How to Tell the Gospel with Storytelling


Evangelism in a Skeptical World“For every generation, or maybe even every decade, a book comes out that will become a standard reference for evangelism and apologetics,” says CT’s recommendation. “This book has the potential to become the leading manual for Christians engaged in outreach for many years to come. Chan discusses a wide set of issues ranging from the theology of evangelism to how to give evangelistic talks to the place of apologetics in evangelism, all geared to the mindset of our contemporary culture.”

Below is a selection from Sam Chan’s book that gives you practical techniques for telling the gospel with storytelling. Read on and get your copy of Sam Chan’s book today.

The content of the gospel—which is a story—is better suited to the form of storytelling than propositional communication.

I’d like to share with you an adaptation I’ve developed of a method of storytelling the gospel, one I learned from missionary friends such as Christine Dillon, Andrew Wong, Aaron Koh, John G., Wycliffe Bible Translators, and the International Orality Network. If you want to learn more about this, I recommend that you begin by reading Christine Dillon’s book (Telling the Gospel through Story) and website (storyingthescriptures.com.), visiting the ION website (orality.net), or enrolling in a Wycliffe Bible Storytelling Workshop. After you have those basics down, you will be able to adapt their methods to find something that suits you and the culture you are seeking to reach.
In what follows, I’ll teach you my preferred way of doing this, but don’t think this is the only way. Over the years, it has worked well for me. But I hope that you discover your own way.

1. Learning to Tell a Story from the Bible 

Start by choosing a story from the Bible. The following are a few of the passages that I have used that work well when you are getting started (Genesis 1Matthew 20:1-6Mark 2:1-17Luke 5:12-32John 20Acts 16:12-34).
If I had time to meet with someone over several weeks, I would begin in Genesis and slowly work my way through the Old Testament before getting to the New Testament. But often I have only one meeting with someone, so most of my passages are from the New Testament because I want to get them talking about Jesus. At the same time, I understand the tension this raises, that without the Old Testament, it might be hard for someone to understand who Jesus really is.
After you have chosen a passage, read it carefully several times. The goal is to retell the story in your own words. You don’t have to memorize the story word for word from the Bible. Just remember the scenes from the Bible story and then retell those scenes.

I do this by first reading three different translations of the passage. Typically I pick a literal translation like the ESV, then a dynamic-equivalent translation like the NIV or NLT, and finally a paraphrase version like The Message. I then learn to retell the passage in my own words, using vocabulary that the listener and I would comfortably use in an everyday conversation. Sometimes I also “storyboard” the story by drawing it in cartoon form. Then I memorize how the scenes look and retell the scenes without the visuals, using my own words.
Next, I practice retelling the story to another person who has the Bible passage in front of them. They can correct whatever errors I make. The aim is to retell the story according to the following guidelines (the acronym, which I find easy to remember, is SAM):

  • Simple: Use only words that the listener understands (e.g., change “Pharisee” to “religious leader,” “synagogue” to “place of worship”). Use a maximum of three names of persons. (If the story talks about Jesus, Jairus, John, James, and Peter, you can change it to Jesus, Jairus, and three of Jesus’ closest disciples.)
  • Accurate: You can simplify the story by leaving out some things—place names, names of persons, details about a particular location—but don’t add things to embellish the story.
  • Memorable: Retell the story in a memorable way. What’s memorable? Feel free to use facial expressions, body language, and actions to get the emotion and the drama in the story across to your listeners.

Now tell the story to your listener. You can use an introduction like, “Here’s a story from the Bible that helps explain what I believe. I’m going to tell it, and then afterward we can talk about it.” In informal situations, such as a conversation, I tell the story once. But in formal situations, such as a public talk or a small-group Bible study, I tell the story three times. I tell them, “I’m going to tell a story from the Bible three times. The first time, I want us to imagine the story. The second time, I want us to remember the story. And the third time, you’re going to help me retell the story. Listen carefully, because you’re going to help me retell it, and we’ll also talk some more about the story afterward.”

For another variation, I tell the story once or twice, and then my listeners, in pairs, can have a go at retelling the story to each other. Sometimes I also ask for volunteers to retell the story in front of the whole group. Whenever there is a pause or gap in memory, the rest of the group can help the volunteer retell the rest of the story. Or someone else can take over from where the last person decided to stop.

[Want to hear more about why storytelling communicates the gospel so effectively? Discover  more in chapter 7 in Sam Chan’s book Evangelism in a Skeptical World.]

2. Leading the Discussion

After telling the story, we can ask the listener these questions to generate discussion:

  1. What impressed you about the story?
  2. What questions do you want answered from the story?
  3. What does the story teach us about people?
  4. What does the story teach us about Jesus (or God)?
  5. What is God teaching you from this story?

Here are some guidelines I suggest for doing this in more formal situations to a group of people. First, before telling the story from the Bible, I sometimes tell the listeners that this is an exercise in postliterate learning, so it works better if they don’t look at their books, Bibles, and computer screens; instead they should look at me. And then I warn them that there will be questions afterward, so they need to listen carefully.

Second, after telling the story, I ask the first question and get listeners to discuss it in pairs, because this generates peer-to- peer discussion (removing any perceived teacher-student hierarchy) and it gives them the warrant to talk out aloud.

Third, I get listeners to share their answers with the whole group. This gives them the warrant to talk out loud. Along those lines, I resist the temptation to comment on or summarize what they have said. This removes me—the teacher—as the all-knowing expert from the discussion. It keeps the discussion at a peer-to- peer level. And more important, it means that I will not patronize their answers, nor will I shame them if they say something that I perceive to be wrong.

After they’ve shared, I repeat the process for the second question. Note that the sequence of the questions is important. Start with these safe questions to encourage discussion.

In addition, when someone shares a question they want answered from the story, I won’t answer it. I listen to everyone’s questions first, then I choose some of the good questions and have the whole group break into pairs and report their answers to everyone. In this way, the group is responsible for helping each other to learn. And again, it removes me from the discussion as the all-knowing expert.

Sometimes, if no one has asked what I think is a significant question, I say, “I’ve got a question.” I ask my question and then get everyone back into pairs to discuss my question and share their answers with the group. If it’s a large group—say more than twenty-five— then I get only ten to twelve people (five to six pairs) to share their answers for each question.

Why do this? Why so many details and rules to follow for a simple discussion? Because I’ve found that people prefer a dialogue to a monologue for learning.

[Find more examples of how to lead fruitful discussion in chapter 7 of Sam Chan’s book Evangelism in a Skeptical World.]

In my experience, the storytelling model works best if you have at least one-third non-Christians in the group, with another two-thirds Christians. If possible, pair up a non-Christian with a Christian. This way, the non-Christians get to hear from the Christian perspective. Second, you should realize that the story you tell will generate its own questions. It’s the Bible’s own story that generates discussion rather than the questions of systematic theology or a particular application that you have in mind. For example, when I told the story of Noah and the flood, one person asked, “What about the dinosaurs?” Another person, a non-Christian, answered, “But the story doesn’t say anything about dinosaurs, so it’s not relevant.”

Keep in mind that people will also generate questions from their own contexts. That’s a good thing! In this way, we end up answering questions relevant to each person’s existential, emotional, and cultural contexts. This ends up being contextualized evangelism. And people will also answer from their own perspective, so everyone is enriched by the experience. For example, listening to the story of the woman who is healed by Jesus and the story of Jairus’s dead daughter (Luke 8:40–56), people from Middle Eastern cultures often pick up on how both the woman and the dead daughter were unclean. So when the woman touches Jesus, and when Jesus touches the dead daughter, it is remarkable that Jesus himself doesn’t also become unclean. They also pick up on the woman’s shame and how she is publicly restored by Jesus. That’s why Jesus stops to say, “Who touched me?” because it will give the woman a public opportunity to be declared clean. An indigenous Australian once told me that the funeral for Jairus’s dead daughter would have gone for days, so when Jesus told the parents not to tell anyone that their daughter had been raised back to life, he was focusing on how it would’ve been really hard for the parents to explain why the funeral had been canceled, something I had never considered before.

And that’s an additional blessing to this method. You will gain a deeper appreciation for the nuances of Bible stories as you memorize and retell them.

— Sam Chan, Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable

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