by Thomas M. Lang (January / February 2003 • Volume 19 • Number 1)
Biblical storytellers want to move the stories of faith from the text to the heart, so that the hearers may hear
Twenty-some years ago when I was exposed to the seminary ritual of moving from written text to preaching and teaching, the emphasis was on the science of the text, that is, thorough and painstaking exegesis and carefully researched connections between ancient text and modern audience. Out of this process there developed a properly constructed manuscript.
In those days preaching (and teaching) was an art based heavily on the science of hermeneutics and the architecture of the pulpit/lectern. Pulpits and lecterns were the pillars of God's Word, bearing the pages of the manuscript while lifting the preacher up above the listeners so as to give the Word its proper honor and dignity. In those days, the reading of the lessons was done in a monotone and somber style. In fact, in seminary, we were told not to add any inflection or drama to the reading of the lessons. In no way should we meddle with the pure Word of God. That's what we were told, then.
All of this was appropriate for the time. People were still able to tune into the spoken, or in most cases read, word, having an attention span of at least 15 minutes-or, if the readings and sermon were really good, 20 minutes. People were also better able to absorb the more hefty theological and exegetical tone of sermons and lectures and the straightforward delivery of the manuscript to the ears of the listener. That was then.
Today, the proclamation of the Word of God has taken on a much different form in order to effectively meet the challenges that technology and hurried lifestyles have placed on the relationship between text, preacher/ teacher, and listener. Today's delivery of the Word calls for a dynamic, interactive approach that engages the listener in an experience. Even the presentation of the lessons for the day has taken on new forms: the use of inflection, reader's theater, drama, and musical expression, just to name a few.
One of the most unique and appropriate of the "new" expressions of the Word is called "biblical storytelling." Simply put, "biblical storytelling" is the telling of the lessons for the day, or any biblical text, without relying on the written text. It is told "from the heart" as the Network of Biblical Storytellers likes to describe it. That is, it is told after a period of careful preparation which includes traditional exegesis and personal reflection by the teller on the effect of the text on his/her life and the lives of those who will hear the telling.
The art of biblical storytelling helps transform the traditional uses of pulpit, lectern, and manuscript into tools for the effective telling of the Word. The storyteller is able to move freely from pulpit, lectern, and manuscript down into the midst of the congregation, or to wherever is appropriate for most powerfully declaring the message of the story. From this vantage point, biblical storytelling may use as many of the hearer's senses as possible, drawing the community into hearing the waves of the Sea of Galilee lapping at the shore, or seeing Jesus climb the hillside in order to speak to the crowds, or walking through the desert and feeling the dry bones of a devastated Israel crunching underfoot. The scientific approach of past years caused us to forget that the Bible is a text of stories that once traveled orally and only much later came to be written down. Biblical storytelling restores the texts of the Bible to their intended purpose in the life of the church-that is, of orally proclaiming the story to generation after generation.
Continuing: This Way
This kind of engagement between teller and hearer naturally flows into a sermon style that leaves pulpit and manuscript behind, or at least makes them servants of the story and not vice versa. It uses sound storytelling techniques to proclaim the Word of God as story.
I rarely go into the pulpit after telling the Gospel, or whatever lesson or lessons I am basing my sermon on, unless it serves to heighten the impact of the story. The telling of the story has already placed me among the people, and the transition from biblical story into the hearers' story is a natural one that should not be inhibited by the protective baggage of pulpit or manuscript. In reality, the sermon already began with the teller's interpretation of the lesson(s) and so, having told the lesson(s) there is no turning back. Bible story and sermon/lesson have become one.
Occasionally, I even delay the telling of the Gospel story until midway through the sermon where the impact of the story creates immediate connections between listeners and the story. Most recently I did this using Matthew 16:13-20, "Peter's Declaration about Jesus" (Pentecost Proper 16-A).
I began the sermon talking about how we are all God's hand tools uniquely crafted to carry out our particular tasks in the Christian community. I talked about how each one of us is, therefore, a necessary part of the crafting of the mission of our congregation. I compared congregational ministry to the response of 9/11/01 where New York City became a place akin to one body with each part functioning to carry out its very own particular job. There was the firefighter, police officer, paramedic, fellow worker, common citizen. Each one heeded the call in that moment, and without just one, the response would have been diminished.
And then, to introduce the Gospel, I said, "And here is why each one of us in the Christian community must respond likewise." I went on to declare the story of Peter's profession of faith in "the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." As the church, this is also our profession. And as the "professors" of the Christ we are called to speak and to act.
In Many and Various Ways
The form of the telling of the lesson and/or sermon can be as varied as the talents within the local faith community. The teller may be the pastor, a layperson, a group of youth, or the whole congregation. (Involving the whole congregation is especially effective when having them repeat a key phrase over and over again as the teller(s) tells the story. For example, having the congregation repeat "Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe," as the "Doubting Thomas" story is told.)
The telling may take place in the chancel, in the middle of the sanctuary, from the balcony, or all over the place depending on the text being told. For example, if Jesus is teaching the crowds, then all of the action will take place in one spot. If Jesus is coming down the mountain to walk across the water to a boat full of disciples, then more movement around the sanctuary is necessary.
When I tell the story of the birth of Jesus from Luke 2, I begin in the balcony with "the decree." I then journey down the aisle with Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. Finally, I pick up the shepherds along the way as all eyes and hearts are drawn toward the incarnation in the stable placed centrally in front of the free-standing altar.
|Today, the proclamation of the Word of God has taken on a much different form in order to effectively meet the challenges that technology and hurried lifestyles have placed on the relationship between text, preacher/teacher, and listener.|
In our hyper-electronic age, it is even appropriate and often helpful to tell the story using PowerPoint, overheads, or video clips that draw out in vivid color the images of the story. How bold a statement to be telling the Reformation Gospel from John 8 while showing a video clip of Luther before the Diet of Worms driving home the meaning of the phrase, "And the truth shall make you free." Or, imagine the power of this text with various ministry scenes of "truth-telling" being shown on screen as the gospel is told: truth told in hospital rooms, in courtrooms, before government bodies, church bodies in assembly, and between parent and child, and husband and wife.
Such telling is by no means limited to the sanctuary. Here at St. Michael's, we also use storytelling in Sunday School, confirmation classes, Bible studies, pastors' gatherings, home visits, and much more. The possibilities are as endless as the call to tell The Story. Recently, two of my staff members and I told the story of the Five Foolish and the Five Wise Virgins as our devotions for our weekly staff meeting. The point was to raise our mode of preparations above the level of the daily nuts and bolts to the level of the holy anchors and supports we become in the ship of faith.
From Teller to Hearer
Such presentation of the Word of God has come a long way from the use of monotone readings and the 3-points-and-a-poem sermon style. Biblical storytelling unleashes the storyteller within both teller and listener and returns proclamation to what it was intended to be-the transmission of the stories of faith from the teller to the hearer, who then becomes the teller to another hearer, and so on. It is the passing along of the stories and traditions from church member to non-church member, Christian to non-Christian, and perhaps most importantly, from adult to child.
As captivating as biblical storytelling can be, it is a slow process turning listeners into tellers. We have been held prisoner to the written word for so long that it simply petrifies people to even consider telling the stories from the heart. But we have gotten off to a good start. The stories are not going away, nor are the tellers, and for that reason, nor will the listeners. Every biblical storyteller knows that it is not the person of the teller that will change minds and move hearts. As it has always been, it is the movement of the Spirit of Christ through the tool of the teller and riding bareback on the Word of God that will change a person from listener to teller.
And So On and So On
Anyone can be a storyteller. Anyone can tell the stories of the Bible. God is already using each one of us in unique and inventive ways to gain unlimited opportunities for his Word to be told. Biblical storytelling simply calls us to a specific and intentional way of telling The Story as uniquely and inventively as we are each a unique and inventive creature of the hand of Almighty God.
Thomas M. Lang is pastor/storyteller at St. Michael's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Sellersville, Pennsylvania.
- Thomas Boomershine, Story Journey: an Invitation to the Gospels as Storytelling (Abingdon: Nashville, 1988).
- Network of Biblical Storytellers, 1810 Harvard Boulevard, Dayton, Ohio 45406, 800-355-NOBS, www.nobs.org, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Storytelling, Kids, and Christian Education, Firelight Foundational Books (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2002), $15.99. ISBN: 0-8066-6428-2.