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Stories and Storytelling:  Communicating the Gospel in an Oral Culture
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Everyone loves a good story.  Adults and children alike.  Sometimes the story really makes the point.  Even in the analytical, linear cultures of the West, public speakers are taught to liberally use stories and illustrations.

The purpose and role of stories in western culture, however, is different from the role of stories in the communication patterns of oral cultures the majority of the world’s population.  Communication in the western cultures tends to be linear:  topic-drive, goal-driven or idea-driven.

For westerners, the purpose of a story or humourous aside is often to drive home a point, to support an idea, to strengthen a logical argument.  The story is used to drive home an analytical point.  The ideology, the doctrine, the point in a line of logic is the point.  The story is used to help make the point.

For the majority of the world’s peoples and cultures, however, the story itself is the point.  Westerners listening to an African preacher or politician are often entertained by the speaker’s oratorical style and the humourous stories, but puzzled as to the point.

This is a difference between literate and oral cultures and communication styles.

A Common Format
Communication through stories is common in cultures throughout the world, including the European cultures.  Often the stories are analogies, using animals to represent human personalities.  I used available animal stories when first started preaching in Kenya in the early 1970s.  It was amazing the excited and attentive response I got!

I have also often seen African audiences zone out under the glorious exposition of spiritual truths by a western speaker often through a confused translation when the foreigner could not effectively use an African language.

From the earliest times, stories captured history, morality, faith, and other critical aspects of society from one generation to the other.  The earliest written records from Indo-European cultures are in story form, like the epics of Homer and the religious myths of the Hindu scriptures.

Western Consumer Disadvantage
Modern westerners are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to storytelling.  Most have not had experience telling stories extensively as oral cultures do.  We may be used to consuming stories, but the storytelling skills have been abdicated to the professional bookwriters and movie makers.

Westerners have a more analytical approach to learning, and the educational system teaches people to learn information rather than to tell and understand stories.  What do you do in a situation where the people’s worldview is organized around events, stories and symbol? How can a westerner educated out of his storytelling birthright learn to understand and then communicate in story format?

Observe a Storyteller
Many societies still have certain persons designated as official repositories of the treasures of the tribe, in story format. Sometimes foreigners can be granted access to these human treasures, perhaps sit in on learning sessions with young people going through initiation.

There are often less formal storytelling situations.  Often the talk of the old men outside the kiosk or in front of the house are storytelling sessions.  Talk to your cultural guide about such opportunities.

Children's Stories on Television or Radio
These are excellent opportunities to learn storytelling techniques in a particular culture or set of cultures.  Most societies have ritual formats, like "Once upon a time" or "And the big, bad, wolf ..." or "And they lived happily ever after."

Observe stories from a variety of public sources, and imitate the format.  Learn from your cultural guide which formats are required or allowed in which social settings.

Oral Culture Communication Formats
Spend time just investigating, formally or informally for your own purposes, and in yoru own format.  Observe, take notes, read any sources, to help you learn how people communicate in speech and story in the target society.  Listen to the illustrations and stories of Christian preachers, as well as traditional leaders and modern politicians.  Many printed stories are in oral style.

Analyze for yourself these patterns you observe, then try them out.  As you learn the communication and education patterns of the people, as you become proficient in dialogues and oral communication, you can begin to experiment with use of story formats appropriate to the people.

Stories and Storying in Missions
A teaching technique based on these concepts has grown in popularity over the past two decades.  The format is called "Storying." This is a refined technique based on storytelling, for communicating with illiterate audiences, and with audiences unfamiliar with any biblical history or Christian faith, whether literate or not.

The storying concept tailors the presentation and story sequence to the cultural and faith situation of the people.  Many effective storiers testify that they use different stories with different peoples and use the stories most likely to make contact with the previous background.

You can formulate the content you would like to communicate into forms acceptable to and expected by the local people.  You can tell your faith story, and the stories of our faith history, in a manner familiar to the people, so they can really hear what you want to communicate.

The direct presentation of Jesus seems to be effective with African peoples having some awareness or now previous awareness of Jesus but a belief in one Creator God.  The Jesus story fulfills what is missing in their previous religious concepts.

Biblical Revelation History
The full history or partial history story sequence seems to be most effective among those with no previous background similar to Judaism or with Muslims.  With Muslims it provides an identification with the historical figures they know of and accept, but have no Biblical background for.  This follows simple communication techniques going from what they know (or believe within their cultural worldview) to what they do not know, providing a congenial context for acceptance of further knowledge.

If the proper setting is laid through Old Testament stories which tell about the nature and activity of God, the story of Jesus is better understood and accepted.  If Jesus is mentioned first, he is seen through the stereotypes of prejudice and misinformation of the community.

James Au, who has worked in India, has suggested using stories based on notable peron’s lives, or poignant life events [Personal communication on an email discussions list].  Au suggests that good bios of outstanding Christians of the last century could be very helpful to build credibility and relevance for the Gospel, especially when they are about individuals from their own nation or continent.

It seems to me that such stories could be particularly effective in Muslim contexts to overcome the Muslim stereotypes of Christians, showing the difference between believers and "cultural Christians."

Also related:
Literacy — A Modern Phenomenon
Orality and the Post-Literate West
Situational Storying
Stories and Storytelling:  Reclaiming our Oral Heritage
      For a different but complementary approach to this topic
Storytelling for Learning and Teaching

Also view related PowerPoint Presentations:
[PPt] Oral and Literate — Contrast of Oral and Literate Perspectives
[PPt] Orality and Post-Literate Culture


First written 26 June 2006
This article includes some material originally published in the “Techniques” series in Focus on Communication Effectiveness December 1996.

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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