Once Upon a Time – Telling Stories That Teach

I love a good story, don’t you?


Image © Providence Collection from GoodSalt.com

Storytelling is a distinctly human trait. No matter how proficiently animals like dolphins, apes and some birds can communicate with us, they don’t care about stories. People, on the other hand, seem to be born craving stories. Think about the child at bedtime: “One more story, Mommy! Just one more.”

As we move through our lives, we find stories almost everywhere – books, movies, TV shows, music, even commercials tell us tiny little 30-second stories. The Bible is filled with stories. Who doesn’t enjoy retelling or listening again to the stories of Joseph, his beautiful coat and his treacherous brothers, Samson’s feats of strength, and King David’s battle with Goliath.

A well-told story can transcend time and place, social status, education level, and political or religious affiliation. That explains why Jesus used stories and parables so often in His teaching. The people who came to hear Jesus speak varied in intellect, occupation and education. There were theologians, farmers, beggars. If He had directed His lessons to any one group, He would have lost the interest of the others. By telling stories, each person was engaged and able to understand the story within the framework of his own education and experience.

As I thought about the effectiveness of storytelling as a teaching tool, I remembered a study I’d read about that found that when people are shown a normal (realistic) drawing of a person along with a caricature of the same person, they will recognize the caricature more readily than the realistic drawing.

Why? Well according to the study, it’s because the caricature minimizes the “average” parts of a person’s face and emphasizes the distinctive features.1

“OK,” I hear you saying, “but we’re talking about stories and parables, not caricatures.”

True, but I believe that the best stories do the same thing as caricatures do – they condense ideas into their most important points so that they’re easier for us to imagine and remember.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus could have told His audience about the step-by-step progression that brought him to ask for his inheritance. He could have dealt with the relationship between the two brothers or the feelings of their mother. But by telling just enough, Jesus made it possible for every one of us to share the experience of each of the characters in the story.

The context of a well-told story allows us to tell about things we probably wouldn’t say outside the story.

An example is the story of David and the prophet Nathan. David pulls off what he figures is the perfect cover-up of his affair with Bathsheba, and then Nathan shows up and tells him a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s only, much-loved sheep. Once David is properly worked up about the injustice of that story, Nathan points out that David had done just that.

We can only imagine what would have happened if Nathan had marched into David’s throne room and spelled out all the things David had done wrong. Nathan might not have lived through the afternoon. As it was, David was convicted by the story and was brought to repentance instead of defiance.

Jesus could have gone from person to person spelling out where each was wrong and needed to change, but by using parables Jesus presented the needed information without backing anybody into a corner. This method allowed each hearer to face his or her own need for forgiveness and redemption and take steps to receive them.

Jesus’ use of parables and stories is evidence that His love lets us choose our own destiny. He simply puts truth before us, and lets us make our choice.

What is the better way to share Jesus’ love with the people we meet – pointing out what they’ve done wrong or showing them what Jesus has done to make us right for His Kingdom?

It seems to me that Sabbath School teachers, elders and pastors should learn to tell  stories like Jesus did in order to teach as He did.

What do you think?

  1. Sam S. Rakover, Baruch Cahlon, Face Recognition: Cognitive and Computational Processes, John Benjamins Publishing, 2001


Once Upon a Time – Telling Stories That Teach — 7 Comments

  1. People read faces people read books Jesus reads Heart As a man think so is he. Most people enjoy a good story that's why the greatest story ever told is that of Love and Jesus is Love ,as my pastor says with out that we don't have a story ,Give glory to God for the great things He's. Done.

  2. [Moderator's note: Please remember to use your full name]

    Lillianne, I agreed wholeheartedly with your article. I often say that if our preachers use stories or metaphors they will have better results in turning lives around. Many times, I go to church with a HEAVY heart and downcast spirit and when the preacher starts using Scripture as a whip, it truly brings me lower than when I first arrived. Feelings of anger and running away enter my mind, but out of courtesy and respect, I remain seated through the entire service and leave church feeling worst than when I arrived. When we go to church we look for relieve from our weekly trials, not to be disciplined. Jesus did not disciplined, HE simply loved. We should do the same.

  3. @ lopez i pasionately aligned myself with your article, if all of us can learn from the master His second coming will be quick. Weldone

  4. Telling Stories catches the attention of people. Many things may be expressed and the point is not always understood. However, many are touched with an afterthought. Sometimes the meaning may affect their minds hours, days, months or even years later. Look at the effect of the parables of Christ. Their messages live on, even now 2,000 years later. Praise God.

  5. [Moderator's note: Please remember to use your full name.]

    Take note that Christ avoided fictitious stories He used good stories.stories that appeal, that touch and that suites the situation.Christ was a master of storytelling, indeed we need to learn this art.

  6. Jesus Christ's sermons presents a holistic approach to lesson delivery. His object lessons come embedded in rich,realistic and practical stories and metaphors which are accompanied by good story-telling characteristics. This approach leaves the listener empathetic and his thought processes are provoked. The listener, therefore, uses personal interpretive abilities to, knowingly or unknowingly, convict himself. The decisions that the listener adopts due to personal conviction are weighed decisions and the whole story becomes a permanent feature in the mind of the listener and can be re-told across future generations. Compare this to the way preachers organise their sermons today. They almost use one style that, according to my understanding, lacks variation. Unlike Jesus, they rarely make use of stories. Rather, they are analytic in their appraoches, breaking down a scripture passage into its component parts which they comment on. This is good but, in my opinion, certain important pointers that would convict and draw men to Jesus are always lost in the breaking down of the original story as certain verses are preferred and selected ahead of others hence, a holistic presentation is not achieved.

  7. [Moderator's Note: Please use full names when commenting]

    good day saints this thing of telling a story the are people inside the church who are against it, so please provite me verse and books


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