When was the last time you heard a good story? For me, it was probably a powerful missionary biography I have just finished reading. I’ve been influenced by many missionary biographies and love hearing the things God has taught others in their journey.
Is Bible storytelling appropriate for Japan?
I’ve heard about people telling Bible stories using picture cards to share Bible truths, both from biographies and from previous experience in other places in Asia. However, I thought this seemed more relevant to people groups with low literacy rates. It seemed like a precursor to being able to read the truth clearly written in one’s own language. I thought it hardly seemed appropriate for Japanese society which is so highly literate.
When I was at theological college, there was a lot of talk about telling Bible stories as a way to share the gospel in post-modern Western society. People said this generation doesn’t want to be told the truth, they want to hear stories. They want to make their own conclusions about what is relevant to their own lives. I thought, Japanese society hasn’t gone through a modern to post-modern shift, so does this apply?
The longer I’ve been here, though, the more I’ve realised how storytelling is very much an intricate part of Japanese culture. From traditional forms of kabuki, noh, and rakugo; to manga, anime, and television dramas—storytelling is everywhere. Through these stories, deeper meaning is communicated.
Soon after I arrived in Japan I made a few friends whom I met with for language exchange. As the friendships deepened I sometimes shared verses of Scripture that were relevant to their situation or told them Bible stories. I was surprised that my friends engaged much more with Bible stories than reading verses.
I also used to think that telling Bible stories and discussing them was an uncomfortably indirect form of teaching. However, Japanese people are experts at indirect communication and reading between the lines. Being too direct could be seen as dishonouring to the listener, as imposing your own views too strongly. As such, stories may communicate truths implicitly and touch people’s hearts more deeply than a didactic presentation of facts.
Of course, sharing testimonial stories from our own lives is also powerful. People I’ve met have wanted to know about how knowing God affects contemporary people before they want to carefully study what God says.
The Bible is filled with stories of real people grappling with real-life problems, making mistakes, responding to warnings, and receiving promises from God. These stories appeal to people’s imaginations, help them understand more of who God is, and draw them to want to know him more.
Bible storytelling is not new in Japan. A Japanese friend told me how she had heard many Bible stories from her Christian friend. When she heard about Peter’s denial of Jesus, she thought: This Jesus knows everything about us, our weaknesses and even mistakes we will make in future. If he knows all that and loves us anyway, I want to know him.
Using Bible storytelling in Japan
Last year I attended a training course about sharing the gospel. It included a storytelling component. In this training, we learnt to memorise stories from the Bible, retell them, and then facilitate some basic questions to get people to think about the story. We learnt how telling stories in chronological instalments also enables people to see the bigger unfolding story of the Bible as it is unpacked. It’s still a difficult task for me to learn Bible stories in Japanese, but a great way to keep learning new words and grammar patterns.
I have been surprised how willing people are to not only listen, but also interact when I ask if I can tell them a story from the Bible. At Christmas, one friend noted from the story of the angel appearing to Mary in Luke 1, that for Jesus to be born of Mary by the Holy Spirit, he must be both God and human. She commented that he must therefore have both God’s power and the ability to understand our human experience.
Our church planting team has also used Bible storytelling and discussion groups in a church setting. Discussion in groups provides the opportunity to hear and talk about different people’s ideas.
I’ve learnt a lot about people’s values and perspectives as I hear their responses. Furthermore, sometimes people are struck by important truths that I didn’t even notice.
People seem to appreciate being asked, “What did you like about the story?” and “What questions might you or other people have after hearing this story?” They can usually think of a host of extra questions to engage more deeply: questions that lead us to imagine if we were there, consider interesting details, or imagine how we might have felt. It also helps people articulate ideas in order to understand more deeply. We don’t immediately answer questions people raise, but instead encourage them to continue exploring these things.
Having begun with these open questions, people are often better able to answer the next questions: “What do we learn about people from this story?” and “What do we learn about God?” Sometimes, as I share my own reflections, I indirectly answer some of the questions people raise.
One of my non-Christian friends continues to ponder the Bible stories she hears, considering why people acted the way they did. She even shares the stories with her husband and asks what he thinks, then comes back with further questions.
In the last few months, my husband was involved in filming people telling a short overview of the Bible, a set of nine stories. It is a useful initial set to show people one story at a time and then use as a basis for discussion. This might be a more effective tool for me and my husband to use for now, as it’s more fluent Japanese than we can muster just yet. We hope that over time other Bible stories that connect with particular Japanese values can be added to the YouTube channel. You can find the link to the YouTube channel as well as other storytelling resources on japanese.storyingthescriptures.com
It is an ongoing journey. We seek to be receptive to God’s leading in the story he is unfolding in our own lives and willing to play the part he’s given us in the lives of those around us. It’s been great to see the opportunities he’s bringing to us, as well as to learn from the wealth of experiences of missionaries serving here for much longer than we have.
Naomi Hyō and her husband Alex are from Australia, and work in an OMF church planting team in Yokohama. Naomi enjoys reading, watching movies, and meeting up with women, especially over coffee!