The Role of Bible Stories in Evangelism

What is the role of Bible stories in evangelism today? Why bother to tell these stories when we could easily give a tract or make a conventional presentation of the gospel? What is it about telling stories that makes their influence different from just giving evangelistic information? Following are three of the early answers to these questions that we have learned in the oral learner world, increasingly in the secondary orality world and even in the often indifferent world of postmoderns.

  1. Stories, whether Bible stories or personal stories, interest us because they are about people. Often in stories we are telling what happened to us or what we saw or heard happen, so they have an eyewitness authenticity as we tell them. Simon Peter mentioned this in his second epistle when he said, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty…when the voice came to him from the majestic glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
  2. Stories, especially Bible stories, give an opportunity to “try on” truths mentally as we hear them. The stories in the Gospels and Acts tell about the followers of Jesus as well as those who came to hear Jesus and see his miracles. Some listeners, like the rich young ruler, went away disappointed because they found the teaching too costly. But others, when they heard the parables of Jesus and saw his works, believed.
  3. Because stories are memorable they stay with us and can continue to speak to us long after the story is told. Hearing stories told in a vivid and culturally appropriate way made it easy for the people of Jesus’ day to remember what he said and have his words continue to speak to their hearts long after the stories were told. Remember the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus? They commented how their hearts burned within them as Jesus related his story of how the Messiah must first suffer and then enter his glory. The same heart response is illustrated in the New Tribes Mission video Ee-taow!, where Mark Zook relates how when he told the story of Abraham following God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac, one of the elder listeners came to him to share how he was troubled by the story, and then expressed his belief that somehow God was going to save Isaac.

Relating to Their World
Bible storying allows listeners to identify with the story characters and with what happens to them. In Ee-taow!, when Zook told the stories, the Mouk people responded, “We are like that!” The stories that I prepared for Muslim women (The Grief Stories) were motivated by the desire to show how God was aware of these women’s needs and able to redeem their lives. Many of the stories tell of situations like barrenness with which the listeners can identify. The same is true with stories like that of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the rich man in the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) or The Rich Fool (Luke 18:18-23) who was more concerned with his wealth than his soul.

Stories are relational. Among the oral peoples of the world there is a lively interest in stories which attracts listeners to hear the storyteller. Those of us who have used Bible stories in our evangelism strategies have been able to gain a hearing because “we were telling stories.” The storytelling setting is a communal setting where individual and religious differences are laid aside for the duration of the story; both storyteller and listener enter into the story and share a relationship through its telling. Stories are relational in that, as mentioned previously, listeners identify with characters in the stories. Once when screening the JESUS film near the seashore in Mangalore, India, we invited the local fishermen; however, since the film was being shown in the territory of farmers, the fishermen stayed at a distance. They remained far off until the point when Jesus instructed his disciples to let down the net. At that very moment the fishermen came running toward the screen and joined in watching the remainder of the story. The film story had touched their world and they related to it.

Telling stories also provides an event for listeners to gather together and enjoy the entertainment. Oral people are far more event-oriented than information-oriented. By providing the event, the opportunity exists for relationship to develop, as well as for the focused attention on the story which can lead to identifying with the story and its outcome. Stories are memorable so the listeners can take them home and pass them along to others. Among some oral peoples stories are put into song and can best be remembered that way. Calvin Fox, a former agricultural worker among the Kui people of India, taught his pastors the Bible stories and told them to leave their Bibles at home as having a Bible in hand surely marked them for opposition by radical Hindus. Instead, the men were to tell the Bible stories as they worked among the people they were helping in agricultural projects.

Overcoming Difficulties in Bible Storying
There are some recognized difficulties in using Bible stories for evangelism. The question has been raised whether theology derived from story telling is too shallow or incomplete, as opposed to a more propositional systematic theology from traditional teaching. It is true that it may take many stories and, in fact, a whole set of stories to give the proper theological perspective. A single isolated story can be misleading. Therefore, stories need a matrix, as discussed by Jacob Loewen in his book Culture and Human Values, where he tells the effect of a recorded story of the flood along with sound effects on a Central American people.1 They were terrified and stopped their work.

Another problem that we have faced is that of stories getting corrupted or influenced by local cultural stories that are similar. This has been observed among some of the Mayan peoples, where those retelling the stories brought into the Bible stories details from their cultural stories. In my own experience I saw that on some occasions the story-tellers “fixed” the stories so they would have a “better” ending, an ending more in line with their expectation. Countering this required telling a larger matrix of stories so that the story they wanted to “fix” was locked in and interpreted by the preceding and following stories.

Akin to changing or negatively restructuring stories is the problem of story fading. Although heritage stories on the whole do have a longer and more accurate life span, there is a noticeable fading of Bible stories unless they are periodically refreshed. One thing that keeps this from being a greater problem is the “group story.” This is the effect of the group members all contributing to the story so that to some extent the fading is self-correcting. Still we found it good practice to periodically refresh evangelism and discipleship stories.

For those oral learners who do not have scripture in their spoken or mother language it is paramount to give them an Oral Bible. The Oral Bible concept came about as an observation of what was happening as selected Bible stories were told first to evangelize people and then to organize them into churches and continue their discipleship and growth as Christians. The listeners were having an Oral Bible formed in their memories. True, it is a limited Bible as it only consists of what they have heard and can remember, but it is a functional Bible which can be used for further evangelistic witness, preaching and teaching.

Using Bible Stories for Evangelism
There are two basic philosophies regarding using Bible stories to evangelize.

The first is to take a chronological presentation of Bible stories that (1) can lead to salvation and (2) deal with primary worldview issues that are stumbling blocks to the gospel. This process can take months to complete and can only be speeded up a limited amount as oral learners can easily overload if too much information is presented at one time. It is a time-consuming and labor-intensive strategy.

The second philosophy of using Bible stories to evangelize presents three related choices. The first is to use a more compact set of stories that are basically the critical stories leading to salvation. The primary objective is to get an emotional and spiritual response rather than to equip listeners to remember the stories. The Storying Scarf from West Africa is a good example of a well-designed compact story set that is being used both “as is” and with local modification in many places. One suggested strategy in Central America was to have a team of three men tell seven stories a night and after all the stories were told to have a discussion and response. The second option is to use a “micro-strategy” of five to ten stories with a majority of the stories about Jesus. This strategy is proving of manageable value to many going on short-term mission trips where longer strategies are not possible. A third option is to use a “fast track” presentation of many stories joined into a panorama which are told at one time as a continuing story that includes all the appropriate stories needed for evangelism. Here there is no stopping for discussion of individual stories along the way; instead, listeners are swept along from story to story so that the emotional impact builds and climaxes in the story of Jesus. Afterward there is discussion or opportunity for response or invitation.

Stories speak to everyone. Among young worshipers in the Church and among post-moderns outside the Church, stories are proving their value in communicating spiritual truths. We literate evangelists must overcome our reticence just to tell Bible stories. We are in a partnership with the Holy Spirit to tell the stories so the Spirit can then use them to bring salvation to listeners. We must be prepared to tell the stories of our Savior—stories we should know by heart.

1. Loewen, Jacob. 1975. Culture and Human Values. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 372.

J.O. Terry served as a media missionary in the Asia Pacific region for thirty-two years. He worked in Bible Storying until his retirement in 1985. Terry currently co-teaches Bible Storying classes at Southwestern Theological Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, USA.