When I was a young pastor, I went to a non-optional clergy conference where someone led us through memorizing the resurrection story from the gospel of Mark.
It took a couple hours for 100 pastors to understand the process, dig into the biblical text, consider our motions and learn the story. And those couple hours changed my life, my ministry and my relationship with God.
Since then, I have learned and told biblical stories by heart, both as a ministry tool and a spiritual practice. I even wrote a doctoral dissertation about it.
It takes time and energy that are not required if I were to read aloud from scripture, but here’s what I’ve learned about it and why I invest the time:
1. Learning a story by heart requires that I spend a lot of time with the text.
I read it, study it, write it out, speak it out and read the study notes. I think about it as story: who’s there, what are they doing, how do they feel, what are the relationships, what’s the plot, where’s the story taking us? I go deep into a story this way, and quality time in scripture is always time well spent.
2. Biblical storytelling requires me to bring my whole self to the text.
When I read, I need my eyes and my brain and maybe my voice. But when I tell, it’s a full-body experience. My hands gesture, my voice changes with the story, my feet take me up, down and around to help the audience “see” what’s happening.
My eyes, rather than taking in printed words, are sending out emotions and connecting with the congregation.
And my heart — oh, my heart! Sometimes I choke up when telling a story because my heart realizes the deep truth of it that my eyes had missed when I read it silently; my heart receives the grace that the Divine is sending through the story.
3. Telling a sacred story is a communal act.
Biblical stories are first oral stories, told and heard, rather than written and read. Therefore, telling a story provides integrity and depth of meaning and of experience to the proclamation of God’s word that is very different from reading a printed version.
As a teller, I am committed to accuracy of both words and events in the story as we have it in a printed Bible. These are God’s words, and they matter!
The audience responds to the telling along the way, shaping the story as it moves along. And between the teller, the story, and the listeners, God is present, the story is now, we experience God as part of what is happening in our own time and place.
If you’re interested in learning more about biblical storytelling, check out the Network of Biblical Storytellers, International at nbsint.org or contact University Lutheran or Grace Lutheran churches. My partner Phil and I would love to talk more about it!