Q: What is Biblical storytelling?

A: It is an oral, rather than written, approach used to communicate God’s message, as recorded in the Scriptures.  It is based on the Scriptures, but includes background information and stylistic changes that make it interesting and appealing to various audiences. Often it includes drama as well.

Q: What is “different” about this approach?

A: Storytelling is as old as mankind, so it has been around since the story of God’s creation were first told.  However, this approach assumes that when preliterate or largely oral societies hear God’s message, as revealed in the Bible, it is best told and retold in a oral format as well.

It also does not assume that every language group needs a Bible translation, especially small languages that are in danger of becoming moribund or extinct.  Depending on various factors, such as literacy and motivation to hear and retell stories in the vernacular, a storytelling approach may be the best starting point.

Q: But why not simply begin directly with translated materials?

A: A translation project assumes a literate audience, an infrastructure for electronic recording and printing the materials, and a distribution plan.  Many language groups have a high degree of people who use an oral approach, so the translation program largely bypasses them.

According to world experts, some 70% of the people in the world do not read and write with any degree of sophistication (such as the Scriptures require).  But telling stories is a cultural phenomena that builds on the oral dexterity that is already present in the culture.  In addition, telling stories does not require the same kind of training for a selected few—everyone tells stories.

Q: How can you be sure that the Bible stories are told accurately?

A: The same way that we can tell that the Scriptures are translated accurately?  By asking questions, requiring back-interpretations into a common language, and by training storytellers.  We ask questions like: What is the point of the story, why did (Jesus) tell it?  Who are the main characters and what are the main events, etc.?

However, storytelling is not translation, so Bible background, redemptive and cultural analogies, as well as other helpful supplementary information can be added.

Q: What serves as the source for the stories?

A: Scriptures exist in the major languages that some speakers of even minor vernacular languages understand, at least to some degree.  Therefore major languages serve as the source text from which the stories are told.

Q: How does this methodology and strategy serve and relate to the goals of Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics?

A: This approach involves the national speakers of the languages in telling and retelling the stories of the Bible.  If a translation program develops, some key terms and background information has already been used and so it is available.  It tests motivation so that translation programs, ensuring that they are not begun unless the vernacular speakers are using their languages.

Q: Has the methodology been tried out?

A: The New Tribes Mission and International Board of Missions (Southern Baptist) have been developing Chronological Bible Storytelling for some time.

In my case, SIL and the Seed Co. sponsored a pilot project in the Sandaun Province of Papua New Guinea in October of 2002.  It was attended by 17 men from 4 language groups. In late 2003 an additional storytelling seminar was held in Hauna of the East Sepik Province and attended by 17 men and one woman from 8 separate languages.  These differed from the Chronological Bible Storytelling method in several ways:

  • The stories were not chronological, but began with the parables and miracles of Jesus
  • The process allowed the speakers of the languages to choose stories that they felt were needed
  • It was an oral approach (students did not read or write materials)
  • The stories were recorded during the course and participants took them back to the villages
  • My approach focused on several key modules:
    • Why stories?
    • How to tell stories
    • Story audiences
    • The main point of a story
    • Recording stories
    • Stories as songs
    • Constructing stories
    • Examining stories


I should add that this is, of course, only one attempt to promote Bible storytelling in SIL and WBT—but it was an early attempt and was embedded in a strategy to include very small languages that were sometimes questionable as to their future viability.

[February 4, 2003]