have been one of the reasons we struggled to train local storytellers. We made the decision that eight stories would be about the right number.
The same person who challenged us to cut our story set to eight also suggested we add one story at the front to be our “seeker tool”. This story is designed to grab people’s attention to the point that they would be willing to listen to the whole set.
We wanted at least half of the stories to be from the Old Testament—since a majority of the Bible is Old Testament and that background is so essential to understand who Jesus is and what he came to do. So the question we asked ourselves was, “If we could only use eight stories—four from the Old Testament and four from the New— which would they be?” We designed this initial set to allow people to understand what salvation is and why they need it. Clearly, a crucifixion story and resurrection story are essential. That meant we needed to add six others. But which ones should we pick? We started our decision making in reverse as we thought the New Testament stories might be easier to choose.
Our team chose the following set of stories for the reasons stated below. As you consider your needs and context, you may find that you need to select a different set.
Crucifixion (Luke 23:32–47)
It is not easy to choose a “16-verse-or-less” account of the crucifixion! To put it into context, we summarise the arrest, denials, etc. in our introduction.
Resurrection (Luke 24:36–51)
By limiting our story about the resurrection to the final third of the chapter, we can introduce the ascension and the Great Commission. The early part of the chapter can be easily summarised as the introduction.
Once these two stories were chosen, we had six other New Testament stories to choose from the original set of fourteen. Those six included the Christmas story and five miracle stories that demonstrate Jesus’ authority and who he was. Each team member had to justify their two choices and we also asked a local pastor who was from a non-Christian background for his input. We eventually chose the following.
Jesus had authority to forgive sin and heal diseases (Mark 2:1–12)
This story was chosen because it demonstrates two of Jesus’ powers and ties in well with the crucifixion.
Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11: 32–44)
This story shows Jesus’ authority over death, a power which prompts the question, “Who is this man?” It also introduces the plot to kill Jesus, a fact that can be mentioned at the end of the story as it leads into the story of the crucifixion. An alternative story would be one of the “authority over demons” stories.
While we cannot cover everything, the mini-Bibles are designed to cover the sections we don’t.
As difficult as it is to reduce the New Testament to four stories, we found it much more difficult to choose four stories from the Old Testament. In the end we chose the following:
Rebellion (Genesis 3:1–15)
To introduce the story of the fall of humankind, we summarise the creation account.
Abraham and Hagar (Genesis 16:2–10)
The story about Abraham and Hagar requires an introduction summarising Genesis 12:1–7, as the blessing given to one man and through him to the entire nation of Israel is one of the central passages of the Bible. It also sets up the whole idea of how we are blessed through him.
While some may not find it easy to see why we chose this story, we have found that almost everyone relates to it since it is proceeds “like a soap opera.” Many people really start paying attention after hearing this story. This story relates well to our overall theme of “blessing”, as Abraham and Sarah tried to gain blessings in their own way rather than trusting God.
We did not choose the “sacrifice of Isaac” story (Gen 22:1–19) for two reasons. Firstly, this story on its own requires a long introduction. Secondly, when it is told out of context Abraham comes across as a super hero of trusting God when his real life story included at least three major failures. We have also discovered that many people were so shocked by this story— what kind of a God is so horrible as to ask Abraham to sacrifice his son?—that they stop listening altogether. While there might be a sort of natural “separating those truly interested,” we’d prefer that they would be able to listen to a whole set of stories before that division is made.
Plague of Hail (Exodus 9:13–28)
The story of the seventh plague presents “two ways to live,” as even the Egyptians could have avoided the plague if they obeyed God. It seems to be less confrontative than the story of Noah. The story also clearly explains why God sent the plagues and the overall purpose of his interactions with people, “That all the earth might know my name” (verses 13–16).
Passover (Exodus 12:29–33)
The Passover story is always remembered clearly because of the Chinese tradition of applying blessings painted on red paper over the door frame at Chinese New Year. The Bible also considers this an Old Testament “salvation” story, as the New Testament frequently links Jesus’ death with the Passover Lamb. We initially tried to learn the story from 12:21–33 but found that the instructions contained in verses 21–28 were difficult for people to memorise. Eventually we shortened the story to 12:29–33 and summarised the instructions from the earlier verses as part of an introduction.
Initial “seeker tool” story
After much prayer and discussion we decided we wanted a story of a “transformed life” that was tied to a local issue or felt need and would connect with every story in the set. Eventually we decided on the Zacchaeus story which links in with the local concern for “blessing”. We also felt that it should be a story that could easily introduced for people in our setting.
Sample conversation to lead into the Zacchaeus story
“Why do people in Taiwan go to temples?”
“They are looking for peace, wealth, and health.”
“So are you saying that they are seeking blessings?”
“Yes, we all want blessing.”
“I would like to tell you a story about a man who was outwardly blessed. He was healthy—he could climb trees as a grown man—and wealthy—though he got his wealth by cheating others.
But in spite of his health and wealth, do you think he was happy? Listen to the story and hear what people thought about him.”
After this we tell the story from Luke 19 and then ask some questions starting with a comment like, “Let’s compare the ‘before’ and ‘after’ situation for Zacchaeus. We know that ‘before’ Zacchaeus appeared blessed with much wealth, a high paying job, and probably a big house and all that went with that lifestyle, but what clues does the story give about his heart situation?”
Many different answers are given here but some possible answers are, “He had no friends,” or “He wasn’t respected,” or “He was probably lonely and empty.”
Then we look at the “after” story and say something like, “By the end of the story he has given away between half and ninety percent of his wealth depending on how many people he had cheated. But what seems to be the situation with his ‘heart’ now? By the end of the story, the external blessings that Zacchaeus had were gone but the condition of his heart had greatly changed. What is his heart like now?”
While a variety of answers can be given, we use these to lead into the question, “What brought about the change?” I’ve only heard three answers to this. “He met Jesus,” or “He was saved,” or “He was found.”
If appropriate, we can bridge to our own “lostness” or “seeking blessing in wrong places” story/testimony. I try to tell this in two minutes or less in a “before and after format.”
This story could be concluded with, “Would you like to hear more stories about how your life can be transformed like Zacchaeus and how you can find true blessing?”
While we picked the story about Zacchaeus, you will have to find a story and theme that will work in your situation. Depending on the context, it could be something like, “Where do you find forgiveness?” or “How can you be forgiven?” It could also be tied to a really local theme rather than a national or people-group theme. For example, every three years our town hosts an idol festival that advertises itself as “welcoming the king.” A little imagination could produce a related theme for Christians to talk about and eight or so stories that relate to that theme. To evaluate if your opening seeker story is a good one, check that it links to all your eight stories and then go out and experiment with local people.
I am so thankful that God forced me to start out on this journey to storytelling. Besides all the blessings of seeing people grow as disciples and in their understanding, I too have benefitted hugely. I now truly know large sections of Scripture. I find myself meditating on the stories every day so that they change me before I pass them on. The people in the stories both inspire me and warn me of things I should not do. The impact the stories have had on me excites me to share what I’ve discovered with others.
When my journey began, I thought that storytelling was just an evangelistic tool. Soon I realised that it was simultaneously a path to discipleship. Now I use stories every day for all aspects of ministry including pastoral care, preaching, evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training. It is a tool I would not want to do without. Can I encourage you to come and join me on this journey?
A forum and accountability group can be found on Facebook. Search for “storying the scriptures” and request permission to join. Once accepted you can ask any of your FB friends to join.
 Service on its own is not enough. It needs to have the good news explained alongside it or people might mistakenly believe we’re doing good deeds because we’re “nice” people or to earn a reward.
 It also provides leadership training, because from day one it gives good and bad models of leaders and shows the consequences. Later in the discipleship process, after a person has heard many stories, you can make this more explicit.
 For more information see: http://simplythestory.org/oralbiblestories/ (accessed 9 November 2015).
 If people in the group are illiterate, you can have them nominate a “reader”. Within about four weeks they should remember all the questions. Please adjust everything for your context.
 Interestingly, while it took the missionary team several weeks to think through and choose the stories they felt would be suitable, the local pastor took less than ten minutes to tell us his choice. We were relieved that he reached the same decisions we had come to.
 While our story only covers Genesis 3:1–15, the whole of Genesis 1–4 is available in a mini-Bible. Similarly, while Moses is covered in two short stories, two mini-Bibles provide much more of the early exodus story including the crossing of the Red Sea and the wilderness wanderings. As handing a person a Bible may scare them away, the mini-Bible is designed to “wean” them so they can read the full Bible. In addition, since many people will try to read the Bible from the first chapter as they would a normal book, we find that they often become bored and give up by the time they read Exodus 21.