The Power of Oral Bible Story Telling
guest post by Larry Dinkins
On Saturday I reconnected with a former student of mine who has been a pastor for over 10 years. I shared with him what I had been learning about oral communication among Thai and tribals. He readily admitted that he did not know how to preach a narrative type sermon from the pulpit. I immediately reminded him of the times I've seen him sharing a story from a popular poster set that we use here in Thailand. In such settings I've seen him break into the northern dialect and banter in a winsome and natural way with seekers and others (and without notes). My plea was to focus more on the stories of the Bible and try to capture more of that natural ethos in his communication. My friend didn't seem that convinced, yet was as always very polite and deferring to his "older" mentor.
On Sunday I decided to attend my friend's church and slipped into the Sunday School class for adults. People were spread out, mostly sitting in the back, a few with Bibles in their hands, listening passively as an epistle was taught by writing theological words on the whiteboard. Then it was time for the sermon. My pastor friend stood with extensive notes behind a pulpit so large that we could only see his head (he never moved from that spot). The sermon was a topical one with four key points, but under each point were subpoints of up to five points. In the rather large congregation (by Thai standards) I saw a few people taking notes, and a few Bibles open, but the majority were simply listening. The sermon was crafted well and I would have given him a high grade for his development. I sat there thinking, "He should do well at propositional preaching. He is using the same approach that I taught him 15 years ago." However, I kept thinking throughout the sermon, "What will people be able to remember from such a message?" I asked someone immediately after the sermon what part of the sermon had stuck. We agreed that the one thing we will remember (besides the main topic) is the interesting story he told to illustrate one of his many points.
As I walked home from church I began to reflect on the hundreds of Thai students that have observed me giving propositional lectures in what ended up being four Thai seminaries, or listening to sermons I gave in numerous churches. I taught and preached as I had been taught in my western context and trained scores of Thai with the same western hermeneutical and homiletical techniques. In former days in Central Thailand we would even import western expositors from as far away as England to train our rural pastors in the most cutting edge exegetical/preaching techniques. Many of my students embraced these approaches and improved on them. Over the years these Thai preachers have honed their exegetical tool well and use it as the major (and sometimes only) tool in their communication tool-belt. A hammer is a good tool to have, but shouldn't be the only tool in your belt. If you reach for your oral/narrative tool and find that it is only the size of a "tweezer" then you shouldn't be surprised if your treatment of narrative sections is at best weak.
Like a master carpenter, I want communicators of the Word to communicate the whole counsel of God in a skillful manner, using all the tools available. I'd also like to see this communication take place in a readily reproducible way. The most rapid and expansive spread of the gospel took place in those early years when the disciples went out sharing their first hand experiences with the living Christ. They basically "gossiped the gospel" as they shared stories naturally and winsomely in the divine appointments God provided. Jesus was the master oral story teller of all history and of whom it was said, "All these things Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable" (Mth. 13:34). A parable is basically an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Such parabolic material along with all the other narrative sections make up almost 3/4 of the Bible. My personal bias was always weighted in the 10% included in the epistles, but now I am seeing afresh the value of the majority narrative genre. I discovered this genre and how to treat it in an oral fashion quite late in my mission career. My desire now is to make sure that younger ministers/missionaries not only appreciate the power of story theoretically, but incorporate narrative communication into their evangelism, discipleship, counseling and preaching.