Why Story?

Storying is a well-established practice used by missionaries in the non-Western world.  In non-literary or oral cultures story-telling is the normative manner in which information is taught and cultural and religious values and beliefs are transmitted.  Stories are simple, repeatable and often told.  In the last 100 years (as far as I can work out) there has been a growing realisation that this is the best form of discipleship and evangelism in these cultures.

In the last 20 years or so there has been a growing realisation that story and story-telling is a methodology not just for the non-western world but one that is equally at home within a changing western world.  And we have seen the rise of storying within the post-modern, young, organic, emerging, cynical western church.  As with all movements storying is a mixed bag- some use it as an alternative to objective truth, Biblical inerrancy or authority of elders.  But I am an evangelical, comfortable with objective truth, subjective interpretation and hold to the Bible as the inerrant, sufficient, authoritative and inspired word of God.

Here are a couple of reasons why I think storying can work in our context:

1. The universal connection to story

There is something about story that has an almost universal connection.  Recently while discussing books and movies with the bartender at my local, I commented how he really knew his stuff.  His reply; “I just love narrative!”  Story rather than bare facts connects us to other human beings and opens us up to events and experiences bigger or other than ourselves.  Stories capture the imagination, fuel our dreams, break our hearts and help us to understand our world.  When old friends get together they normally tell the same old stories (with much embellishment), everyone knows what happened, how they end and who did what but everyone is caught up in the same old stories- laughing, correcting, denying details.  It is the stories that bind the group together and give them a collective memory and a collective identity.  Donald Miller notes; “I don’t know why we need stories but we always have.”[1]

2. The Bible is full of narrative

Approximately 70% of the Bible is narrative.  Furthermore although the Bible is undoubtedly a written work much of the teaching described in the Bible is non-literate in form.  When their children asked about the meaning of the Mosaic law the Israelites were told to tell them the story of the Exodus (Deuteronomy 6:20-25).  God built story-telling into the fabric of Israelite society (Joshua 4:4-7).  Jesus himself taught primarily it would seem through stories.  “If we are to allow the genres of Scripture to shape our teaching then stories will be a significant part of our communication.”[2]

3. The Bible is a story

Although the Bible contains different genres and many different human authors it all works together to tell one story.   The Bible clearly attempts to give us a meta-narrative (big story) through which we may understand our own place in the big story.  It has a clear beginning and moves throughout a drama set over thousands of years to a climax with the coming of God’s King towards an as yet unresolved but anticipated ending with the renewal of all things.  Interwoven into this big story are hundreds of little stories, laws, poems, songs, sermons and well thought out rational discourses, which all find their context, depth and significance when they are seen within the big story of the Bible.

4. We are in Africa

Much has been written of the success of storying in non-literary (or non-literate) oral cultures.  The majority of people in our country are non-literate learners; they are oral rather than literary learners.  Oral learners learn best through stories and proverbs.  They enjoy learning in groups, reason intuitively, think holistically, are comfortable with repetition, value traditional knowledge sources (such as community elders) and integrate their learning relationally.[3]

For non-literate and oral learners even an interactive Bible study can be intimidating and feel like an English comprehension exercise.[4]  The majority of theological education in South Africa is conducted in a highly literary context in order to equip for ministry to an assumed literary (or even literate?) people.  If we wish to reach and disciple effectively in our country we have to reconsider the primary learning styles of our context.

5. We are in westernised Africa

Increasingly the western world is becoming functionally non-literate, particularly among younger people and non-university educated people.  The functionally non-literate are those who can read and write but who rely solely on non-literary sources for their information and everyday functioning.  The technology explosion, and in particular the internet and social media has created a new non-literate people group.  They get information from television, Youtube and social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter.  When they do read it tends to be online through blogs, news sites or web pages.  Storying has the potential to connect with both the more traditional African culture as well as the new technologically driven functionally non-literate westernised culture.

6. Story disarms hostility and scepticism

Cape Town has a strong Christian culture and almost everybody has been exposed to some form of Christianity and heard something of the Christian message.   For many this has served either as an hostile inoculation or as a fluffy over-familiarity that has no grounding in real life.  Storying invites you in to participate, explore, meditate on and discuss the Bible stories in a way that gets behind your preconceptions.  “Stories convey truth in a way that transcends what can be said in simple prose.”[5]

Great stories disarm you, get behind your prejudices and carry you along to an ending that dumps you on a foreign shore re-evaluating all you once held dear.  We have lost the wonder of story because we are surrounded by too many non-stories.  We are to once again proclaim the great story and call others to come and join their story with the Great Story.  We have lost The Great Story and so have lost our own story.   We have grown used to asking “Where does God fit into the story of my life?” when the real question is where does my little life fit into His Great Story.[6]


[1] Donald Miller: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (Thomas Nelson) p80

[2] Tim Chester: “Bible Teaching in Missional Perspective” Porterbrook Network (Advanced Year Module); Unit 6: Introducing Storytelling, p40.

[3] J.O. Terry: Basic Bible Storying (Revised Edition) (Churchstarting.net: Fort Worth: 2008), p16

[4]  Tim Chester: “Bible Teaching in Missional Perspective” Porterbrook Network (Advanced Year Module); Unit 6: Introducing Storytelling, p46

[5] Tim Chester: Lord of the Rings: A Splintered Fragment of the True Light (Part 1) http://timchester.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/lord-of-the-rings-pt-1-a-splintered-fragment-of-the-true-light/

[6] Christopher J. Wright: The Mission of God (IVP: Leicester: 2006) p534

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