Awakening Through Storytelling

(Editor’s Note: According to the International Orality Network, there are four billion oral communicators in the world. In other words, two-thirds of the world’s population either cannot, do not or will not take in new information or communicate by literate means. The following story is an example of ministering in an oral context.)

When someone comes to your door at three o'clock in the morning, it is seldom good news. That’s especially true when government forces and opposition groups have fought for years in your area. After five years of living in and out of the village, José and Isabel1 had learned to expect the unexpected.

During their first four years, José and Isabel had focused on learning the language, understanding the culture and making friends among the “N” people. They were preparing to translate the Bible into the N language. Then, José and Isabel met Christian workers who encouraged them to use an oral approach to ministry because the N culture is oral. (Oral cultures rely on spoken communication, instead of writing, so they use storytelling, songs and proverbs to pass down their heritage and beliefs.) Their friends encouraged José and Isabel to select and tell biblical stories that would speak specifically to the N culture. They also encouraged José and Isabel to work with members of the community to put the stories into the N storytelling style while remaining biblically accurate.

The Transformation of an Entire People
After selecting the stories that spoke to the N culture and crafting them to reflect the storytelling style of the culture, José and Isabel reentered the village. Scripture spoke with obvious power. All four people who helped translate the biblical stories trusted Christ. A few months later, after the N people had heard the stories from creation through the life of Jesus, they made a unanimous group decision to follow Jesus. Group decision-making is common in the N community.

After the N people had heard the stories from creation through the life of Jesus, they made a unanimous group decision to follow Jesus.

It quickly became apparent that the decision was also a very personal one for many of the N people. One man said, “I was very bad, but now I believe in God. He cleaned me from my bad ways.” After listening to several Bible stories, one young orphaned man wept for over half an hour. He had buried his head in the dirt and said, “Father, Father…Now I have a father.” Hearts were transformed.

God's word transformed behavior, as well. Previously, people had been going hungry. They were afraid to go into the jungle to gather food because they feared the spirits who live there. Today, the believers collect food in the jungle for their families. Biblical stories convinced them that God is more powerful than the other spirits. The new believers among the N have learned to make restitution for their wrongdoing. Several have returned chickens to the people from whom they stole them.

Drunkenness has disappeared from the village. People no longer want to drink. Instead, they want to hear the stories about God. People have been physically healed. After the new Christians began praying for a five-year-old boy who had never been able to walk, the boy began to walk. 

Repentance in Individual Hearts
One of the most powerful Bible stories for the N community was the story of Jonah. They said, “We are like the people of Nineveh and we deserve to be punished by God.” They observed that because the people of Nineveh listened to God and turned from their evil ways, God did not punish them. Through this story, they first began to understand salvation.

One of the N men was so moved by God’s word that he felt compelled to act on it. He had learned that followers of Jesus should be baptized. As he pondered the stories in the wee hours of the morning, he decided that he should be baptized immediately. So he went to José at 3:00 a.m. and asked to be baptized. José suggested that his baptism could wait, at least for a while. But the man was insistent; he wanted to obey Jesus’ command immediately. After some conversation, José decided to baptize this brother quickly in obedience to the Lord's command. At 5:00 a.m. they held their baptismal service.

Hebrews 4:12 describes the word of God as “living and active” and “piercing.” Its impact is maximized when people encounter God’s word in their heart language, in a medium and format that is familiar, from passages whose relevance quickly becomes evident to them. Increasingly, Christian workers are recognizing that most people respond better to a story than to a traditional sermon. They would rather discuss a story than have someone explain its meaning to them. Oral strategies for communicating Scripture are awakening people to the reality of God and the new life that he offers.


1. Names have been changed for reasons of security.

Grant Lovejoy is director of Orality Strategies for the International Mission Board (SBC). He advises IMB leaders and field personnel about communication strategies and training approaches for working effectively with oral communicators.