The Power of Storytelling

Rick Sessoms

In 1984, my family and I were sent to Indonesia as missionaries. My assignment was to teach in a seminary. Since I was the “new kid in town” I got to teach the courses no one else wanted – one of which was preaching. At least it was a course I thought I knew something about. I taught preaching in the school while listening to Indonesians preaching in the local church. Their sermons were a lot like ones I’d heard and given in the States. Good stuff. Important stuff. Truth intended to change how people think, how people feel, and how people act. Solid biblical truth presented in three points and a poem.

Trouble was, it wasn’t changing anybody.

But I noticed a different style of communication whenever I attended Indonesian social events. When community leaders or even the government wanted to relay important information to their people, they used drama. They used songs. They used stories. For example, as the sun was going down, they would often bring out an old bed-sheet and hang it between two poles. Then they would use a light behind the sheet and little leather puppets. As the sun would go down, the stories would come to life. The people would sit and watch and laugh and listen – and learn for hours.

Puppets and songs and stories impacted people in a way that the three-point sermons I heard in church and taught in the seminary did not.  They reached beyond heads into hearts. They were personal, immediate, memorable.

I think that was my first real taste of the power of a story – as an adult. My father had always told me stories. Many of the same ones his father told him. The same ones I told my children.  People young and old love stories. Stories stay with us. They connect us. They change us.

I was reminded of this by a North American while I was still living in Indonesia. Fred Craddock comes from the southeastern U.S. like me. Dr. Craddock is a professor, he’s also a preacher. In fact, Newsweek has called him one of America’s best preachers – partly because he is a master story-teller. Craddock said something then I have never forgotten. He said, “The story not only embellishes the gospel; the story actually embodies the gospel. The story not only illustrates the message of Christ; the message of Christ IS a story.”

Stories never lose their power

– not with our age or our education.  We are hardwired to respond to them.

Well, soon after, I was asked to preach in our local Indonesian church. Taking a cue from the culture, I decided to experiment.  I related biblical truth through a story about a man that died and entered the afterlife. The reaction of the congregation at the end of that story was unexpected – dozens responded to Christ!

But the Indonesian church leaders’ reaction was also unexpected. They said my presentation wasn’t preaching. They said it wasn’t “how we do things here.”

But eventually they asked me to preach again. And again I told a story – this time about Caleb and Joshua from the Old Testament. Again the people responded in extraordinary ways. As I closed the service in prayer, one man stood, raised both hands, and ran to the altar. Many others followed – all responding to God’s grace served up in a simple story.

Those experiences in Indonesia happened long before anyone gave a name to this phenomenon. Today we call these people “storycentric learners”. Others refer to them as “oral learners.” And we call what we do “story-telling”. But we don’t just spin a yarn. We communicate Scripture’s principles in ways that encourages people to hear and see and act. It reminds me of times in the Bible, when people were so involved in Jesus’ stories they didn’t mind walking for days, missing meals and camping out to hear the Truth in a personal, immediate and memorable way.

Storycentric learners – those who learn best and are most likely to be transformed through story, images, and music – whether they read or not – are the people we are called to serve.

I have been deeply impacted with the need for cultivating leaders in storycentric communities to be all they can be for their people and their cultures.


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