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Tell Me a Story

An influential American educator once said, “Let me tell the stories and I care not who writes the textbooks.” Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of transmitted culture. Because of its impact in many societies throughout the ages, it may also have been the most formative element in culture. In his book The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman reminds us that “storytellers are indispensable agents of socialization. They picture the world of a child and thus give both form and limits to his memory and imagination” (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.).

The history of storytelling reveals that a decline began in the Gutenberg era with the invention of the printing press. However, about 1900 there was a great revival of storytelling as the world realized and began to study its values.

For the Christian of course, Jesus Christ represents the highlight of history with respect to storytelling. The use of stories by our Lord was such a prominent feature that on one occasion Mark records in his Gospel, “And He was not speaking to them without parables” (Mark 4:34, NASB). The Christian teacher who looks to his Lord for a model will neither minimize the value of storytelling as a teaching technique nor relegate it to the world of children. Adults enjoy stories just as children do.

Stories have an inherent value because they can bring pleasure, develop a feeling of fellowship and community, and fix attitudes of appreciation. Stories also act as a governing device for social control. They arouse enthusiasm, project flights of imagination, and accomplish all this while instructing.

Values of Storytelling

Because it carries its own element of interest and attention focusing, storytelling is a very acceptable method of teaching. Stories provide information and enjoyment. When we tell Bible stories, we are teaching truth in such a way that the listener enjoys learning. Stories can help fulfill human needs for love, belonging, and security. A story provides a vicarious experience, allowing the listener to put himself into the situation, thus experiencing its excitement and application.

When viewed in terms of, the development of our students, stories offer an opportunity to build personality. They implant proper ideals by showing that certain courses of conduct bring happiness whereas other choices lead to unhappy results. Emotions are stimulated, and that is good because what a person feels is always a force in the determination of his behavior. In terms of communicating truth, stories can be used to explain concepts which are not clear in straight exposition.

Problems of Storytelling

Most of the weakness of storytelling centers in its misuse rather than its use. Storytelling tends to look easy, a disguise which deceives the unskilled and unprepared teacher. Such a teacher destroys the effectiveness of the technique in any number of ways:

1. By reading the story instead of telling it

2. By using language which does not clearly communicate meaning

3. By including too many details and “bogging down” a story

4. By overemphasizing minor details and thereby obscuring the basic implication

5. By rote memorization which leads to a mechanical presentation

6. By “sermonizing” the implication rather than letting it find its natural place in the story

7. By offering the story in an atmosphere of stuffiness rather than empathetic enthusiasm

8. By using visual aids as a crutch rather than training facial expressions and body movements to serve as the primary visual support of the story

9. By poor organization which does not allow the story to progress systematically to its logical climax

Principles of Effective Storytelling

A good story is full of action and life. It attracts students by its appeal and then captures them in the instructional resources which it contains. Let us think about the principles of storytelling under these three headings.

Preparation may be the most significant aspect of the storytelling process. The unprepared teacher can do great injustice to any valid teaching method. In the first place, preparation certainly includes the selection of the proper story. Good preparation requires the storyteller to know the situation, know the students, and of course know his story. It also requires that he have clear cut objectives for that story so that clearly defined learning patterns can result.

Although occasionally attended by deliberate hyperbole, the story should be accurate and honest without unnecessary embellishments which detract from the central message. Proper organization of the story also must take place in the preparation stage. Most educators agree that there are three basic parts to any story: the introduction, the main body, and the application.

The class also must be prepared for the story experience. The students should be comfortable, with plenty of fresh air and leg room, and as free from distraction as possible. Do not let your departmental superintendent come walking into the class in the middle of the story to collect the offering or the attendance records!

Preparation melts into presentation as you begin the first words of the story. In a sense you are still preparing the audience for what is to follow. You are capturing their attention and giving them something to anticipate. You are conscious about important things like eye contact, making an effort to look right into the eyes of all of your students as you tell your story. Let each one believe that you are telling the story just to him.

Make sure everyone can hear every word, but not by shouting all of the time. Sometimes a deliberate quietness will create an enthusiasm for hearing which a high degree of volume could never produce. You might be sitting on the floor, on a chair, or standing to tell the story. Whichever it is, make sure that all of you is telling the story, and not just your mouth.

Subordinate your own personality to that of the main protagonist of the story. Guard against distractions and disturbing mannerisms such as playing with glasses, swaying back and forth, or nervous pacing.

Make sure that your vocabulary is adapted to the understanding level of your class. Use words which describe active sensory experience such as fuzzy or shiny. Exaggerate your enunciation and speak with enthusiastic animation. Do not be afraid to use dialogue, carefully planned pauses, mimicking of voices, and important sounds.

Of course prayer permeates all good Christian teaching. Ask God to help you select the right story, master it thoroughly, and then present it to your class in the power of the Holy Spirit. Expect the God at whose command you teach to involve Himself effectively in your life and the lives of your listeners.

God must like stories. He gave many of them in the Bible. His further approval of the methodology is exemplified in the ministry of His Son on earth. Pray that the precious students who listen to your stories will see in you “a teacher come from God.”

Storytelling is a method which increases instructional productivity. Our teaching should get results in the lives of our students. Sometimes those results will be easily measured as in a simple test of certain areas of Bible knowledge, or in the ability to “tell back” the story to the teacher. Such learning is very legitimate. There are, however, behavioral results which are not so easily observed and seem to actually defy testing. How do you really measure whether a primary child has learned to love his friends more as a result of your fine story about the Good Samaritan? How long might a teacher have to wait to see if a story about Cain and Abel will produce new understanding of worship and heart attitude toward God in her children?

Yet we are engaged in teaching for these spiritual goals all the time. We dare not think that just because a story is fun (and many times it ought to be), it should not be measured by the standards which we apply to all methodology. Christian education should make life-change one of the constantly guarded goals of any teaching methodology.

Can storytelling stand up to this kind of a challenge? Of course it can. The parabolic ministry of our Lord is a clear-cut example of storytelling methodology geared to productivity in the lives of His listeners. Remember the kingdom parables of Matthew 13? The Bible tells us that our Lord bad a two-fold purpose in these short stories. The disciples were to find in them further help and understanding of Christ’s mission in the world and how it affected them. The unbelievers, on the other hand, were to be further confused by His teaching. The unfolding of the rest of the Gospel demonstrates that these objectives were realized. May the Holy Spirit enable us to adopt such a serious posture with respect to the dynamic of this teaching method.

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible