Fowlers’ stages do give us some insight into which Bible stories we tell. He suggests that children at ‘faith stage two’ (primary school-aged children) begin to become community aware - recognising that their own story is interwoven with the story of their community, others are involved in the story. Therefore stage two becomes the place where we tell children stories of the God who comes alongside. David works well in this stage: David is helped by God to defeat Goliath; David is supported by Jonathan to outwit Saul. But stage two gives us more than this. It is the first time children move away from existence defined by a series of seemingly unrelated events, to a form of existence that is understood to be a journey. Alongside this, there comes a desire to understand the journey - to bring meaning to the journey. The vast catalogue of stories stored in the previous stage is now added to, and this amalgam is the reference point from which meaning and understanding are drawn. More than simply adding to their bank of stories and drawing meaning from them, a child at stage two can begin to generate their own stories. So, what happens if we stock a child’s imagination with stories of world missions and tell them the stories of Hudson Taylor, Gladys Aylward or Amy Carmichael at this point? I’ll give you a clue, in a survey undertaken at the start of the 20th Century, one-third of all those involved in overseas mission felt called to that particular country between the ages of 7 and 12 - the age when their faith development had shown them there were others to reach and they began to understand that their lives were going somewhere.
Stories are about crafting an experience. Not stating the truth and then explaining it, but taking your hearers on a journey so that they eventually discover truth for themselves
Stage three is generally accepted as the start of the teenage years. But some warnings of concluding that too quickly; firstly, many 8-year-olds are already experiencing stage three characteristics (but you knew that already, right? 8-year-old teenagers!). Children’s workers have known this for a while and have been borrowing elements from the young people’s programme to try and compensate. But the next part might be a surprise, most people (yes, that said ‘most’) never leave stage three! Stage three has some key characteristics. It’s the stage of the ‘significant other’ - they will hero worship their leaders. It’s the stage of ‘self-awareness’ - self-image becomes really important. And it is the age of tacit faith - “I know what I believe and I believe it strongly and I will defend it completely … I just don’t know why!” It’s the last one that proves particularly tricky in our world of storytelling. We need to be telling stories that are affirming, that build self-worth, that establish secure young people. There are plenty of Bible stories that will do that. But the next part is the tricky part. We need them to move to stage four. Stage four is the point where they can reflect on their own practice, the point where we have taught them how to learn, not just how to receive - the dawn of spiritual maturity. But whether we like it or not (and I don’t!), stage four Christians have a mature faith because invariably they’ve gone through crisis; maybe they have experienced suffering, come face to face with doubts and learnt to build faith on it. But that’s why they need stories.
Traditional sermons or dare I say it, talks to teenagers, tend to have clean edges, conclude with everything in place and have a nice ‘how to’ section at the end. But the interesting, frustrating, glorious thing about life is that it’s messy, with no clean edges. There are few situations where everything is resolved, that’s why stories are so powerful - they are intrinsically messy. More often than not there are things left unresolved, there are rarely neat culminations. And that’s why stories don’t need endings, just stop points. Stories are incredibly potent. Stories are transformative. And the process of moving from one faith stage to the next is one of transformation. Stories give us a theology for hard times and a theology for happy ever after. Stories give us hope and perseverance.
So allow me in this limited space to say a few more words about stories. First, the key to the whole thing is to remember you are embarking on a journey. Traditional communication, especially traditional preaching, works on the, “Tell them what you are going to say, say it, tell them what you said” model. It’s still widely taught in our theological colleges but it’s hopelessly boring for adults, let alone children and teenagers. Somehow we have got the idea that communication is about getting across facts, about imparting nuggets of information. It isn’t. It’s about crafting an experience. Not stating the truth and then explaining it, but instead taking your hearers on a journey so that they eventually discover truth for themselves. It is about the joy and pain, wonder and angst, uncertainty and delight of journeying. And like any memorable journey, we are likely to be changed by it. For therein lies the power of the whole thing - storytelling is transformative. At the end of the story, you are likely to be a different you to the one that entered it.
Stories move us; they operate on a level far deeper than simply cognition. And this is important because research tells us that our young people and children are now exhibiting a nonlinear style of thinking - they think in mosaics. This is a generation that is wired for stories! The style of linear, sequential logic is losing significance, and intuition and narrative have reasserted themselves, clamouring for prominence and insisting on involvement in life and learning. Stories communicate on a whole different level. Often bypassing the mind and touching the heart.
But much depends on you, the storyteller. It’s a responsibility. When a story is told, rather than read, there is a whole different connection between storyteller and listener. Many objective studies have tested listener reactions, comparing responses to reading from a manuscript versus speaking extemporaneously, and have concluded that there is around 36 per cent more retention when the story is told, and that listeners are instantly more sympathetic and more attentive. The storyteller is perceived as more vulnerable and accessible and therefore more credible. And the credibility of the storyteller is everything! It is the personal credibility of the storyteller which validates the story. A storyteller whose heart is not in it will mess up the delivery of the story even if they deliver every word perfectly with dazzling annunciation, razor-sharp wit and a range of regional accents! Who we are communicates. Be a credible storyteller by ensuring that you carry yourself with integrity. Be trustworthy. I may have only told 600 primary school children the story of Gladys Aylward travelling to China this morning, but they are assessing my personal credibility as I speak and by the end they have decided if they trust me. I did mention that this was beyond cognition didn’t I? Therefore the storyteller needs to have a heart free of baggage and a sweet spirit - not always easy to maintain. There’s not much space for a master class here, but let me see if I can squeeze in some keys.
The journey must start somewhere
An effective first line is the hook. Get it wrong and there is no catch; the fish swims away.
“High above the city on a tall column stood the statue of the happy prince.” So starts Oscar Wilde’s Happy prince, and we instantly find ourselves in a different world. Looking down a huge city stretching in all directions. But you can help it further. When delivering the line I stand still and regimental like a statue, with only the slightest hint of a wobble to illustrate that I am up very high.
“The shoemaker wasn’t very rich, living in one small room overlooking the market square…” This is the opening line to Tolstoy’s Shoemaker. The listener is drawn into a new world. A new reality. The journey can now continue. The listener is ready to journey with you. They have been hooked. But whether it’s a story to children or you have constructed a well-formed parable to take young people to a key statement, the second principle is important…
Take a look around your imagination. Describe what you see
That knight riding beside you isn’t just quiet, he is mocking you with stony silence, his horse a midnight black charger. “Some young people went into a shop,” is not enough to fuel a young person’s imagination. We need to know what sort of shop. How many young people? What were they wearing? What were they saying? You occupy two roles. You are the artist painting the scene, but you are also the servant of the story. When the story tells us that “Telemachus shouted at the top of his voice, ‘This is not right’” - then the story expects a shout. And when: “With his dying breath Telemachus whispers, ‘This is not right’” - then that is what is expected. Use your voice. Whisper, project, pause, and then your greatest tool, be silent. Silence is our friend. Particularly with a large crowd. Any head teacher will tell you that to control a whole school assembly you do not raise your voice, you drop it.
Think about your vocabulary
You are the wordsmith. Memorise some expressions: “Winter painted intricate icicles on the trees.” Here are a few more tips:
- Use precisely the right word. Say “it was oval”, not “it was sort of round”.
- Use specific, not generic words. Say “pinto pony” - not just “horse”. Say “shack”, “mansion”, “lean-to”, not just “building”.
- Use descriptive words. Say: “the wind whined and clawed at the corner of the house”, not: “the wind blew hard”.
- Use action verbs. Say “he tore out”, “breezed out”, “strolled out” - not “went out”.
- Use short, forceful Anglo-Saxon words. Say he died?- not?he passed away, ?next to?- not contiguous.
- Use imitative words that imitate natural sounds. Say “soothe”, “lull”, “smooth”, “bang”.
- Use words with significant contemporary meaning, say “home” not “residence”, “meal” not “repast”.
- Avoid clichés, pastoral patter, trade talk and stale fancy phrases.
Old stories such as The three little pigs rely on repetition and formula; “I’ll huff and I’ll puff” is repeated again and again. A similar thing can be seen in the “drip, drip, drip” of Happy prince. But this leads to our next aid…
The power of three
Three drips. Two doesn’t work, neither does four. Try it if you don’t believe me. But also there are typically three sons in the adventure stories, there are three ‘needs’ in the Happy prince, three stages to Oscar Wilde’s The young king. There is undoubtedly a clever reason why, but sometimes it is enough to recognise that it works and go with it.
Connect with the main characters
You need to understand the main character. Know how they will respond in given situations. Understand why. They may have been written as two dimensional characters, but you can give them life. Let them exist in the imagination of your hearers. Allow your characters to live.
The journey has to have a stop point
There have been long drawn out theological debates that have run for centuries around whether there are degrees of sin. I am not sure. But I can tell you the worst sin of them all. It is to say the words: “And this means...” at the end of the story. It is the storyteller’s greatest crime. Great stories don’t need to be explained. Oscar Wilde’s The selfish giant is an incredible piece of storytelling. I have told it in hundreds of schools. When I first told the story I was tempted at the end to ask the school: “Who was that little boy?” The result was a few answers and the end of the assembly. A few years later when I repeated the story, I ended with: “I can’t tell you who the little boy is but maybe you’ll work it out.” This time there were lots more conversations and a general buzz of discovery after the assembly. But in recent years I stop at the end of the assembly, I ask everyone to think about the story, I say a short prayer for the school and I sit down. No explanation. No leading the children in a certain direction. No clues! The results have been staggering. Children who had no friends because they were unkind, understood from the story that kindness means friends, and it worked. Children worked out who the little boy was and why he was hurt. But one head teacher broke my heart when she phoned to say that a little boy who was struggling with the death of his granddad now knew that Jesus would look after him! That’s the power of the story. To communicate to dozens of people in different ways, all at the same time. Stories are truly powerful. And in passing, if you have never read The selfish giant you’ll have no idea what any of this paragraph means! You should probably read it…
Am I overstating all this? After all, it is just storytelling. Try it and see. I have had the privilege of telling stories in front of more than 5,000 people of all ages in a single arena on a few occasions. I can assure you that there is nothing quite like that moment when thousands of people are sat in silence with mouths open, hanging on your every word, desperate to know where the story will lead them. Enjoy it and see the power of stories to transform.
We need to be telling stories that are affirming, that build self-worth, that establish secure young people
Stories will take you to the depths of sorrow - I have watched as the old Welsh legend of Gelert took a whole school to hysterical laughter and then to actual tears. And of course, there is one more dimension. Now that you have understood all this, maybe you can tell your own stories, new stories, stories to captivate and enthral, new stories to make us laugh and cry, new characters to enjoy. Stories are vital for faith development. Vital for transformation. And of course Fowler has two more ‘faith stages’ that we didn’t touch on. But like all good stories, that’s for a future article…
Mark Griffiths was head of children and family ministry for New Wine for over a decade and until recently was senior minister at a large church in the Oxford Diocese. He has written eight books primarily on family ministry and its links to church growth, is adjunct lecturer for Cliff College’s MA in Mission and has spoken at many theological colleges. All the stories mentioned can be found in his book Hanging on every word. To explore the areas of communication and the art of the story further check out his new book Changing lives released in June. If you want to dig deeper into faith development then check out One generation from extinction