Stories: an effective way of communicating?

Flooded house
Photo credit: yewenyi (Creative Commons)

In many Third World countries, there is a high level of illiteracy. For example, according to Human Development Report for 2009, the literacy rate in Bangladesh is 56%, Sudan 27% etc. This does not mean that people are not intelligent. They are often highly intelligent. It just means that they have never been taught to read and therefore do not take in information or learn through the written word.

This has profound implications for missions. In countries with a high oral learning rate, the  good news of Jesus Christ cannot be communicated through written materials. Often storying is used instead.

People love stories. Often the only part  of a talk  I remember is the stories used to illustrate the message.

Jesus usually taught the people with stories (parables).  Stories communicate truth very well.  (70% of the Bible can be effectively communicated and memorized through the use of storying)  People who don’t read learn stories very quickly.  One of the main skills to learn is asking questions about the story that help people understand and remember the story.

Here’s one pattern for storying with a group of people:

  • Explain briefly the main truth you are going to convey through the story.
  • Either read the story to them or tell the story in your own words. Remember, you want to model something they can do too. If you are working with those who cannot read, then tell the story.  Put the story in context. Make it simple, with an emphasis on the truth you want to convey.
  • Ask questions that go over what the story says.  Have different ones in the group answer the questions.
  • Give everyone the opportunity to repeat the story to make sure they have the main facts.  If the group is large, divide into smaller groups for this activity.  But it is important that everyone get their first chance to practice telling the story now, so they will remember it better and even tell it better the second time.  Immediate repetition creates more stickiness.)
  • Ask questions that bring out what the story means.
  • Have one or two others retell the story
  • Ask questions that bring out how they can apply the story in their own life.
  • Again have one or two retell the story
  • Ask who they know who would also benefit from hearing the story.
  • Get them to tell the story to someone else during the week.

We have friends in India who work primarily with oral learners. They tell us that those who learn in this fashion effectively become oral Bibles. They understand Biblical principles and can apply them into different situations. They say that an illiterate woman who has been well-trained in Bible storying can confound a seminary student.

According to studies, up to 20% of people in the US lack functional literary skills–ie they are unable to read well enough to understand written instructions or to fill in simple forms.

The National Center for Educational Statistics in the United States says:

  • Over 60% of adults in the US prison system read at or below the fourth grade level
  • 85% of US juvenile inmates are functionally illiterate

Many more people in this country, especially in the younger age group, are able to read but choose not to. They learn through other means–usually visual. They are very open to storying as a means of learning in a group context.

I once practiced storying on the friend of one of our kids. A week or so later, I discovered the story I told being written about on someone’s blog having gone through two or three other people.

Storying is effective in many different contexts. Why not try it? Use a passage like Luke 6:46-49. Ask questions such as:

  • What does the house represent?
  • What does the flood represent?
  • What does it mean to build a house on the rock, or on the sand.

You’ll be amazed at what comes out.

Do you have any experience with storying? I’d love to hear about it.

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