Just because you’re teaching kids the Bible doesn’t mean you’re always telling a Bible story. Sometimes we teach biblical concepts and commands such as renewing the mind from Romans 12 or taming the tongue from James 3. They’re scriptural, but not tied to a particular Bible story. Regardless, we want those lessons to be just as engaging as the weeks we’re bringing a big Bible epic to life.
So, what does good storytelling look like when you’re not telling a story? Here are a few ideas:
Tell a story. Okay, I know that sounds like cheating, but seriously, God has wired us all for stories, so use that to your advantage. Just because you’re not telling a Bible story doesn’t mean you can’t tell stories that illustrate what the Bible is teaching. Here are three ways you can use stories to help kids connect with your lesson.
Keep it visual. Look for things in the Bible passage you’re teaching you can tie to a picture or object. For example, when I was teaching on renewing the mind last fall, I made a sign with a big, glowing brain on it and small signs with words representing both good and bad things we can put into our minds that I put behind the big brain sign as I talked about each one. Here are a few other ideas to use objects and pictures to keep your lesson visually interesting.
The room was silent, all the kids’ eyes glued to the gifted storyteller onstage. With expert skill she told the tale of the wise men coming to see Jesus. She said, “Evil King Herod told the wise men to let him know when they’d found the child so he could go and worship Jesus too. But he was lying! He didn’t really want to worship Jesus. He wanted to hurt him!”
Suddenly a first grader gasped and cried out, “WHAT?!”
It was awesome. This was obviously the first time this kid had ever heard the Christmas story, or at least that part of it. He was totally shocked that anyone would ever think about harming Jesus. This was completely new information.
I think of that day every year when I’m preparing to teach for Christmas. It’s a great reminder that I will have kids in the room who will be hearing this incredible story for the very first time.
That means I have to bring my A-game. I can’t let myself become lazy or bored just because I’ve heard the Christmas story a million times. I can’t just go through the motions. I have to be fully engaged with the wonder of what God did in Bethlehem.
As adults it’s easy to lose our sense of awe for the familiar. Many of us have talked about Mary, Joseph and the shepherds so many times, we may begin to see them more as cartoon characters instead of real, breathing humans who experienced the miraculous.
Have you ever felt like something was missing from your storytelling? Maybe you’ve had a lesson where you’ve done everything right. You’ve studied the Bible story and figured out the most engaging way possible to present it to kids. You’ve put it in language they can understand. You’ve pulled out sensory details from the story to bring it to life. You’ve practiced in front of a mirror to make sure you’re bringing the most entertaining version of yourself to the story.
But then you go to church, and the story falls flat. What went wrong? It could be a number of things, but I want to suggest today you might be missing one of the most important ingredients a storyteller can bring to their lesson.
Believe me, I know all about missing ingredients. My daughter’s birthday is right around Thanksgiving. One year I made her a pumpkin pie for her birthday cake, and it looked absolutely picture perfect. However, when my family dug into it, they were completely repulsed. Turns out I’d left out the sugar.
Trust me, unsweetened pumpkin pie is not the dessert you want for your birthday! Sure, it looked great, but the missing ingredient completely ruined it.
So, what essential ingredient might be missing from your storytelling? Gratitude.
If you’ve been teaching kids for much time at all, you know it’s easy to just go through the motions. It’s easy to forget that these Bible stories aren’t just stories. These events really happened to real people relating to a real God, and each time I open the Bible, it should remind me, overwhelm me, with just how good that God has been to me.
1 Chronicles 16:8 says, “Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done” (NLT).
When we begin our teaching preparation with gratitude, it fuels us to tell God’s story with an urgency and passion that we will never have without it. A grateful heart can’t help but gush about the goodness of God, and that holy enthusiasm is contagious!
So, the next time you’re preparing to teach, ask yourself this one simple question: what does this story make me grateful for today?
If you’re teaching the story of Mary and Martha, maybe it will remind you that you are loved by the Creator of the universe. Maybe you’ll be filled with thankfulness that Jesus wants to spend time with you, that He cares more about your being than your doing.
If you’re talking about the Exodus, maybe it will remind you of how God rescued you from sin. It may inspire you to give thanks for the way He broke the chains of an addiction or delivered you from a season of hopelessness.
If you’re telling the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, maybe it will make you grateful for how God has forgiven and restored you time and time again.
Whatever story you’re telling, invite God to use it to remind you of all He has done and is doing in your life. Respond to His goodness with gratitude and make your storytelling an act of worship flowing from a thankful heart.
Like sugar in pumpkin pie, gratitude will sweeten every story you tell, and like all delicious desserts, it will leave the kids you serve wanting to come back for more.
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Whether you’re teaching a creative large group program or leading a small group or Sunday School class, personal stories can be one of the most effective tools you can use to connect with the kids you lead. It’s amazing how a simple story can reel in kids who would otherwise be bouncing off the walls.
Kids love stories. Some of their favorite stories are about the childhood adventures of adults just like you.
The great thing about this tool is that we all have a lifetime of stories. Here are a few ways you can use them this week to capture kids’ attention:
1. Ice breakers
Personal stories make a great way to start a lesson. When teaching on God rescuing lost people, I opened with a story about a time I got separated from my mom in a department store. I started by asking the question, “Who’s ever been lost?” They were engaged from the first sentence.
Stories about how you learned a lesson and applied it to your life help kids see a practical example of how the Bible truth you’re teaching might play out in their own lives. After you tell your story, connect the dots by saying, “Okay, that might not ever happen to you, but you might deal with something like that. Think about how God could help you in that kind of situation.”
By telling kids about the times you made the wrong choice, you can help them to see the potential consequences of not doing life God’s way. Kids are shocked and awed by stories of the times you acted selfishly and got burned by your own foolishness.
Now that you know how you can use your stories, consider these guidelines when busting them out this weekend with your kids:
1. Make sure it’s relevant.
Just because it’s a great story doesn’t mean it will help you teach kids God’s truth. Only use stories that actually tie in to what you’re trying to communicate. Otherwise, you’re just filling time.
2. Use common sense.
The story about the time you broke your brother’s bike is probably a better choice than the story about the college spring break trip where you ended up in jail. Make sure your stories are age-appropriate. When in doubt, leave it out.
3. Take advantage of friends, families and photo albums.
Think you don’t have any stories to use for that lesson on generosity? Ask those who knew you when you were younger or check out old pictures to help jog your memory. Try journaling too. The more stories I write down, the more I remember.
4. Tell other people’s stories.
Stories about your own kids or other kids you know can be just as effective if you don’t have one about you that fits the situation. Just make sure you’re not embarrassing any kids in the room (including your own) by telling their stories without permission. Stories that are no big deal to you could be mortifying to a seven-year-old.
Whatever you’re talking about this week, use your experiences to impact the lives of the kids God sends your way. Who knows, maybe some day they’ll be telling stories of their own about an amazing teacher who told them a story that changed their life.
In the first post in our team teaching series, we looked at how much fun it can be to pull in another person to act out the Bible story as you tell it. But today we’re going to go bigger and talk about what it looks like to add two or more actors to the story in a technique I call Cast of Characters. This isn’t nearly as complicated as it might sound and gives you more flexibility than just using the single actor we talked about last time.
Just to show you what I mean, here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote a few years ago about Elijah and the poor widow from 1 Kings 17:
Okay, so think about this. Elijah wasn’t just asking this poor widow to give away her extra stuff. This flour and oil was all she had.
You’re tellin’ me!
If she gave this to Elijah, she and her son wouldn’t have anything. Did she really believe God was her provider? Could she really trust Him to give her everything she needed? For this poor widow it was decision time.
(Elijah & Narrator hum Jeopardy music while Widow paces back and forth rubbing her chin.) Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. (Humming stops. Elijah and Narrator look at Widow expectantly.) Okay, I’ll do it!
The widow went home, mixed the oil and flour, baked the bread, and gave it to Elijah to eat.
(Widow comes back wearing a chef’s hat, gives Elijah bread and he takes a bite.)
(mouth stuffed full) Mmm, that’s delicious!
And then something absolutely incredible happened. The jar of flour filled right back up (Widow holds up jar with exaggerated surprised expression.) And the jug of oil? (Widow holds up jug with exaggerated surprised expression.) Same thing. It was amazing.
Elijah & Widow
As you can see this technique can be a blast. You can use it for a wide variety of stories, but it works best with big stories that either involve several characters (like the Christmas story) or just have a lot of ground you need to cover like the Elijah story.
In this particular lesson we get to see Elijah confronting Ahab, being fed by ravens in the wilderness, helping the poor widow and having a showdown with Ahab on Mt. Carmel, all of which would probably be a bit much for a single storyteller to tackle on their own.
Here are a few tips to make the most of storytelling with multiple actors.
Take a look at your Bible story and think about how you would explain it to the kids if you were just telling it by yourself. Then look for places in the story where it would make sense to bring it to life with actors.
Keep the narrator in the driver’s seat. The narrator is still the primary storyteller who introduces the story, transitions from scene-to-scene, teaches along the way and wraps the whole thing up at the end.
Use the actual dialogue you find in Scripture whenever possible but feel free to paraphrase or shorten it so that it makes sense to kids and keeps the story moving.
Use actors to play multiple characters. Kids love to see actors appearing in different hats or costumes as various characters. The quick change element and all the silliness that comes with it are part of what makes this technique fun to watch. I generally like to use three actors if I’m telling the story this way because it gives me a lot of options.
Create a temporary “backstage” area for your actors to enter and exit the teaching area, switch out costumes and props and participate in the story even when “off stage.” For example, in the Elijah story I had my actor who played Ahab toss plastic food at Elijah from backstage when the ravens showed up to feed him. You can create your backstage area using folding room dividers like these or by making one out of 2’x6’ panels of plywood with hinges or by hanging up a shower curtain on a clothes line.
Keep costumes simple. In our example, Elijah wore a middle eastern style vest, Ahab wore a crown and a cape and the poor widow had a piece of fabric draped over her shoulders like a shawl.
Rehearse! Practice is important when you’re teaching by yourself, but it’s mission critical when you have a cast of characters up there with you. You’ll need to practice entrances and exits and how characters will use costumes and props. Plus, rehearsals will keep things moving so unprepared actors don’t create dead space during the lesson that may cause the kids to tune you out. We’ll have more details on rehearsals a few posts from now.
If you’re a little nervous about trying this out, don’t be. Just give it a shot once and see how your kids react. Try it at a special event like a Christmas or Easter service or VBS. It’s sometimes easier to recruit actors for a big event rather than a regular Sunday lesson, but once they get a taste of it, don’t be surprised if you find them coming back and asking for more.
I’m a huge fan of solo storytelling. I believe that a well-prepared teacher who uses solid storytelling techniques can captivate an audience with God’s Word like nobody’s business.
However, there are definitely times when you can make your stories even more interesting by involving other storytellers.
In the next few posts, I’m going to show you a few of my favorite ways to do this that always work great with an audience of kids.
The only downside to team teaching is that sometimes it can make rehearsals a bit more complicated (and trust me, you’ll need them), but don’t let that stop you. The pay off is totally worth it! And don’t worry. I’ll give you some tips to help with rehearsals after we talk about a few different team teaching techniques.
Today we’re going to start with an easy one, a method I call Act It Out. Not brilliant, I know, but it describes it well.
This method is simple and fun. You tell the story and someone else acts it out as you go. The actor may slip in and out of various costumes, use props, run around the room and do whatever you need them to do to bring the story to life.
Here’s an example of how I used this idea recently to tell the story of the life of Peter:
This is a story about a guy named Simon Peter. We’ll call him Pete. Hey Pete!
(waves) What’s up?
Back in the day, Pete used to be a fisherman.
(Pete puts on a fishing hat, picks up fishing pole and pretends to cast his line and reel it in.)
They’re bitin’ today boys!
Uh, not that kind of fisherman. In those days they used nets.
Doh! (Drops pole, picks up net with stuffed fish attached to it) They’re bitin’ today boys!
But one day Jesus came along and invited Pete to follow Him.
As you can see, this story is lighthearted, and moves fast, going back and forth between the narrator and actor with short lines to keep the story moving. However, you could also use this for stories with a more serious tone and give the actor a longer chunk of dramatic monologue.
Generally speaking when you’re using this method, you would want your actor to stay in character, but you can also have fun with the narrator and actor interacting like I did in these lines from the same lesson:
Jesus was not happy about that. He told Pete to get behind Him or get out of his way. He even called Pete Satan . . .
. . . because Pete was trying to get in the way of God’s plan.
Yes, you. Jesus also went on to tell His friends that one of them would betray Him and the rest would all run away and leave Him, but Pete said . . .
Never! I will never leave your side, Lord!
Yeah, right. Jesus told Pete he would lie about knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crowed the next morning.
For these stories you can do them with both storytellers memorized or the narrator can read their part from a script (if they’re very familiar with it and can keep strong eye contact with the kids). Generally I’m not a fan of teaching with notes or scripts but in this set up, it’s part of the act and not distracting if done well. When I’m using this method I like to use a ½” black binder for my script. It looks clean and blends in on stage.
Whether the narrator uses a script or not, though, the actor needs to be totally memorized so they are free to get into character, use props, etc. However, one big advantage of the narrator having a script is they can help keep the actor on track (especially handy if your actor likes to go big and ham it up) and bring them back if they get lost in the story.
In my next post, I’ll show you the more complicated version of Act It Out, how to involve multiple actors, and will share some examples of how that’s worked for me in the past. Down the road we’ll also talk about a method I call Tandem Teaching and will hit some important tips to help with rehearsing these team teaching lessons.
Last fall I had the opportunity to sit down with my friends at the D6 Podcast to have a conversation about the power of storytelling. In this interview we talk about practical tips for bringing the Bible to life that anyone can use.
You can check out a 5 minute video clip of that interview here or the audio of the full interview here.
Here are a few highlights:
If you want to bring the Bible to life for kids, first you have to let God bring the Bible to life in you. Before you teach, spend time in God’s word discovering what God has to say to you, and it will not only help you personally but it will energize your storytelling.
Great storytelling is a combination of what you say (content) and how you say it (preparation). Here’s an expanded version of the cake illustration I use to show how this works.
Everyone is a natural storyteller. You already get excited and tell great stories about the things you love (your hobbies, your kids, your dreams, etc). You just have to learn to access that entertaining version of you in your storytelling.
Use simple visuals to help kids engage with your story. In the podcast I give several examples of how to use everyday items that you can borrow or may have around your house.
You don’t need a bunch of bells and whistles (stages, sets, lights, etc) to tell a great story. In fact sometimes those things can get in the way. Here are more tips about using (or not using) tech to teach.
When I first started teaching in Children’s Ministry, the only tech I had was an old-school transparency projector that I would use to show teaching graphics on a rickety screen. Since those days I’ve taught lessons utilizing smart lights, smoke machines and complicated video elements.
But at the end of the day, I’ve learned that it really doesn’t matter that much what production tools I have or don’t have. Telling an engaging Bible story is all that matters, and though tech used correctly can help that, it’s not nearly as important as many people think.
Yes, if you’re in a big room with a lot of kids it’s important to have a microphone so they can hear you, and lighting can help direct their eyes to you and create an inviting ambience for storytelling. However, if your story stinks and your presentation skills are lacking, a mic and lights just call attention to that fact.
Some of you reading this post may have access to a ridiculous amount of teaching resources: stages, microphones, fancy lighting, screens, video projectors and all the bells and whistles. Others of you may have none of those things. It’s just you in a room with kids. Still others may fall somewhere in between.
Whatever the case, when it comes to creative Bible teaching, tech is never a substitute for powerful storytelling. To tell a powerful story you have to have solid content and skillful presentation.
Tech can enhance these basic building blocks of storytelling, but never replace them. Sound and lights may be the icing on the cake of an engaging presentation but they will never make up for poor storytelling.
That means if you don’t have any bells and whistles, don’t worry about it. Don’t let your lack of resources discourage you and don’t use it as an excuse not to give the kids your best effort.
Focus on telling a powerful Bible story in a compelling way. The best stories can be told anywhere. If you have a heart for God and a voice, you have all the tools you need.
Of course, if you have the opportunity to purchase production equipment, go for it. I would start with a sound system and a microphone. Sure, you might be loud enough for the kids to hear you on your own, but you can do subtle things wth your voice using a mic that are much harder to pull off without one. As creative Bible teachers, we should eagerly use any tool that can help us bring the Bible to life for kids.
On the other hand, if you regularly use sound, lights and other tech, be careful. I’ve seen people fall so in love with their production equipment that they’ve neglected their content and their presentation. In that instance, all your production equipment is going to do is help the kids hear and see a bad story even more clearly.
Also, keep in mind, when you’re using tech in your storytelling, it increases the burden of rehearsing. Imagine coming to a powerful part of your lesson and suddenly you tech volunteer interrupts you with a misfired sound cue or throws the wrong graphic or video up on a screen. Now, despite your preparation, you’ve completely lost the kids’ attention that you’ve worked so hard to capture.
If you’ve rehearsed the lesson, but the person running your sound and lights hasn’t, that’s a recipe for disaster. If you’re going to use tech, you have to work as a team and practice until the transition from one element to the next happens so seamlessly the kids don’t even notice.
In a recent interview promoting his new show, the Mandalorian, director Jon Favreau said, “Technology has the serve story.”
Keep in mind, this is the guy who directed live action versions of the Jungle Book and the Lion King, both of which relied heavily on the use of cutting edge technology. But Favreau knows what all skilled storytellers should know: telling a great story that connects with your audience is the most important thing.
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When King Jehoshaphat learns three enemy armies have teamed up against him, he knows he and the people of Judah don’t stand a chance. Their only hope is for God to swoop in and save the day.
In this interactive retelling of the classic Bible story from 2 Chronicles 20, kids will discover that God is bigger than all our fears. When we choose to worship instead of worry, we see just how big God really is.