Storytelling With Nomads

How Laura found her place on a ministry team at the ends of the earth

By Marti Wade

Laura joined a Pioneers team serving Arab nomads and spent the first few years studying their language and culture. She learned and participated in the rhythms of life in the town where she lives, met nomads when they came through town and took trips to visit the nomads who set up camp around the region. Trained as a nurse, she’d often join two teammates who were midwives to assist with childbirth and address other health concerns that came up in the camps.

Laura wondered, though, what contribution she could make to the team’s larger goal of inviting nomads to follow Jesus. “I’m not gifted in evangelism,” she said. “People listen to me but it’s hard to keep their attention.”

“But then one day I was having my quiet time in Genesis, and when I went to my language helper’s house I was really tired. So I said, ‘Can I just tell you the story of Moses in Arabic, and you correct me?’ I told her the whole thing, from the baby in the rushes (Exodus 2) to what happened on Mt. Nebo (Deuteronomy 34:1-8).”

To her surprise, other members of the family gathered around to listen and pulled her back to the story to tell them more. “They sat there glued!” she says. Islam has stories about Adam, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus, so they know something about these prophets. Besides, the stories Laura tells also deal with things that are part of their daily lives, like plants and animals, honor and shame, sickness and suffering, family and hospitality.

Now, when her roommates go check up on mothers and babies, Laura says, “I sit outside on the mat with the other ladies and we tell stories.”

Nuts and Bolts of Storytelling

We asked Laura for more of the nuts and bolts of cross-cultural Bible storytelling. How does somebody learn to do this?

1. Start by learning to speak the language and love the people.

Although sharing Scripture with nomads was something Laura and her team had pictured and even pursued from the beginning, they didn’t want to push their faith on people who were not interested. But neither did they want to hide their faith. Like most ministry efforts, storytelling works best in the context of growing trust and friendship. So when she first went to the field, Laura went as a learner, not a teacher, and she continues to keep that attitude even as she becomes more fluent in the language and culture.

2. Make a list of key stories to tell.

It turns out that Bible storying, especially “chronological Bible storying” which introduces people to the Bible starting with Creation and moving forward, is a well-developed and documented ministry approach. There are all kinds of tips on how to do it online. So one weekend when she had strong internet access—not a constant in her part of the world—Laura studied the “story lists” she found on the web. She ended up choosing a set of nine stories she thought would interest her friends and help them understand who Jesus is, why He came and what it means to follow Him.

“The list I started with says that when you talk about the Exodus, you should tell the story about the plague of hail. But people here don’t know what hail is, so I talk about the plague of frogs.” She also tells the story about Abraham entertaining three divine visitors who came to his tent. Those stories are easy for Laura’s friends to picture.

3. Learn the stories well.

Laura wrote out explanations for the beginning and end of each story, and then, with an Arabic Bible and English Bible in front of her, just started learning them. “I didn’t memorize them word for word but learned them thought by thought,” she says. But she does try to learn the stories well. They should be fun and interesting for people to listen to. Plus, she says, “They are hearing my best Arabic since I have learned the stories fluently and don’t stumble as much as normal!”

4. Consider visual aids for storytelling.

Laura had studied a method called Community Health Evangelism (CHE) which suggested using simple illustrations to communicate health tips—as well as Bible stories. So she made herself a set of picture cards to help with both. On one side of the card may be an image of a thatched roof with a hole made by the men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be healed (Matthew 9:1–8, Mark 2:1–12, and Luke 5:17–26). “On the other side there’s something about the importance of breastfeeding your baby or eating fruits and vegetables,” Laura explains with a smile.

“I sit on a mat after the baby is born or among the women at a wedding, with my cards, and they have health facts on one side and Bible story prompts on the other, and there’s always some kid who wants to know what the picture on the other side is.”

Laura didn’t want questions about the ethnicity or appearance of Bible characters in her stories to become a distraction. She avoided that pitfall by choosing simple pictures from the Bible that don’t show the people. Women and children see a snake in a tree, from the Garden of Eden, and it catches their interest. “What is that? It’s a snake! Why is there a snake in the tree?” So Laura tells them what the Old Testament says about Adam and Eve.

5. Respond to interest.

Laura doesn’t necessarily expect people to sit and listen to her tell her stories right through; she just offers them when people are interested. If someone wants to hear more stories or ask more about a story she has told, Laura is ready, but she’s not going to force the issue.

“I follow up with questions like, ‘What did you think of the story? What did you learn? What did you like?’ I’m still working on how to provoke a good discussion, but sometimes that happens. Sometimes people will say, ‘Here’s something I heard about the Prophet Adam. Is that true?’”

6. Talk about Jesus.

Though many of the stories Laura has prepared to tell come from the Old Testament, she doesn’t stop there. A local Muslim-background believer encouraged her to mention Jesus in every story. That way she could find people who were already interested in learning more and she wouldn’t blindside people when she moved from Old Testament stories to New Testament stories.

So what does that look like? “I may talk about Adam, then Jesus: Adam and Eve died without seeing who would crush the head of the snake, thousands of years later. That’s what Jesus did… and that’s why I walk the Jesus way.”

What Next?

Many of her nomad friends are happy to listen to Laura. There are always one or two people who are fascinated by the stories. What will it take to go further than that? Let’s pray with Laura that God would draw nomads to Himself, that some would decide to walk the Jesus way and tell the stories of Jesus to others.

Can you see yourself storytelling with nomads or serving in another unreached context? Just want to learn new ways to share your faith?

Let’s talk.

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