by Darin S. Harris
“You are that man!”
Those four words don’t seem so powerful by themselves, but on the tongue of a good storyteller they were dynamite. Nathan the prophet spoke those words to King David at the end of a simple story.
A rich man owned many sheep. His neighbor had only one lamb and he loved it. When the rich man needed to kill a sheep for a banquet he thought to himself, Why should I kill one of my flock for this banquet? Instead, he stole the lamb from his neighbor, killed it, and served it to his guests (see 2 Samuel 12).
King David was outraged.
He had been a shepherd long before he was king. As a boy, he probably had one little lamb that followed him around, that he played with, that he loved. He probably pictured that little lamb as Nathan told the story. He was angry the rich man had taken that special lamb and killed it.
The story wasn’t about adultery. Bathsheba’s name was never spoken. But when Nathan said, “You are that man,” instantly David realized what the story meant. Stories have amazing power for teaching.
A Natural Teaching Method
Stories are wonderful, but they may not be the tool we would use to begin teaching our children basic concepts. As your child reaches for a hot pan, you probably wouldn’t start telling a story about a child and a hot pan. Some things we have to teach using other methods.
Often parents choose opposites. We may place a child’s hand on a cold glass then on a warm cup while saying, “Cold” and Hot.” Once we’re sure they’ve got hot and cold we start adding intermediate temperatures: warm, cool, lukewarm. We do this with many concepts like big and small, light and dark, inside and outside.
These opposites are carried into the early tales we tell our children as well. Most of the narratives we tell young children convey a sense of right and wrong, good and evil. They include a protagonist (a hero, or good guy) and an antagonist (a villain, or bad guy). We use these stories to teach the difference in appropriate (right) behavior and inappropriate (wrong) behavior. This is how most of us were taught, and it is one of the most effective ways most of us still learn.
Creating Mental Pictures
We use the story approach to teach because it works, and stories work because they evoke our emotions and enliven our imaginations. You may think you don’t have an imagination and while, as someone said, “We tend to develop arteriosclerosis of the imagination in adulthood,” don’t despair; your imagination is still there even if it is a little rusty. The advertising industry is built on stories that connect with our imaginations.
In a 30-60 second commercial, advertisers will tell a story to teach us a lesson.
A beautiful young woman holds a beautiful little baby. She smiles and kisses the baby as she places him into an immaculate SUV (obviously the baby has never been in the vehicle before because there are no Cheerios stuck on the window, no loose socks on the floor, and no spit-up stains on the seats). As the woman gets into the car and drives out onto the dangerous road, she brakes quickly to avoid a crazy driver who is not paying attention.
The lesson we learn: the SUV she’s driving (the hero of the story) is the safest SUV on the road. It is much safer than other makes of SUVs (the villains). Depending on the product, the word “safest” could be replaced by “most fuel efficient,” “most absorbent,” or just plain old “best.” Whatever it is, we know. Our imagination has been able to go back to those opposites we learned in the earliest of stories and help us reach the conclusion the advertisers want us to reach.
Jesus the Storyteller
How do the commercials work? We identify with someone in the narrative, just as we’ve done with stories our whole lives. If the woman in the commercial seems to truly believe that her SUV is the safest, then we in turn believe the SUV is safe. Jesus used a similar method when he taught.
He used short stories, often recorded in just a few verses. These brief tales, like the commercials, catch our imaginations and allow us to identify with a character. “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin’” (Luke 15:8, 9).
The story is only two verses long, but we can identify emotionally with the woman because we’ve all lost something important. Jesus then adds, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”(Luke 15:10). Since we were already engaged in the story, the lesson is quickly understood: people can be lost and then found.
Stories don’t just touch our emotions; they capture our imaginations. According to Maxine Greene, “Imagination is the capacity to break the sense of social paralysis and to realize that things can be changed.” Change is the desired outcome of most teaching and stories are powerful tools to help create that change.
The Purpose of Storytelling
A tool as powerful as storytelling can be used in almost every facet of religious education. God obviously thought it was a great way to teach, since the Bible is one big narrative put together with many, many short stories. Often our lessons are a retelling of these wonderful stories. Preachers use stories all the time and there are hundreds of books and Web sites of sermon illustrations to help them find ways to catch the imaginations and emotions of their listeners.
Stories can be used with almost all ages from preschoolers to senior adults, but they don’t have to be confined to the classroom. One man believed his mother was always trying to get him to become someone other than himself. His mother’s hobby was bonsai—raising tiny trees. When the man began thinking about how his mother made him feel he realized she was trying to prune and wire him like he was a bonsai tree. When he told her this story, it stirred an emotion and she began to change how she dealt with him.
Storytelling is powerful, allowing emotions and imagination to lead to life change. It is a tool we can use in many areas of life. And, in light of God’s example to us, it is especially important in the realm of Christian education.
Darin S. Harris is a freelance writer in McDonough, Georgia.
Looking for some great ways to share Bible stories with children, teens, and adults? Look this way:
SPECIAL PROGRAMS & CELEBRATIONS
Easter Programs for Children
Easter Programs for the Church
Church Programs for Special Days
Christmas Programs for Children
Christmas Programs for the Church
*Note: all program books have current 2011 editions available as well as past years’ editions for sale.
Drama for Worship (Volumes 1 and 2)
SKITS FOR STUDENT MINISTRY
INTRODUCE Bible topics from Another Angle
ILLUSTRATE Bible Truths from Another Angle
RETELL Bible Narratives from Another Angle
Stories for Children
by Storyteller Steven James
Creative Storytelling Guide for Children’s Ministry
Sharable Parables: Creative Storytelling Ideas for Ages 3-12
Crazy & Creative Bible Stories for Preteens
30 New Testament Interactive Stories for Young Children
30 Old Testament Interactive Stories for Young Children
30 New Testament QuickSkits for Kids
30 Old Testament QuickSkits for Kids
Bible Story QuickSkits for 2 Kids
Find out more about all these resources: www.standardpub.com
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