Why I Tell Stories from the Bible (and Why You Should, Too)

Updated Jun 14, 2010
Why I Tell Stories from the Bible (and Why You Should, Too)

When is the last time you watched Star Wars with a six-year-old? It was today for me. When Star Wars first appeared on movie screens in 1977, I was five; now that my youngest daughter is six, I promised her we could watch it together. Because I've seen the movie uncountable times, I'm having more fun watching her expressions - at times mirthful, sometimes anxious, but always intense.

Why this intensity from a six-year old watching a movie full of now-dated special effects? Because above all else, Star Wars Episode IV is a good story.

Stories are not just for kids. We live in a culture that needs stories. Not only do stories entertain us, but they also encourage us, challenge us, and sometimes even show us how to live. That's why I retell the Bible's stories. Although scripture memory is certainly a wonderful discipline, people need to internalize more than a Bible verse or two. For example, next time you feel God has abandoned you in life's wilderness, remember Israel's exodus from Egypt. Did God lead them into the wilderness? Sure. Were there hardships? Of course. Did the people grumble? A lot. And what else did God do for them during 40 years of wandering? He provided for them miraculously.

Another example: our culture loves five- and ten-year strategic plans, and yet when we don't meet our objectives, we feel like failures. Abraham's calling and wanderings remind us God's call on our lives rarely looks strategic. Feel like God promised you something tremendous, yet never delivered? Remember Abraham's lifetime pursuit of God's promise to him. Hebrews 11 praises Abraham for a life-long pursuit of God's promise, even when God called him to do the unthinkable (Hebrews 11:8-9).

Life is confusing, and following God is hard. Often it doesn't seem to make rational sense. Therefore, we need stories because they help us make sense of the life of faith.

Not only do stories help us understand what it means to be the people of God, but stories are also culturally relevant. Our culture prefers narratives and images to declarative statements. Stories are a two-for-one deal, containing not only plot (narrative), but also a series of images painted with words. These word-images produce pictures that really are worth a thousand words. Better yet, stories provide us with word-images that people will actually hear (see!) and remember.

Getting people to hear and remember large portions of the Bible is no small feat. American Christians are biblically illiterate. Okay, not all American Christians, but the majority of us. George Barna's 2009 end of year summary expresses concern over both biblical illiteracy and the lack of a consistent worldview. He says that although people may know individual scriptures, they lack the context of those scriptures. Biblical storytelling provides context, allowing me to cover multiple chapters in less time than a typical sermon. Stories help correct biblical illiteracy.

Here's a personal example: after hearing me retell several stories from the book of Judges 1 at a children's retreat, my nine-year-old daughter started reading the Bible for herself. The night we got home from the retreat she handed me her Bible and asked "Daddy, show me where the good stories are." I showed her a few places to start reading, and in the two months since, she hasn't stopped reading. 

Finally, and most importantly, Jesus was a storyteller. I think this is the best argument of all. Christ-followers need to tell God-honoring stories. Jesus challenged people with stories that taught world-changing truths (read the gospels looking for how Jesus used stories to challenge the status quo). I want to do the same.

If that still isn't enough to convince you to become a biblical storyteller, consider this specific biblical example of what a good story can do...

In 1 Samuel 17, the Israelites are despondent, and their king is fearful; an entire nation cowers before the giant Goliath. But then something happens: a shepherd boy stands before King Saul and tells a story: 

"Master," said David, "don't give up hope. I'm ready to go and fight this Philistine." 

Saul answered David, "You can't go and fight this Philistine. You're too young and inexperienced—and he's been at this fighting business since before you were born." 

David said, "I've been a shepherd, tending sheep for my father. Whenever a lion or bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I'd go after it, knock it down, and rescue the lamb. If it turned on me, I'd grab it by the throat, wring its neck, and kill it. Lion or bear, it made no difference—I killed it. And I'll do the same to this Philistine pig who is taunting the troops of God-Alive. God, who delivered me from the teeth of the lion and the claws of the bear, will deliver me from this Philistine." 

Saul said, "Go. And God help you!"  (The Message)

What just happened? A powerless follower entered an organization in chaos, and when he got his chance to stand before the CEO, he changed the boss's mind with a story - moving the boss to action (and yes, the boss delegated away a crucial duty, but that is something we can discuss another time). 

The right story at the right time transforms the hopeless, and creates heroes among the nameless masses. 

Seriously. Stories are that good. 

Some final thoughts from successful storytellers: Stephen Denning, now a senior fellow at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership and formerly a program director at the World Bank, calls storytelling "the secret language of leadership," and wrote a 2007 book by the same title. Howard Gardner, famous for the concept of multiple intelligences, wrote in his 1995 book Leading Minds that great leaders told stories "about themselves and their groups, about where they were coming from and where they were headed, about what was to be feared, struggled against, and dreamed about" (p. 14). 

Great stories - the ones that change us - tell us who we are, what we are up against, and where we are going. The Bible is full of such stories. Let me suggest that if you really want to influence people (leadership at its most basic level is influence), you will help people understand who they are, where they are going, and how to overcome obstacles. The Bible's stories do all of this for the people of God. So parents, lead your families. Students, lead your friends. Pastors, lead your congregations. And do it by telling great stories from The Good Book. 

Stan Ward is a teacher at The Brook Hill School in Bullard, TX, a non-denominational Christian boarding school with a three-fold mission: to provide excellence in college preparatory education, affirm the gifts and challenge the potential of each student, and encourage students to honor God through Christ-like character. Stan is also a doctoral candidate in Leadership Studies at Dallas Baptist University. He lives in Bullard with his wife and two daughters. Check out Stan's "Napkin Theology" videos at youtube.com/napkintheology, and follow along on Facebook at facebook.com/napkintheology. You can also visit his website at www.stanleyjward.com.

Original publication date: June 7, 2010


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