In 1995 Robert and I moved from a Mixtec village in Guerrero, Mexico, into a Latino town, where Mixtecs were planting a new church in their barrio. Wanting to fit into their Latino context, they decided to do everything in Spanish. They were convinced that their Spanish Bibles were better guides to truth than the few passages they had translated into Mixtec. They didn’t value the use of their language in public worship. Because of this, the Mixtec believers would often have adolescents speak in the church, because they were the only ones who could read a Spanish Bible. Meanwhile, the parents and grandparents sat on benches, largely oblivious to what was said.
One day, one of the Mixtec patriarchs, Antonino, overheard his son working with a Wycliffe Bible translator on the parable of the Prodigal Son. It was the first time he had ever heard a Bible story in the Mixtec language! That night, during the worship service, Antonino could not contain himself; he stood up in the middle of the sermon and recounted the parable several times, going over the details with growing excitement.
Everyone was shocked. It was rare to hear a Mixtec speak out boldly in his own tongue in a Latino context. But this man, Antonino, after faithfully listening to hours of Spanish preaching, had finally heard a simple story from the Bible in his own language, and he knew that everyone else needed to hear it that way too.
The Bible is primarily a collection of stories , and yet we often teach the Bible through doctrinal statements rather than stories. Do we think stories are too simple to carry the deep doctrines of the faith? Are stories only meant as introductions and illustrations, just appetizers to the main course of propositional truth?
Why do we shy away from using more Bible stories?
Of course, the backbone of the Bible is a story, a metanarrative that answers every major question about our humanity: its wreck, its hope, and its destiny. It is primarily narrative, and its characters, every one, reveal not only their own stories, but the glorious story of God unfolding through them. The Bible does not present God as a concept, but rather as the driving character in a master plot. We learn about God’s character primarily through how he interacts with other characters in his one great story.
Have we neglected the Bible’s preference for storytelling? If we understand God best through story, then shouldn’t we be presenting God to others through story as well?
In North America and Western Europe, systematic theology has dominated our approach to the Bible and our understanding of God. But today, the church from other contexts is challenging us to be more story-based in our approach to Scripture. We have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters around the world.
Here in Mexico, our Mixtec friends have taught us the importance of storytelling. Antonino was transformed through hearing a Bible story in his own language. The experience empowered him not only to interpret and apply the story for himself but also to tell it to others.
On another occasion, I saw this happen with a Mixtec named Cornelius in a migrant worker camp in northern Mexico. My husband and I were learning Mixtec and translating Bible stories to tell in the camps. Cornelius would listen to our few broken sentences, piece the story back together, and call everyone in the camp together to retell it in his own words. The story was immediately reproduced and interpreted for the whole crowd.
In this context, some Spanish vendors in the migrant camp challenged our public use of Mixtec, partly because they felt left out. But what we saw was Mixtecs, who are so often marginalized, hearing the Good News for the first time. And it was a communal event, an exchange between the storyteller and the audience, engaging the Good News together, much like I imagine happened in the time of Jesus.
It seems to me that this kind of storytelling is an excellent strategy for starting healthy churches, where everyone participates, helps one another grow, and communicates Good News readily to others.
I realize we are not much used to training leaders through storytelling, but I’m convinced it’s an effective approach. As new leaders listen to Bible stories and teach them to others, we as mentors empower them. Storytelling is a familiar skill to them and invites them to interpret and pass on what they learn.
In another Mixtec village, a woman named Petra is the semi-literate pastor of a newborn Mixtec church. Petra said, “If I had to prepare sermons, I could not lead this church. But I can tell stories. I know how to do that.” Petra’s mentor recently told me, “When you tell stories, you have to allow people to retell and apply them. You give up control over the Bible message. It’s the way of self-sacrifice.”
I hadn’t thought of it that way. But doesn’t that about sum up God’s way as Master Storyteller?