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Friday, September 26, 2008

So that's why I can't remember the pastor's sermon!

Yesterday I drove back to Missouri from a week long workshop in McKinney, Texas called Simply the Story. I thought the training would be a breeze, but boy was I wrong! It turned out to be one of the most intense spiritual/mental exercises I've done in a long time.

In a nutshell, what I learned is that the vast majority of preaching and teaching in the world (especially in the U.S.) is designed for people that are literate, and yet, a shocking 80% of the world is, in fact, illiterate. Further augmenting the problem is that we in the literate world tend to look down on the illiterate world, thinking that just because someone can't read, that somehow makes them spiritually ignorant. Because we tend to look down on oral learning methods as inferior, not only are the world's illiterate people largely cut off from hearing the gospel in a meaningful way, but also many of the world's literate people are as well. Why? Because when we factor in the fact that a good percentage of literate people prefer to learn through oral communication methods, it becomes clear that most of the world's gospel material is written by people that are not only literate, but by people that prefer to learn by literate means. So that's why you and me find it so difficult to remember the pastor's sermon from week to week. And we all thought we were just dense! (Okay, maybe just me)

Enter Simply the Story. The brilliant strategy that Dorothy Miller from The God's Story Project figured out is that when you take a story from the Bible and focus on just that story (hence the name Simply the Story), without pulling in abstract concepts from here, there, and everywhere (including other passages from the Bible), then the story itself will speak to the people. In the STS strategy, the job of the Christian communicator (aka pastor, evangelist, missionary) is to tell the story accurately, and then facilitate group discussions by formulating questions designed to lead the listeners into discovering the treasures of the stories for themselves.

For five days straight I practiced this method with about 50 other people, mostly missionaries, who were all learning this together. As easy as it might sound, the reality is it can be very difficult for people that have been preaching and teaching one way for so many years to learn a different style of communication, even if it's the mode of communication that Jesus most often used! I found that once I practiced reading stories out loud to myself, I picked up on a lot of details that I'd missed even though I may have read the story a hundred times before. Then once I started asking myself a set of questions about the story, truths started jumping out of the pages of Scripture like never before.

For example: In Luke 18:18-27 there 's the story of the rich young ruler that asked Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded with a question (like He almost always did) "Why do you call me good, no one is good but one, and that's God." Jesus proceeded to give a partial list of the 10 commandments (curiously omitting the vertical commandments) and just when the man thought that he was justified, Jesus told him to go and sell all of his possessions to give to the poor--and follow Him--and then he would have treasure in heaven. When the rich man went away sorrowful Jesus dropped a verbal bombshell on the rich by declaring that it's more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. But at the very end, He throws another curve ball into the equation when the disciples asked Him, "Who then can be saved?" and Jesus answered with, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God." I've always found this passage difficult to interpret, but after asking a series of questions about the characters in the story, I think I've discovered the point of the story and it's simply this. There's no goodness or salvation apart from God.

I wonder if this might be one of the reasons why so many of our young people today are being lost to secularism and postmodernism. Perhaps they've never heard the gospel in a way that they can understand. What if instead of trying to saturate our young people with catchy phrases (WWJD?) and slick media campaigns, we started retelling the stories of the Bible and let God's Word speak for itself? You mean God actually knew what He was doing when He put the story of Jonah and the whale in the Bible? Imagine that!


Doug P. Baker said...

Hmmm, You've given me something to ponder here. Yes, diferent people have very different learning styles as I well know from homeschooling my own and teaching other poeple's kids. I wouldn't rush to drop your old style of teaching, but it does sound worthwhile to incorporate a good deal of story in your teaching. At least in some circumstances. But do not yet abandon the work of "rightly dividing the word of truth." There is still a need for doctrinal and theological instruction in any context in which a Christian teacher can find themselves.

Aaron D. Taylor said...

Thank you for your comment. I wouldn't recommend abandoning other forms of teaching, but I do recognize the worthiness of simply telling a Bible story and letting the story speak for itself.

I don't think there's a contradiction between rightly dividing the word of truth and staying in a story and digging for treasure within the story. As far as doctrinal and theological instruction, never discount the doctrinal and theological instruction found in simple stories like Mary and Martha, or Zaccheus climbing the sycamore tree. There's a tremendous amount of doctrinal instruction even in simple stories like these. You just have to dig to find the treasures.