A British university cross-cultural group starts using storytelling

Photo Credit: Coventry City Council https://flic.kr/p/hUKhKG

I first heard of Bible storytelling through someone in my network of churches explaining it at a conference, and giving us a complete condensed story set to use. It seemed much more engaging than Bible study, so we started to use the story set with our international student missional community back in a British university.

However, by the time we got about halfway through, a few issues were starting to crop up. The story set and questions had been written predominantly from an individualistic guilt/innocence worldview, which is not how many of our students function (honour/shame and a communal mindset are much more relevant). We really wanted the students to hear something that was closer to the actual Bible text for themselves (‘It has a ring of authenticity,’ said one of our community hosts). And as speakers of English as a second language, we could see difficulties on the horizon with our students leading the story set and having to read out words that they are not familiar with and wouldn’t use to communicate.

So we started looking around for other resources and ways of storytelling, and came across storyingthescriptures.com and ‘Telling the Gospel through Story,’ which seemed to help with these issues. I wasn’t sure that our student leaders would be willing to learn stories rather than just reading them from the page, but thought it would be worth a try. As we were already some way through the story set, for continuity, I learned and told the next Exodus story of the tenth plague and Passover lamb – my first story.

Result: We immediately got a much higher level of understanding, remembering and engaging in discussions of the story than we had with any Bible study or even reading out the story set previously. The students asked amazing questions (‘Why did the plagues happen to all the Egyptians – surely some of them must have advocated for the Israelites?’, ‘Pharoah didn’t want to lose face by backing down’) and seemed to really be thinking through the details of the story. This higher level of engagement has continued since, and I think it has something to do with the speaker telling the story in simpler words, which they have internalized previously, rather than reading it out. Also the more general discussion questions allow our students’ worldviews to more naturally surface.

That doesn’t mean everyone immediately got into it, though – it took another three to four weeks of clearly communicating the discussion guidelines (‘Only two sentences!’) for a few people who were hogging the conversation to simmer down. And another six to eight weeks before one of the community hosts was really okay with us not using ‘the actual Bible story’ as read out directly from the Bible (in whichever translation one might choose). It really does take time for people to adjust and see the benefits of storying.

However our student leaders have been really up for learning and sharing the stories, and we continue to see international friends come and engage week after week. We’re now starting to tell the stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and are looking forward to seeing how people respond.

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