Team Teaching Part 2: Cast of Characters

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:

Narrator

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.  

Widow

You’re tellin’ me!

Narrator

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.

Widow

(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!

Elijah

Yes!

Narrator

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.)

Elijah

(mouth stuffed full) Mmm, that’s delicious!

Narrator

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  

That’s amazing!

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.  

  1. 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.  
  2. 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.  
  3. 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.  
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.  
  6. 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.  
  7. 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.

Post-Covid Storytelling Tips

Since Covid-19 swept across the world in 2020, it seems like everything has been harder. That includes Children’s Ministry and capturing kids’ imaginations with the wonder of God’s Word.  

At the time I’m writing this, many churches are still meeting virtually or at least not offering programming for kids. Others of us have reopened, but our environments feel a bit different than they did a year ago. Some of the differences may include:

  1. A smaller number of kids
  2. Kids and leaders wearing masks
  3. Kids and leaders social distancing
  4. Kids not being able to share props or supplies
  5. Heightened levels of anxiety for kids and leaders

These are just a few factors you might be facing when you reopen your Children’s Ministry. At the very least it creates a different vibe in the room and can make it more challenging to engage with your kids.

With that in mind, here are a few tips that can help you ramp up your storytelling in this unique season.

  1. Be intentional.  Just know going into every teaching experience you’re going to have to bring your A game. Pray hard, know your story inside and out and be ready to bring the most entertaining version of yourself to the room. You are the thermostat, and it’s to you to set the temperature for your audience. The more you lighten up and have fun, the more it will give the kids the permission to have a blast along with you.
  2. Engage kids from the beginning.  Have upbeat music playing before kids walk into the room so your environment will feel friendly and exciting. Greet kids enthusiastically and tell them how glad you are to see them and how much fun you’re going to have today. Call kids by name.   
  3. Go big in your storytelling. Use big gestures, exaggerated facial expressions (even if you’re wearing a mask, especially if you’re wearing a mask) and use lots of variety in your voice (speed up, slow down, get loud, get quiet) to pull kids into the story.  
  4. Make your lessons HIGHLY interactive.  All in all I’ve noticed our kids are quieter and more hesitant.  That means if I’m presenting, I need to give them several opportunities to participate in the teaching.  
    1. Motions & response phrases: you could give kids a fun way to respond to an opening game, application game or help tell the story. For example, I once told the story of Gideon where I would hold up one of two signs throughout the lesson. One had a muscular knight on it and the other a cat with its fur standing up.  When I held up the knight, kids would say, “Mighty warrior, huh!” and make big muscles, and when I held up the scaredy cat they would put their hands on their faces and yell, “Yikes!” We practiced ahead of time and I peppered it throughout the story to keep kids participating as I highlighted times when Gideon and his enemies were courageous or frightened.
    2. Repeat prayers: have kids repeat a prayer one phrase at a time so they don’t just tune you out when you pray. For example before the lesson you may pray something like, “God / we love You / Please help to hear / what You have to say / today / Amen.” The slashes represent the chunks I would give kids to repeat before I moved onto the next one.
  5. Have fun!  The more you get into it and have fun, the more your kids will go along for the ride.  

The great thing is that all the techniques I just listed really apply just as well to storytelling before, during or after the pandemic. Many of them would also work if you’re teaching kids virtually right now. So no matter what season you and your kids are in these tips will help set you up to win. 

As always, it all comes down to doing whatever you can to earn the kids’ attention and draw them into the world of the Bible as you lead them to Jesus. That’s the goal of what we do no matter what other challenges we face.  

Team Teaching Part 1: Act It Out

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:

STORYTELLER

This is a story about a guy named Simon Peter.  We’ll call him Pete.  Hey Pete!

PETE

(waves) What’s up?

STORYTELLER

Back in the day, Pete used to be a fisherman. 

PETE

(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!

STORYTELLER

Uh, not that kind of fisherman.  In those days they used nets. 

PETE

Doh! (Drops pole, picks up net with stuffed fish attached to it)  They’re bitin’ today boys!

STORYTELLER

But one day Jesus came along and invited Pete to follow Him.

PETE

Woo-hoo!

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:

STORYTELLER

Jesus was not happy about that.  He told Pete to get behind Him or get out of his way. He even called Pete Satan . . .

PETE

What!?!

STORYTELLER

. . . because Pete was trying to get in the way of God’s plan.

PETE

Who me?

STORYTELLER

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 . . .

PETE

Never! I will never leave your side, Lord!

STORYTELLER

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. 

Pictures That Pop

In an earlier post I talked about how fun visuals can make your teaching time much more engaging. 

Personally I prefer real 3D objects over pictures (and research suggests that real objects are more memorable), but there are times when a picture is exactly what you need.

If I’m telling a story about going fishing, I’d much rather have a real fishing pole in my hand instead of just showing a picture. If, however, I’m telling a story about the first time I rode a roller coaster, then obviously a picture is what would work the best.

If you have the technology, you can show pictures using programs like ProPresenter or PowerPoint, which we do a lot in our ministry. 

However, sometimes the best choice is a physical picture.  For example to introduce a story I taught on courage, we played a game called “Name That Fear” using the photos pictured at the top of this post.

I told the kids I would name some things they might be afraid of and they had to yell out what it is (yes, there’s a squirrel in there which always gets a big laugh). I would hold the sign up really fast and yell, “Name that fear!” and kids would respond.

Sure I could have done that on a screen (and have for this same game) but the physical signs are way more dramatic and fun. For this game in particular I would only put it on a screen if I couldn’t get the pictures big enough for everyone in the room to see them.

Another time I might choose screen graphics over a physical picture is if I needed my hands free to tell the story. Otherwise I would with go physical pictures every time.

However, if you don’t have the capability to project screen graphics, have no fear, physical pictures work just fine (and in the case of this game are preferred).

To really make pictures pop, however, I love to mount them to black foam board or poster board using a spray adhesive. Poster board is okay (and cheaper) but I always prefer to use black foam board whenever possible. It’s stronger and doesn’t flop around. It also works great if I need to display pictures on easels instead of just holding them up with my hands.

How can you use pictures to help tell your next story? If you have the option to use screen graphics or physical pictures, which would work better for the story you’re telling? Or would is there a real object you could bring in and use in its place?

The Tale of the Story Cake

What does it take to craft and deliver powerful Bible stories? The best way to answer that is to tell you a story about three bakers.

Once upon a time a very wealthy man held a contest for his daughter’s seventh birthday. He commissioned three bakers to bake the most spectacular cake they could create. Whichever cake his daughter preferred would earn its creator a $100,000 bonus.

The first baker was a master pastry chef. He experimented with his favorite cake recipe, tweaking the ingredients until he had crafted his most delicious creation. Once he had baked the cake, he spent hours frosting and decorating it until it looked like an absolute work of art.

Carefully the chef loaded it into the back of his delivery van just hours before the party. He jumped in the driver’s seat, turned the key and was horrified to discover his battery was dead. He lived in the country and had no phone and no way to call for help.

His cake was the most incredible dessert he would ever create, but because he didn’t have the means to deliver it, no one at the party would ever get to enjoy his finest masterpiece.

The second baker had no such problem. He was a brilliant showman and bought a brand new delivery truck just for the party. It was customized with with vibrant colors, flashing lights and a vinyl wrap emblazoned with his logo across the hood. The truck even had a loud speaker that would play a personalized hip hop version of “Happy Birthday” he had recorded by a professional jingle company just for the occasion.

When he pulled up to the party, every head turned. The guests ooed and aahed over his fancy delivery truck. Surely this was going to be something special, but when he served the cake, it collapsed on itself. Those who dared to try it thought it tasted bland. The baker had put so much effort into his delivery, that he had paid little attention to the ingredients he had used or how he had prepared them.

The final baker, as you may have guessed, avoided the excesses of the first two. She carefully crafted the finest cake she could bake in the time she had, but was also mindful to make sure her delivery truck was freshly washed, in good working order, gassed up and ready to go.

When she arrived at the party, the guests were excited to see the simple but elegant cake the baker wheeled into the dining room on a silver serving cart. The presentation was beautiful. The cake itself looked irresistible.

When the birthday girl took her first taste, the child’s face lit up with pure joy, signaling the entire room that this was the confection they had been waiting for, a treat for both the eye and the palette. It was magnificently decorated, moist but substantial and perfectly sweet.

The third chef walked away much richer that day because she had balanced the art of baking and delivery, much to the delight of everyone who enjoyed her marvelous creation.

The Moral of the Tale

In the same way, those of us who want to bring the Bible to life for kids have to focus on both content, baking the cake, and presentation, our delivery. Powerful storytelling is a combination of what we say and how we say it.

How confident are you in your content? Are your stories and lessons engaging and relevant for kids? Are they powerful and fun? If not, what’s one thing you can do to improve your content this week?

How about your presentation? Are you able to deliver your content in a way that captures a child’s attention and holds it until the very last word? If not, what can you to better utilize your voice, facial expressions or body language to make your delivery more compelling? What kind of props or visuals could you utilize to help bring your story to life?

Over the coming weeks we will cover a ton of practical tips to improve both your content (writing or adapting curriculum) and your presentation (delivering that content in a way that kids will love). With a little bit of intentionality, you will be serving up stories that your kids will find absolutely delicious.

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Have a Ball with Storytelling

Twenty-two years ago John Noel, the Children’s Pastor who mentored me, gave me some fantastic teaching I’d advice I’ve never forgotten. He said, “If you want kids to be interested in what you’re saying, use real objects whenever possible. If you’re telling kids a story about a ball, bring out a ball.”

It sounds simple enough, but you might be surprised how many storytellers just stand up and talk. Their Bible story and illustration may be loaded with the possibilities for props and and interesting visuals, but they miss an opportunity to engage kids because they don’t think about using real objects.

Over the last two decades, I’ve used hundreds of different props and visuals, and every time I pull one out, I can see the kids immediately perk up. I’ve used balls and ladders and swords and cookies and nails and crosses and toys and crowns and so many things I could never remember, but each one enhanced the Bible story or the personal story I was telling for an illustration.

My all-time favorite object I’ve used to tell a story is a kayak. Several years ago I was teaching a large group of 3rd-5th graders about Peter walking on water so I borrowed a kayak from a guy in the church, lugged it up a couple of flights of stairs and dragged it on stage.

When the kids came in for the large group program, they couldn’t believe it. Why was there a real live boat in their worship space? Their curiosity was kicking into overdrive, and they were begging me to tell them why it was there. I kept it a mystery until the Bible story, and stepped in and out of the kayak as I was telling Peter’s tale.

The cool thing is that the kids were completely engaged before I even said a word because an intriguing visual piqued their curiosity and brought the story to life in a way I never could have done without it.

So if you don’t remember anything else, remember this. If you’re going to tell a story about a ball, bring out a ball. If you’re going to tell a story about a guy walking on water, bring out a boat or a life jacket or some flippers or anything else that would help you set up the story and draw kids into the world of the Bible in a way they will never forget.

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The Most Entertaining Version of You

Probably the worst piece of advice I’ve ever heard someone give a storyteller is to just be yourself when you’re teaching. The thing that makes this advice so terrible is that’s it’s half right.

God made each of us with a unique personality. Your storytelling style is going to be different than mine. The way you deliver a lesson probably won’t look exactly like the teacher in the next room, and that’s a good thing. That part of the advice is accurate.  

However, I’ve seen lots of people get up to teach kids and just be themselves, and guess what? They were pretty boring. Most of us don’t naturally communicate in a way that is engaging to kids. So forget the advice to just be yourself. What you have to be is the most entertaining version of yourself.  

Be you, but be engaging. 

Don’t worry. Everyone has an entertaining version of themselves. Even you. The trick is you just have to tap into it.

We see this every day when someone starts talking about their passion. Their voice gets louder and they talk faster. Their face lights up and they become more animated. They gesture with enthusiasm. Their body language tells me this is the thing they’re more interested in than anything else on the planet. 

It doesn’t matter how laid back or quiet a person is, if you can get them talking about something they love, they immediately become more interesting. 

So how about you? What do you get super excited about when it comes up in conversation? Your family? A sport’s team? A favorite movie?

Imagine yourself when you’re talking about that thing. How does your voice sound? How much are you gesturing? What kind of facial expressions are you using? That’s the version of you to bring to your teaching.

As Christian communicators, God’s Word should bring us to life.  When we step onto stage to tell a story or teach a lesson, kids should hear the passion in our voices, see our faces light up and read in our body language that the Bible is the most exciting thing ever.

That starts with us getting excited about the Bible ourselves. When we care about what we’re teaching, it bubbles over in the way we teach. Next, we have to learn to use our voice, our face and our body intentionally to make our stories fun and engaging.

Practice your next lesson in front of the mirror or if you’re really feeling brave, video yourself teaching. Do you look excited about the Bible? Is your enthusiasm contagious? If not, think about what needs to change. Something on the inside, like your passion for the sharing God’s word? Or something on the outside like your voice, facial expressions or body language, the way you’re sharing the word?

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