My introduction to biblical storytelling came while I was serving as a director of Christian education in a local church in North Carolina in 1990. I was immediately hooked and started telling stories as a regular part of my work. This was an easy decision since nothing else I did seemed to hold the attention of, or communicate as powerfully to, my audiences as storytelling. Perhaps this was no better illustrated than when I based my children’s sermons on stories. Frequently I’d have adults tell me, sometimes weeks after the fact, that they still remembered a story I had told but had forgotten the “adult” sermon the very afternoon after it had been preached!
What was happening in my congregation? Why was their experience with storytelling so reliably powerful? It might have something to do with my favorite metaphor for education/formation: Give a person a fish, you feed them for a day; teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.
Traditionally1 education has consisted largely of a pedagogy that imparted information to students, either through lecture or individual study, usually involving private, silent reading. Students would showcase what they had learned through the writing of papers or the completion of exams with an occasional oral presentation. There were exceptions, of course, but this has been the default modus operandi in many schools to this very day, especially beyond early elementary grades. An appropriate visual for this would be students whose heads have a hinged flap on top and whenever the teacher wanted to “teach” something, the flaps would open and the teacher would pour in the information. This approach is the educational equivalent of giving people a fish.
While churches don’t generally operate exactly like schools, there are similarities. How many Sunday school classes, especially for adults and maybe as young as older elementary children, consist largely of a lecture format? And what takes up the biggest chunk of most mainline Protestant worship services? A sermon that is basically a lecture where congregants sit passively while information enters their heads through the ears. Their hearts might be stirred, but the first place of connection, physiologically, is the head and, thus, the intellect.
I’m not suggesting that this type of preaching/teaching/learning has no redeeming attributes. It still resonates with some, especially if they happen to be a particular type of learner.2 But in our increasingly visual, participatory, experiential world this largely one-dimensional, mono-sensorial, head-centric (and then mainly the left-brain) approach leaves an ever-growing number of people wanting at best, or out in the cold completely at worst. What’s a conscientious religious educator to do?
For starters, it might help to remember the etymology of the word educate, to draw out. Encouraging students to participate actively in an educational event by expressing their personal thoughts, knowledge and experiences is inherent to what education is, or should be, about.
Secondly, learn and tell stories!
I received my biblical storytelling training through the Network of Biblical Storytellers (www.nbsint.org), which is an organization committed to telling the stories of the Bible with integrity. To do this we feel it’s important to enter into a relationship with the story, to understand it as best we can in its original context, to make personal connections with the story to the point where when it’s told, it’s told from the heart and gut rather than in a rote, memorized fashion from the head. When this kind of preparation has been done well, those in the audience tend to make immediate connections with the story because it resonates with personal experiences that mirror the same sorts of emotions and/or situations depicted in the story. These emotions and situations were experienced, lived, so they have a much longer-lasting and powerful impact, which carries over into the impact made by the “parallel” story.
Well-prepared and well-told stories are a gift that continues to live within and work on the hearers. Potentially, every time in the future that a similar life situation arises, especially with the accompanying emotions, the story experience is available to remind, encourage and inform. This relationship is dynamic, shifting and changing as the hearer continues to grow and develop. The way a story resonates with people when they heard it probably isn’t going to be the same way it resonates with them down the road. And that’s a good thing because it signifies a healthy, living relationship, one that feeds the hearer for a lifetime.
But the relational aspect of story isn’t just between the narrative and the teller or the narrative and the hearers, or even between God and the various participants, while all of these are very important. A distinguishing characteristic of storytelling is how the teller and audience actually co-create the story in its telling.
The teller creates the story line and delivers it orally to the listeners, who then create mental images and deliver back to the teller reactions to the story line. The reaction, in turn, affects the teller’s choice of words, emphasis on plot development, and style of delivery. This co-creative interchange between teller and audience continues for the entirety of the story … storytelling is interactive, immediate, and very personal—a negotiation between this teller and this audience at this time and in this place, never to be duplicated in precisely the same way again. It is as a result of this co-creative, interactive, immediate, personal, and one-time nature that storytelling is one of the most powerful forms of art/communication known to humans and also explains why it possesses such great potential as a teaching-learning tool.3
This is good news! It’s long been known in educational circles that people tend to remember 10% of what they hear, 20% of what they see, and 90% of what they do. An ancient Chinese proverb states it this way: Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand. Our goal as educators shouldn’t just be to impart information. And it shouldn’t just be to allow students to co-create the experience in a willy-nilly fashion. It should be to oversee an experience that students not only receive, but the meat of which is retained … and then able to be recalled later.
Storytelling naturally lends itself to this type of experience. Not only are the students/audience co-creating during the actual telling of the story, but because the story has most likely hit them in their hearts and guts and resonated with personal life experiences, they usually have all sorts of contributions to make to further exploration and educating, i.e. “drawing out.” This means there is a much higher likelihood that they’ll retain and even recall the experience, at least partially, far into the future. Frequently, I’ll tell a story and then ask, “Was there anything in this story that got your attention that you wondered about, that you didn’t know before, particularly liked or disliked?” And that might be all the guidance that’s needed to fill an entire session! And here’s a little trick for those who feel compelled to make sure certain points are covered and discussed. You have control over how the story is told. So if you want to be sure to raise a “red flag” over a certain aspect of the story for later elaboration, you can increase the chances it’ll be mentioned if you draw attention to that part of the story when you tell it.
Granted, many teachers may be intimidated by the time involved in learning a story well enough to tell with integrity. This is where a storytelling troupe can come in handy. If a church has a core group of tellers who know in advance what stories were going to be utilized in the various curricula, they can learn them, relieving pressure from the individual teachers. (Bonus: Having this group on hand means stories could be told for any church function: worship, Sunday school, youth fellowship, visitation, outreach, etc.)4
And here’s some more good news:
“Gospel” is a shortened form of an Old English word, “godspell.” It means: “god” = good, “spell” = tale —“good tale.” The original definition of “spell” also reflects this storytelling character of the “godspell.” A spell was a spoken word or set of words believed to have magic power. In Old English, therefore, the word that was the best equivalent for the Latin word, evangelium, was a tale whose telling had power.5
Six years after leaving the North Carolina church where I served as director of Christian education, I was invited back to lead a weekend of activities for various age groups and ministry settings. These offerings included a Sunday school assembly for elementary-aged children as well as preaching. Naturally, storytelling was heavily featured in both. Afterwards, a father of two boys told me: “The only time my five-year-old son, Sam, ever listened in church was that day you told stories. And on the way home from church, he and his brother, Tom, competed over who would get to retell the stories you’d told in Sunday school. Normally we have to pry their lessons out of them.”
That’s what’s at stake when we consider the power of story!
1 By “traditionally” I’m referring to a timeframe of roughly the last 500 years, mainly corresponding to the Enlightenment and Age of Reason, which were helped along by the invention of the printing press. This put books, relatively cheaply, in more people’s hands, in their own languages, which helped raise literacy rates and facilitated individual, quiet learning.
2 Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences suggests that there are a number of ways that people learn, understand, and process information and all of them are valid. These intelligences include verbal/linguistic, mathematical/analytical, spatial/visual, kinesthetic, musical/rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. It behooves educators to incorporate methods of instruction that “speak to” as many of these intelligences as possible so as to reach everyone.
3 “Storytelling in the Classroom: Some Theoretical Thoughts” by R. Craig Roney, Storytelling World, Winter/Spring, 1996, p.7.
4 Here are some websites that offer audible tellings of various stories: http://www.youtube.com/user/nobsint, http://www.gotell.org/pages/narratives.html, http://www.blankbible.org/ (sign up for free as an individual or a church and receive for a month daily links to two versions of the same story, for a total of 24 storytelling experiences)
5 Story Journey: An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling by Thomas E. Boomershine. Abingdon Press, 1988, p. 16.
Tracy Radosevic is a storyteller, educator, and retreat facilitator. Since 1991 she has traveled all over the United States, as well as to several foreign countries, bringing her special brand of humor, insight, and faith to audiences of all ages through the power of narrative. Working across denominational lines, Tracy puts to good use the extensive training she received while working as a director of Christian education at First United Methodist Church in Cherryville, NC, as an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State University, and as artist-in-residence at Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.