Part 1—Why Stories Are Important for People of All Ages
The children in the classroom “leaned forward as Ruth’s voice softened. Instinctively they knew she was about to say something really important. Third graders love story time in Sunday School, and this week’s story was a tale told by a fish.”
This is how longtime Christian educator Elmer Towns began the chapter titled “Students Like a Good Story” in his book What Every Sunday School Teacher Should Know: 24 Secrets that Can Help You Change Lives. The fish, Ruth explained, was swimming in the Mediterranean Sea when a turbulent storm arose. When a man in a nearby boat was thrown overboard, the storm suddenly stopped—but a large whale** came and engulfed the man, swallowing him whole! The whale swallowed the little fish too, so he was able to relate how the man stayed in the whale three days, how he heard the man pray, and how the whale at last regurgitated him, casting him out into the water. Still alive, the man was able to walk to the shore.
Ruth’s “fish story” was no tall tale, but a vivid representation of what really happened to Jonah—and I would venture to say that her children did not soon forget the lesson she taught them that Sunday.
One of the greatest challenges any teacher has is that of getting the “bottom line” of his or her teaching to “stick”—to stay with students in ways that compel them to apply it to their daily lives. Jesus knew how to get His teaching to adhere to those who were receptive to His teachings. He was a remarkable teacher—no question about it. Not coincidentally, one of the most obvious characteristics one notices about His teaching is that He frequently used parables, or stories, to communicate to His hearers. Why did He do this? To answer this question, let’s first consider the opening lines Jesus gave as He presented five of His parables.
- God’s kingdom “can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began to settle accounts, one who owed 10,000 talents was brought before him…” (Matt. 18:23-24).
- “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers…[who] beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead…” (Luke 10:30).”
- “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate I have coming to me.’ So he distributed the assets to them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living…” (Luke 15:11-13).
- “There was a rich man who would dress in purple and fine linen, feasting lavishly every day. But a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, was left at his gate…” (Luke 16:19-20).
- “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (Luke 18:10).
These few examples remind us of the compelling nature of well told stories. All of us love a good story! From our earliest childhood memories we enjoyed hearing them. Moreover, we remember a compelling storyteller—a family member or friend who had the gift of holding our interest when he or she recounted events in the past. We also can recall those special moment with we sat curled up in the arms of Mom or Dad as he or she read to us. Here are some additional traits of stories that make them effective tools for teaching.
- Stories are entertaining! We are pulled into the action, the challenge, the dilemma, the relational tension, or some other type of scenario presented in the story. We wonder what will happen next, how the story will end, and what surprises may come along the way. We identify with the characters. We begin to ask, even subconsciously, “How would I respond if I were in the main character’s shoes?”
- Stories can help us see ourselves as others see us—and as we really are. When wrapped up in a story, we as hearers allow our points of view to shift to those of the story’s main characters. We may see our actions in one character and understand with a fresh awareness about why others respond as they do. For the first time, we may be able to see that a behavior in which we’ve been engaged may not be in our best interest, or that we have made unwise choices.
- On the positive side, stories can help us make good decisions about life as we identify with the characters of the story and learn from their experiences. We all make judgments: “This is how I would react to this!” Stories move us from beyond mere knowledge to our emotions, from our brains to our hearts.
Mary Lawrence, from the journalism school at the University of Missouri, says this about stories. “We’re fooling ourselves if we think we communicate primarily by bursts of information. We live for stories—whether they’re movies or TV shows or plays or poems or even newspaper pieces. We want stories told to us over and over again. Why else would we want to watch movies multiple times, or insist on seeing ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ every year? They comfort us, they arouse us, they excite us and educate us, and when they touch our hearts we embrace them and keep them with us.”***
Now, I could take this moment to remind you parents of the crucial importance of reading to you kids, and the greater mental development resulting from reading and listening over video, but we will save that for another time.
Clearly, stories can be used for good or ill, but here we are assuming a selection of stories supportive of biblical teachings.
When we think about teaching eternal truths to children, what are some insights to keep in mind? We’ll seek to answer that question in part 2.
Long Hollow Baptist Church
*Elmer Towns, What Every Sunday School Teacher Should Know: 24 Secrets that Can Help You Change Lives. (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2001), 90.
**or large “fish”; (see Jonah1:17)
***(Jacqui Banaszynski, “Why We Need Stories.” See http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/101486/Why-We-Need-Stories.aspx).