Parables were the storytelling method of choice for our Lord. A parable can be defined as a brief story that can stand alone—like a self-contained module that appeals to the thinking and attitudes of its hearers. There are other ways to tell stories, of course, but I want to focus here on the parable telling (or storytelling) of Jesus. I see them as one and the same, because parables are a particular kind of story.
The Structure of Jesus' Parables
There are many ways to tell stories, and we can certainly be creative. But I believe we can greatly improve the stories we tell by following Jesus' examples. When we dissect the way that Jesus told parables, we can see several profound principles about how to tell our own stories.
First, the source of Jesus' illustrations was often his imagination. Jesus rarely used personal examples, and while he regularly used material from Scripture, he only occasionally used historical examples. That's the opposite of what many storytellers do today. Our practice usually starts with a personal example, moves to history, then a Bible story, and then to our imagination.
Second, the opening (first 10 seconds) of Jesus' stories established the setting. Too many times when we tell stories, we don't answer any of the six journalistic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Take Jesus' well-known parable about the sower and the seed. In 10 seconds, you can read this much: "A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture" (Luke 8:5–6).
Now ask the six questions. At least half are answered in these few words.
- Who? The sower.
- What? Went out to sow.
- When? Not answered, but probably at sowing time.
- Where? His field.
- Why? Not answered. Jesus will use this to illustrate spiritual receptivity.
- How? Jesus develops the details to fit his teaching purposes.
The opening of Jesus' stories also directed the listener's interest. By establishing the basic plot in the first few seconds, Jesus could then tell a longer story. However, none of Jesus' recorded stories would take more than three minutes to tell, while the shortest would take just 20 seconds. As teachers, if we want students to remember what we've taught, we need to be thinking "quick."
Finally, the last sentences of Jesus' parables prompted a response from his listeners. Note some of his methodology:
- He usually didn't have to state the main point, because it was obvious from the story.
- He usually established the analogy in the first sentence. For example, "The Kingdom of heaven is like … " (Matthew 13:31).
- He often ended his stories with a convincing question. For example, "How is he then his son?" (Luke 20:44, KJV).
Putting Jesus' Method of Telling Stories into Practice
As we look at how to use Jesus' storytelling methods in our own teaching, I like the way Eugene Peterson translates Jesus' answer of why he told stories:
You've been given insight into God's kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn't been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That's why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight (Matthew 13:11–13, THE MESSAGE).
As rock-solid teachers, we can use the following methods to nudge our students toward "receptive insight."
Recent educational research shows that children as young as three have "scripts" around which they organize their learning. This means that storytelling is an exceptionally strong learning mode for children. So learn to tell stories, and to involve children in them.
When you plan on teaching children through the medium of stories, be sure to listen to other storytellers. Try imitating their methods as a way to improve your own style. You can also ask some of the children to share a Bible story they heard in church or in another class. Their interpretation and summary of the story will prompt good discussion.
Use the following guidelines for telling stones to children:
- Know the material.
- Don't memorize; just tell the story in your own words.
- Practice, practice, practice.
- Involve children in the storytelling by acting it out, using sound effects, using the Bible, and researching the stories together.
When using stories as a teaching method for teenagers, I've often found it effective to let the teens tell the story. You can use several different techniques to accomplish this:
- Start a story and have others finish it. Gather your students in small groups of four to eight individuals. Start a story, and then let another continue it until each person has had a turn. The first person can veto the direction of the story, but only one time.
- Ask teenagers to tell the Bible story you're using in your lesson. You won't be teaching something they already know, and their involvement will increase what they'll learn.
- Assign a team of reporters to "interview" a Bible character, and act out their work for the rest of the class.
I've also had success when adapting Youth for Christ USA's training for evangelism called Three Story Evangelism. In essence, this training encourages students to listen to another person's story, tell their own story, and then tell the story of Jesus. Too often, we tell the story of Christ or our own story, but we don't really listen to the person we're seeking to serve.
When using stories with adults, it's a good idea to have everyone practice telling stories. Take turns telling about 15 seconds of a personal story. Then ask the storyteller to answer at least three of the six journalistic questions from those 15 seconds (who, what, when, where, why, and how).
This is a great way to sharpen illustrations in stories, because a focused beginning generates a clear model for setting the context. You can also encourage adult students to share the ending or moral to their story. This experience can be profound or silly, but it's likely to be memorable.
I also recommend using personal stories as a way to delve deeper. My wife, Donna, has small-group members draw timelines of their lives. As each person tells their life story—complete with highs and lows—the group members get to know and understand each other. Both laughter and tears abound. This technique not only helps group members get acquainted, but it also teaches deep lessons of spiritual growth, struggle, failure, and success.
With Your Own Family
Tell "family stories." This is a great way to pass down the values of your family. Encourage members of the older generations to start telling about "the way it was." You might want to videotape grandparents and other senior relatives talking about their early church experiences, their courtship and establishment of a family, and their fresh life in Christ and how it has been sustained. These priceless moments will be treasured by each generation.
Psalm 78:2-7 provides a nice description of how important this is:
I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old—what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.
He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds, but would keep his commands.