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Biblical Storytelling: Learning scripture by heart

Biblical storytelling reconnects worshipers with the communal experience of hearing God together. A feature story exploring biblical story telling and learning the scriptures by heart.

In the same churches that soulfully sing “I Love to Tell the Story,” the Scripture reading (if any) is often delivered without eye contact, emotion, or inflection.

Perhaps reading the Bible in monotone seems more dignified, holy, and respectful. It’s certainly common…and also odd, once you think about it. We know that music is not the ink on the paper, yet we treat the Word of God as ink on paper.

But as Dennis Dewey explains, learning Bible stories by heart is a spiritual discipline that connects people with the living Word of God. His message is getting across. Congregations are finding ways to use biblical storytelling in many parts of their worship services.

Oral tradition

Dennis Dewey, an ordained Presbyterian and professional biblical storyteller, likes to point out that public Scripture reading often sounds like “spoken print.” The people who first received God’s Word, however, lived in an oral culture, not a literate one.

“Remember that the stories of the Scriptures were, for the most part, first experienced as stories—full of sound and fury, red meat and bubbly—not as dead ink on silent paper,” he says in an interview with another professional biblical storyteller, Tracy Radosevic.

The Bible is the story of how God acts in human history. This story gives us a timeline to live by. Deborah, Joshua, David, and Nehemiah saw the practice of telling and recounting God’s wondrous acts as an anchor of worship.

Dewey began telling Bible stories during his first year as a parish pastor. When he performed Mark’s passion narrative instead of preaching a Palm Sunday sermon, the response was electric. Since then, people who’ve gone to church all their lives hear him tell Bible stories and say things like “I never heard the gospel till now” or “You made the text come alive.”

That’s when Dewey reminds them, “The stories already are alive. I just try not to kill them.”

Internalizing the story

In interviews with HomileticsReformed Worship, and elsewhere, Dewey explains a few terms that sometimes startle people who hear him talk about “performing the Bible stories that have been traditioned to us.”

You might think of performing a Bible story as embroidering on the words God gave or as showing off. Dewey explains that perform means to form fully. He finds the life in the text, fully internalizes it, and shares the promise these “ancient stories have to move people, change lives, and challenge the powers.”

By traditioned, Dewey means that the Bible has been handed down through oral and literate cultures, in many languages and translations.

He aims to perform narratives and passages nearly verbatim—with 95 percent content accuracy and 75 percent verbal accuracy—from Scripture. He studies several translations to fully understand the story’s words, images, and feelings. Where translators deleted all the “ands” or inserted subordinate clauses, so oral stories would read as literature, he reverts to how the passage should sound out loud.

Dewey describes biblical storytelling as a spiritual discipline that goes beyond memorizing and reciting. “You internalize the story,” he often says. That means reading it aloud, meditating on it, praying with the text, engaging with it on a feeling level, and scripting it. As you learn a scripture by heart, it becomes part of your tone of voice, vocal pacing, muscle tension, and movements.

“Stories can be memorized in a few hours, but it takes weeks to learn the story ‘by heart.’ I suggest that people begin learning the story at least six weeks before they will be telling it,” Dewey says.

Communal connection

In what he calls the “back story” to his life path, Dewey describes himself at age 45. He’d just resigned from a difficult pastorate and was wondering how to support his family. On top of that, his wife unexpectedly became pregnant. “I cried for a week,” he says. They were soon the butt of friendly jokes from people of the same age but in different life stages.

Then Dewey was invited to guest preach for a few weeks, only to discover that the lectionary texts were about Abraham and Sarah. “I lived in those stories. I felt Abraham’s giddy joy. I was grateful for this gift of God, this twist in my life story,” he says.

Just as learning Bible stories by heart helps Dewey see his story within the context of God’s story, he believes biblical storytelling does the same for worshipers. That’s partly because storytelling requires direct eye-to-eye contact. So, unlike watching a liturgical drama, those in the pews don’t have to pretend that the story is happening in front of them.

He credits Tom Boomershine, founder of the Network of Biblical Storytellers, for helping him remember that the stories that became the Bible “were first experienced and remembered as breath and sound and noise—amusing, compelling, moving stories in which people met God.”

And that’s why Dewey describes biblical storytelling as a “new/old way of experiencing the stories of God” and as “lively adventures in communal imagination.”

How Churches Use Biblical Storytelling in Worship

Canon Kendall Harmon struck a nerve when he posted a Church of England Newspaper piece on why the Bible is rarely read in many worship services. Major surveys on congregational worship and vitality ask whether worship typically includes incense, electric guitars, or visual projection…yet don’t ask about public Scripture reading.

If public Bible reading is in fact declining, one reason may be what religion researcher David Roozen has identified as “the most profound religious and foundational” religious mega trend in North America. He says churches are shifting their worship orientation from the Word to the Spirit.

Many preachers have seen worshipers tune out during Bible reading. Those who tell the text, however, find that worshipers readily listen to biblical storytelling. In fact, co-pastor Tim Coombs says people at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York, report being even more engaged while listening to a biblical story than when singing a hymn.

Getting the story

At Kortright Presbyterian Church in Guelph, Ontario, the worship planning team uses many methods to present the Scriptures—“storytelling, video, drama, or simply reading—whatever seems appropriate to the passage and to the pastor’s point,” says Dennis Gray, who’s on the worship planning team and Kortright Storytellers Guild.

Gray says that studying and learning to tell Bible stories has deepened his appreciation for the emotion behind the words. “As a storyteller, I need to consider not just what is being said but how it is being said. When Jesus says to Peter, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ (Matthew 14:31), I usually took it as a rebuke.

“But it occurred to me that disappointment mixed with a little sympathetic understanding was a viable alternative. Storytelling requires that we explore all the dynamics of a biblical story, because when we tell a passage, things like tone of voice, inflection, and facial expression have a substantial effect on how people understand God’s Word,” Gray says.

He’s often felt surprised when people come up after worship and say, “I never fully understood that passage until I heard you tell it.” Understanding the power of storytelling gives him a profound sense of responsibility as a biblical storyteller.

When Gray used his Java and Jesus blog to survey Kortright Presbyterian members about storytelling in worship, he found that storytelling helped many worshipers listen to or understand a passage. Some said that storytelling can be a good way to engage seekers—but the storyteller, bulletin, or video display should clearly explain that the stories come from the Bible.

Several people admitted feeling on edge when the storyteller is less skilled or less prepared. Gray, however, sees an upside to worship pastor Phil English’s willingness to let storytellers learn on the job.

“As storytellers perfect their craft, you see the congregation’s response grow with them. Others, watching this growth process unfold, start to think, ‘If he or she can learn to do this, maybe I can too!’ And the number of active participants in worship increases,” Gray explains.

Conversing together

At Covenant Life Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, worship and arts director Steve Caton and his teams plan four to six weeks ahead. Caton says they decided to use storytelling as a way to put Genesis 1 and John 1 “in conversation with each other” for an Advent sermon titled “Breaking through the Isolation: Immanuel.”

“I’ve read Scripture and led prayers in worship. I love reading God’s Word. Just reading it sometimes feels like a wind blowing through me. But I wasn’t sure at first about doing a dramatic storytelling,” says Kathy Fevig, who told the verses from John.

She studied the chapter in several translations, including The Amplified Bible, and then chose the words that fit best for an oral presentation. The drama leader offered suggestions on movement and pacing.

Covenant Life member Bob Vermaire did the Genesis verses. He began with, “In the beginning God created…,” and Fevig responded, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…” They went back and forth with their passages.

She explains, “Learning to tell the story helped me hear and see nuances. In John 1:3, I put in some pauses—‘and without him…nothing…was made that had been made.’ That really struck me, that without him there is nothing.”

She crouched and peered through her palms to say, “The light shines in the darkness,” because, as she explains, “People living in darkness are often afraid of the light.” For John 1:14, “The Word became flesh…,” she added a few words. Spreading her feet wide, she proclaimed, “and he pitched his tent of flesh among us and put his stakes in the earth.”

Fevig says, “I’ve always loved Genesis 1 and John 1. But telling them brought the meaning home even more to me.” Worshipers told her that the storytelling conversation “brought freshness to familiar Scriptures.”

Worship options

Though some preachers choose to always tell their text instead of read it, many see biblical storytelling as an option among several good choices. This option can work well in several parts of the worship order.

Kortright Presbyterian sometimes has a two- or three-month gap between services that include storytelling. “Frequency depends on the subject matter and availability of tellers to put in the required preparation,” Dennis Gray says.

Storytelling most often fills in as an alternative to reading the sermon text. Sometimes storytelling substitutes for the sermon itself, as when Gray, robed in period dress, told the entire Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5, 6, and 7.

He’d intended to do the sermon on the front lawn, “to give the congregation a feeling for what it might have been like to hear the sermon first hand. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, and we ended up presenting the piece in the sanctuary,” he says.

Churches often hire Dennis Dewey for a weekend package that includes a workshop and public performance as well as worship. He has four worship service templates, each built around a gospel narrative. Dewey also helps churches build services around a theme or season or longer work, such as Galatians.

“Although I sometimes do the ‘scripture/sermon slot,’ I prefer to do storytelling throughout the service,” he says.

For example, he suggests:

  • Telling the text in place of a Scripture reading
  • Telling the story of the entry into Jerusalem on Passion Sunday
  • Doing another Passion narrative as part of the dismissal
  • Using Mark’s short story of Bartimaeus to introduce the hymn “Amazing Grace”

“I commend the practice of multiple (intergenerational) storytellers in the telling of a text. Instead of dividing up by characters and narrator parts, as in a readers theater, try it as team storytelling—without respect to consistent character/storyteller identification,” Dewey says.