“A story is a picture that I have in my head that I wish you could see. In order to move that picture from my head to yours, I use everything I have: my face, body, voice, my sounds and words. And when you laugh, it doesn’t say, ‘That was funny.’ When you laugh, it says, “I just saw it!’”
—Donald Davis, at the 2002 Network of Biblical Storytellers, Int. Festival Gathering
What tools are you using to move your story into your listeners’ minds? You need to use your eyes, face, vocal variety, pauses, pitch, and physicality to convey effectively that picture in your head. But you have more tools at your disposal than just your physical being. You have an active imagination as well. Consider how you might use music, visuals and participation to flesh out your story.
Music can help set a mood. It can deepen your listeners’ connection to the story by encouraging participation. Music can create a theme for your performance and be a connecting link between stories. It can also help you open up a dialogue about tough issues, such as health or divorce, and can be a bridge to personal stories about these issues. You already know hundreds of songs. Think about songs that call out to you and tug at your heart. Ask yourself why you like them so much. Catalogue the memories, images and emotions they evoke.
We all make personal connections to music. Exploring these connections can help you discover stories that share the emotions, spirit or content of these songs. Then explore how you can connect these songs with stories you want to tell. Ask yourself where you were the first time you heard “Jesus Loves Me” or “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir.” Decide why these songs matter to you. Then try this exercise: create a list of biblical, folk or personal stories that have connections to your songs.
I play the banjo and write songs as a part of my storytelling. But playing a musical instrument is not required to include music in stories. Some very compelling storytellers employ nothing more than their voice and rhythm.
Singing a capella allows for give and take with your listeners. Tracy Radosevic tells a wonderful version of the parable of the sower. She begins by singing the chorus of “The Garden Song” (“Inch by inch, row by row…”) and inviting her listeners to sing along. Then she tells the parable. She sings the chorus again, tells Jesus’ explanation of the parable and closes with a sing-a-long of the chorus. When listeners are invited to participate in the telling in any way they listen more closely.
Biblical stories contain their own stage directions. When I was learning the story of Paul and Silas in prison, I discovered a perfect place to add music. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25). They were likely singing psalms, so I inserted a song I wrote based on Psalm 46 (“O see the wonders of our God, God is here in times of trouble, The earth gives way beneath my feet”). The next line in the story tells of an earthquake so the psalm led right back into the story.
One of my favorite activities with youth is to retell a biblical story by setting it to a popular song. We hammer out new lyrics that reflect the essential actions of the story. The students learn the basic story structure as they adapt it from prose. It also changes the way they hear the original tune. I once challenged my middler class to tell Jonah in song. They retooled the Black Eyed Peas’ hit “I Got a Feeling.”
I got a feeling that I’m headed off to Nineveh
That I’m headed off to Nineveh
That I’m headed of to Nineveh
Been in this fish for three days now!
It stinks in here, God! Get me out!
Now when they hear the Peas they think of Jonah. When we incorporate a pop tune into a biblical story, we change the connections our listeners have with that song. We create a subtle cultural shift.
In this post-literate, digital culture, storytellers have a wonderful opportunity to connect with their audience by incorporating visual elements. My son created a beautiful visual opening for my performance, “The word became flesh, stories from the gospel of John.” I chose a series of visual images that reflected the verbal images of Genesis 1:1–2. Images of swirling nebulas, the earth rising over the moon combined with original art as I began with the familiar words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The video concluded with the words “In the beginning” on screen. Then I simply walked to the front of the sanctuary and began to tell John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God.” The visual images did the work of connecting the two biblical texts, just as the writer of John intended.
If you are not adept at Power Point or digital video, make this an opportunity to widen your ministry by inviting in tech-savvy people with a passion for visual storytelling. This collaboration can produce projects you might never envision on your own. You provide the initial story and they provide the visualization. Or better yet, send your videographers out with smart phones to create a video retelling of their favorite parable. Imagine an afternoon of storytelling in which you tell a biblical parable, your youth show their video versions of it and then your listeners share personal stories evoked by these stories. Post your stories to YouTube and start an online discussion group. Think of the community that could be built in this way!
Do you have a picture in your head that you want to convey to your listeners? Then you need to explore every tool God has given you: your voice, body, musicality and ability to engage others to use their digital skills to help you to tell the story of the good news.
Dan LeMonnier is the youth director at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Munster, IN. He holds a mastery of biblical storytelling from the Academy for Biblical Storytelling and is a doctoral candidate in biblical storytelling and digital culture at United Theological Seminary. He has performed at the Smithsonian Institution and the 53rd Presidential Inaugural. Contact him at www.banjotales.com.