What The Podcast “Serial” Taught Me About Teaching The Bible

This post was written by Ricky Alcantar. Ricky is the lead pastor of Cross of Grace Church in El Paso, Texas. 

More than any other media in a long time I’ve learned from Serial— specifically in how to tell stories and teach others. If you’re a pastor trying to teach the Bible to your people, a Sunday school teacher trying to make your 5th grade students pay attention, or just a parent trying to do family devotions I think there are some really helpful lessons to pull from. ( PS: If you don’t know Serial stop reading this and go listen instead.)

Here are four reasons I think the success of Serial should encourage anyone that teaches the Bible:

  • You can tell a continuing, serialized story well. This will be almost 12 hrs of content by the end. We often hear people say that the attention spans of people are getting shorter and shorter. We’ve gone from books to magazines to newspaper headlines to aggregated news summaries to Facebook status updates. But people still crave something larger, longer, more important if it’s done well. As Christians the Bible is the most amazing narrative ever written and we shouldn’t be shy about presenting it this way. There’s still a place from teaching through a lengthy book of the Bible, verse by verse and chapter by chapter. Take heart, expositional preachers and Sunday school teachers!
  • You can tell a complicated story well. The story on Serial is so complicated in terms of conflicting evidence, conflict character testimony, and forensic process I find myself needing a reference manual. The Serial website has call logs, maps, and more. Have you ever struggled with with details instructions books of the law, wondering if you could ever teach them? If Sarah Koenig can make a call log interesting, you can surely teach Leviticus.
  • Craft still matters. When you listen to Serial it’s clear that it’s not just popular because it has an amazing undiscovered story (though it does). This story was there long before Sarah Koenig and her team dusted it off. And it’s not getting just popular by being shocking or provocative. It’s a story well told. The beats and spaces between dialogue matter. The set up for a big reveal and the aftermath are carefully constructed. There is still a place in our reckless, blindingly fast digital space for well crafted content. Our goal as Bible teachers is not just dropping off a packet of information, the craft of presentation matters.
  • The craft of spoken words still matters. In our visually oriented age we’re wired to think that listening to what is in essence a radio program delivered online would never ever catch on. Any speeches we hear are stale, canned, and driven by telepromters. But there is a forgotten craft in speaking aloud to other human beings—the intonations, the twists and turns, the emotion. And since we see it done well so rarely, it stands out even more when it is done well.

I’m encouraged but I also learned. Serial has pushed me to get better at my own craft and so here are four things I’m taking away from Serial about how to teach better:

  • Make it human. The thing that anchors the tedious legal proceedings and phone call records is that Koenig and her team those details and pieces to reveal the human story underneath the pages of files. Often in teaching it’s tempting to make your brilliant discovery or insight the key, when the real key is that this matters to people. And further, it shouldn’t just matter to “people somewhere” but to Adnan, to Jay, to Sarah, to very specific people. The more personal it gets, the more universal it becomes.
  • Make it messy. People are growing distrustful of clean-cut stories and characters. I think a big part of this is that it doesn’t ultimately ring true. People are complicated. Stories are complicated. But there’s an investigator in all of us, there’s a drive to explore and explain. Sometimes the best teachers and storytellers, present just enough of the tangled web to provoke the listener into jumping in to untangle it themselves. Sometimes we’re tempted to gloss over the messy nature of characters or stories in the Bible–don’t do it.
  • Make it matter. In our vacuous TV binging culture we’ve grown accustomed to thinking that no one can handle real questions that matter but only want reality show fluff. I think stuff like Serial proves this wrong. One of the reasons Serial is compelling is for what it brings up about justice and larger questions: “Was this man wrongly convicted? Why isn’t our justice system working better? Why is the Truth so hard to see?” These larger questions beyond the details of the case give it weight and substance, something people crave underneath the fluff of pop culture. So don’t just say “Well here’s Paul’s thought in Romans 7” say “Have you thought about how radically Romans 7 reshapes our human existence?”
  • Add layers of tension and conflict. Stories are propelled forward by conflict and Serial has plenty of it: Sarah Koenig’s internal conflict over Adnan, the community conflict over Adnan’s conviction, the conflict between prosecuting and defense attorneys. But it’s the layers of it that really make you desperate to keep listening, a one-dimensional conflict can only push you so far. So I’ve begun to think, “Where is the conflict here? What’s the problem with our world this highlights? What’s the internal conflict?” Work on all these levels because the Bible works on all these layers.

Season one of the podcast just ended. As for who did it, my money is the organized crime front commonly called “Mailchimp.” Or as it’s better known in the underworld … “Mailkimp.”

Stephen Altrogge

I'm a husband, dad, writer, & Mixed Martial Arts Salsa Dancing Champion. I created The Blazing Center. I've also written some books which people seem to like.

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