Stories: Unlocking hearts for God

Some cultures are only drawn to the salvation story through relatable language, songs, and stories. How can we reach them?

Gideon P. Petersen, PhD, is the rector of Zurche Adventist University, Madagascar.

Serving the Ovahimba people1 was a transforming experience for me. I was accustomed to doing ministry based on the language of my training: disseminating information. I saw that what I needed was a “universal language”2 to share God’s kingdom principles. The apostle Paul declared, “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:23, MEV). I discovered that the principles needed would challenge the cultures of both preacher and listener. And I discovered that the language needed—was story. Stories speak to all people—rich or poor, educated or uneducated, male or female, child or adult. They give their listeners an opportunity to respond to their message. Drawing in the hearers, they demonstrate that God connects with their lives. They help their listeners know God vicariously. Jesus chose stories as a tool to engage His audience.

Jesus used parables. Some listened but did not always understand. Stories grant the seeker an opportunity to search deeper and find the application for their lives, but they must choose to respond. If one opens up to them, they can capture the heart. I would like to share four storytelling principles, gleaned from the life of Jesus, that have helped in my cross-cultural communication of the gospel. Used together, these principles can work to transform the listener.


The simple question “How is the work going?” left me ranting for the next five minutes. Very calmly my missionary colleague listened then asked, “Do you love the people?” As if he spoke to a wall, I continued my tirade. A second time he patiently inquired, “Do you love the people?” I ignored the question, thinking to myself, I was sent to preach the gospel; where does love fit into this scenario?

Months later, while reading about the history of the Ovahimba, the question played back in my mind: “Do you love the people?” This time I understood the question differently. To communicate effectively, I needed to care enough to know and understand the people. As a result, I embarked on a journey to be with them, to experience life from their perspective. Being in a new environment, I had to take time to get to know the Ovahimba both as a whole and as individuals.

They needed to know that I understood them and could relate to their circumstances. Above all they did not want to feel like just a project. So, I spent hours with them, working the fields, walking the cattle trails, and learning how to use a stone for a chair. I also had to understand their worldview. For example, I discovered that they regarded illness as a result of breaking a family taboo rather than encountering germs. My eyes opened to the significance of ritual. By learning to love and embrace the Himba world, I was earning the right to be heard.

Authenticity is about being where the people are and connecting with them at a level that says, “I feel your pain and your joy.” It is about empathy and involves seeing people through God’s eyes and learning to live as a Christian in their world. I needed to have the wherewithal to enter the world of my audience with a message they could understand, engage with, and act upon. My focus needed to be fully on the person and his or her needs, not mine. Those were tough mission lessons.


Jesus, the master Teacher, was authentic. He was present at the right place and time as He followed the Holy Spirit’s leading. Authenticity needs to be coupled with timing. Often we reserve gospel talk for special occasions, such as church or a church-related activity. This tendency makes it appear artificial. Jesus connected with people because He seized every opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those He met.

The story of Zacchaeus demonstrates Jesus’ authenticity. As He walked through Jericho, the crowd pressing Him on all sides, He suddenly, for no apparent reason, stopped. Jesus stood gazing up into a tree at Zacchaeus, the greatest extortioner in the city. Disappointed, the mob glared at Zacchaeus, What does he need? written on their faces.

Inquisitive, yet cautious, Zacchaeus had hidden in a tree to see Jesus. As he saw Jesus coming down the street, he mused to himself, He looks like just an ordinary person. Is he really the miracle worker? As this thought whirled through his mind, he heard his name. Embarrassed, he looked down, straight into the eyes of Jesus. Beckoning, Jesus called, “Come down. I want to visit you, now, at your house.” Something about those eyes ignited a flicker of hope within him. Zacchaeus recognized that, as a tax collector, his people and the religious leaders despised him. Yet this rabbi wanted to visit him at his house immediately. Zacchaeus was not sure, but he was willing to give this teacher he had heard so much about a chance. 

Luke does not give us the details of their conversation, but it transformed Zacchaeus from an extortioner into a philanthropist. It was a relevant, knowledgeable discussion that led him to understand God in a totally new way. We find so much in the story that illustrates Jesus’ authenticity. Here was a rabbi publicly talking to a tax collector, even willing to eat with him. A rabbi willing to speak about things that mattered to a tax collector. Instead of condemning, He was willing to listen and engage. Authenticity is demonstrating care, love, and empathy. It is being present with someone in the moment and guiding them through new ways of being. For Zacchaeus, Jesus was real, honest, and authentic.

Heart language

Narratives come in different forms. We all recall stories from our childhood: Bible stories, fairy tales, rhymes, recitations. Each of these genres uses language differently, has a different tone. But whatever the language used, it resonates with and engages the audience.

When I first arrived in Namibia, I spoke about heaven, the Ten Commandments, salvation, sin, and many other concepts that my audience knew very little about. Christian language got lost in translation, because I did not understand it from my audience’s perspective. A simple definition of sin for the Ovahimba was “gossip.” I started listening to the language I used. I was speaking to a non-Christian audience employing Christian language with Christian definitions. 

I went to a village to share another Bible story using a flannel board as a teaching aid. This particular afternoon was no different. A friend accompanied me and took pictures. Finding a stone for a chair, I plopped myself on it and placed my flannel board so that my audience could see it. We all sat under a makeshift shelter. The brightness of the sun and glare off the sand was intense. I started my story: “And God said; ‘let there be light. . .’ ” As I moved through the story, I added the felts as a visual illustration. My friend snapped shots as the story unfolded. In reviewing the photographs, I was struck by the contrast between my visual aid and the background of barrenness. Also I noticed that my audience was more concerned about the picture than the story. The flannel board was not appropriate for them.

As a result, I began experimenting with various storytelling approaches. Through persistence and continued field research I discovered different Himba genres: omiimbo (poetry), ongano (fairy tales), ombimbi (praise song), and others. These, I observed,were the heart language of the people. For it was the uniqueness of the medium, not just the language, that helped communicate a message. The rhyme or the chant allowed the audience to engage more in the subject matter.

When I made my initial cassette with the help of the Lutheran Bible Translators, not only did we tell stories using communication styles familiar to them we also employed language appropriate to the genre that connected with our listeners’ hearts. After hearing our first recording, a young Christian leader said, “This is what our people need to learn the gospel.” An amazed pastor commented, “I never knew we could use our own music to sing about God.”

News of the recording quickly spread. We began seeing an elderly woman waiting at the side of the road, watching for us. By the third week, she finally had the courage to stop our vehicle and ask to listen to the tape. We had never met before, but she had heard about the recordings and wanted to hear them. Not having any extra cassettes to give her, we listened together as she drank in every word of every story. She loved the story of Isaac and Rebecca. It was the biblical story using Himba wedding imagery and words. From a Himba perspective it was a true love story. Another story that appealed to her was that of Noah. It employed ombimbi (praise song). The listener identified Noah as a hero through the genre used, one full of imagery of bravery and endurance, a medium and language they understood. Then it spoke about destruction by water and the restoration after the Flood. This story spoke to the hearts of the people and invited them on a journey of restoration. As we departed, she reminded us to bring her a cassette the next time we passed her village.

Subversive fulfillment

The parable of the prodigal son is used countless times in sharing the power of a father’s love. Jesus was responding to an accusation that He “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). As a first-century Palestinian listener, what does this story mean? Honor is a value that is paramount in the New Testament worldview, whether Jew or Greek. In the story, the son shames both the father and wider family by demanding his inheritance. The expected response would be for the father to take his son to the city elders and have him stoned for his rebelliousness (Deut. 21:18-21).

The imagery Jesus uses in the parable is subversive. First, the father actively waits for the son’s return. A person of authority does not wait for a disobedient child. The absence of his son should shame the father, but instead he watches expectantly for his son’s return. Second, he runs to meet his son. In many traditional societies to do that is a shameful act and demonstrates his weakness as a parent. Third, the son receives a warm embrace and a kiss, something unheard of. Why would the father do such a thing? Welcoming his son honors him and does not deal with the shame the son brought to the family. Thus, this parable challenges the very fabric of its contemporary culture and turns its values on their head.

Hendrik Kraemer recognizes that Jesus, in His behavior and stories, subverts cultural values. He enters the world of the listener to identify with them and their challenges. Then He argues an alternative that meets the real need of the person. Kraemer calls this subversive fulfillment.3 The father gives the son a robe to again make him part of the family. As highest authority in the family, he assures the son of his protection.

Jesus fulfills the need of the audience for restoration and belonging. He answers His critics by demonstrating that the elder son also shames the family by not attending the feast. Once more, the father initiates reconciliation by going to talk to his son. However, Jesus ends the story by allowing His audience to complete it themselves. What will the older son do? Jesus argues that every person has shamed the heavenly Father, but it is the Father who initiates and draws His children back into a relationship. Despite the shame brought to the family by each son, it is the father who restores honor in unconventional ways.

Storytelling allows us to connect with the audience, but unless we are willing to challenge the norms of society, it merely entertains. Christianity is a call to be different. It is a society within a society. We are a holy nation, unique and different from those around us (Exod. 19:5, 6; 1 Pet. 2:9). Hence, our pattern of life cannot imitate the world but should represent the God we serve. In engaging the world, it is important to understand the context but it is through divinely aided wisdom that we can draw new conclusions. That can come about only as we remain rooted in God’s kingdom principles. Thus, we must always allow the Holy Spirit to lead and guide as we engage the world.

Communication goal

How do we talk about grace when society wants revenge? How do we address the issue of selflessness when greed is rampant? A narrative will make our “foolish” principles palatable. Jesus teaches us to use familiar imagery and genre to illustrate divine principles. While debate, discussion, rhetoric, and other forms of communication have their place, stories connect with the heart of the people and, if we are wise, can subvert a societal value, yet demonstrate how it answers a need. Stories illustrate how to apply the divine principle within a specific context, transforming individuals. It does not mean it is easy to live differently; however, that can be done if we seek wisdom. Our goal in Christian communication is not to entertain but to challenge our audience to live God’s kingdom principles in a world opposed to His character. Jesus understood this as His missional task. Today, we need to reset our own task to be effective communicators of the gospel.

1  The Ovahimba are a people living in northwest Namibia, southern Africa.

2  Jedd Medefind and Erik Lokkesmoe, The Revolutionary Communicator: Seven Principles Jesus Lived to Impact, Connect and Lead (Lake Mary, FL: Relevant Media Group, 2004).

3  Hendrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (New York, NY: Harper, 1938).

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Gideon P. Petersen, PhD, is the rector of Zurche Adventist University, Madagascar.

September 2019

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