Surprise Endings

We all want our kids to remember the Bible stories we teach.  We want them to leave church talking about it.  We want them excited to come back for more.  

One effective way to achieve this is to build in the occasional surprise ending to our stories, or what I call “the big reveal.”  These aren’t surprises just for the sake of changing things up (though that’s not a bad thing), but the big reveal is a way to emphasize the main biblical truth we’re trying to communicate in an unexpected way.  

One of the easiest ways to do this is by using props to hide your message in plain sight.


A few years ago, I taught a lesson on Nehemiah that was all about how Nehemiah chose to do the right thing even when it was really tough.  When the kids walked in, I had large cardboard boxes sitting around the teaching area that I used to represent the rubble of the wall of Jerusalem.

In the application time at the end of the story, we talked about different challenges the kids might face this week. As we walked through each situation, I picked up a box from the rubble and added it to a row of boxes at the edge of our stage, having them repeat the phrase, “It’s worth the fight to do what’s right” in response.

At the very end I flipped the boxes, revealing the letters R-I-G-H-T printed on the bottom as I reminded them that God will help us to do what’s right even when it seems impossible. 

The kids went nuts when they realized the message had been hidden in front of them all along.  

John 3:16

We also use this in our teaching about salvation and baptism.  I adapted this from an old Willow Creek Promiseland lesson from over twenty years ago, but it’s such a good idea we use again and again.  

For this lesson, we use signs with the following symbols to explain what Jesus did for us and how we can respond.  

  • Cloud: God is perfect.
  • Heart: He loves me.   
  • Earth: Sin is the problem.
  • Gift: God wants to give me a gift.
  • Cross: Jesus paid for my sin. 
  • ABC: To receive God’s gift, we Admit our need for Jesus, Believe in Jesus and Choose Jesus to be our Forever Friend 

We talk about each one of these concepts for a few minutes, but at the end, the storyteller reveals that these pictures remind them of one of their favorite Bible verses, John 3:16.  The storyteller then goes from sign to sign saying the verse and pointing to the corresponding picture.  

  • Cloud: For God
  • Heart: So loved
  • Earth: the world
  • Gift: that He gave
  • Cross: His only Son
  • ABC: so that anyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

Of course all of this was visible the whole time, but it’s a fun aha moment when we get to point it out.  It’s especially fun because we do this lesson with parents in the room, who are more likely to already know the verse and appreciate the surprise.

So your challenge this week is to take this same principle and try it out in an upcoming story.  Look for ways you can occasionally use props in your storytelling that can also reveal a surprise word, Bible verse or phrase at the end that will drive home your teaching.

Here are three keys to make it work:

  1. Make the message intentional. Whatever word, phrase, verse or picture you use, it should be the payoff for the lesson, not just a random add on at the end.
  2. Hide the message in plain sight. Whatever you use to conceal the message needs to make sense with the lesson (like my John 3:16 pictures and Nehemiah boxes).  Sure you could hide the message in random set dressing or room decor, but it’s way more fun if the props seem to have a purpose. 
  3. Practice with the props several times, This will help you reveal the message smoothly and keep you from fumbling the big moment.  When I did the Nehemiah lesson, I had to be extra careful to get the boxes in the right order and to make sure none of my letters were upside down.  Without practice it would have been so easy for me to blow it.

Of course you can’t use a big reveal every week or the kids will be on to you, but when you do use, it will remind kids that God’s Word is full of fun surprise. More importantly, it will help to remember the truth you’re teaching for weeks and months to come.

In our next post we’ll talk about another fun way to end with a big reveal: using simple pictures to lead up to powerful finish!

Big Props Made Easy

When it comes to Children’s Ministry props and visuals, the bigger the better.  Ginormous props are just plain fun and can really help set the stage for an awesome lesson.  They create a sense of expectation and can be useful for capturing  kids’ attention (or recapturing it) as you teach or tell a story.   

Many of us, though, don’t have the time, money or skill to go as big as we might want.  There are several ways around this, but I’m going to tell you about a quick and cheap one today.  It’s a free website called Block Posters.  

Here’s how it works. At Block Posters you can upload any image to their site, choose how big you want to make it, and the website enlarges it and converts it into a bunch of 8 ½ x 11 pictures. At that point, all you have to do is download the PDF, print it out and put it together like a giant puzzle.

Last week, for instance, I was teaching on renewing the mind from Romans 12. At the last minute, I had an idea to have a giant brain on stage. I planned to do some silly things with it in the beginning of the lesson and then use it for application by showing how when we put worldly thinking into our brains, bad stuff comes out, but when we put God’s truth from the Bible into our heads, it can lead to good things in our lives.

So, I uploaded an image to Block Poster, printed it out, cut off the white borders and used spray adhesive to adhere it to the back of an old sign I had.  I would have preferred black foam core, but like I said, it was last minute and the white sign was free.  

Here are a few pictures to show you how the brain prop looked on stage:

Below is the brain with some black foam core strips I cut out from leftovers lying around the office with text taped on the front and back. The foam core edges and the paper I taped on aren’t perfect because I was in a hurry, but it didn’t matter because the kids only saw them for a few seconds as I pulled each one out of or put them into the brain. I had a wooden milk crate propping up the sign, and the words I needed were stashed behind it to make it convenient to pull them out of the brain.

The big brain looked awesome on stage and kids were definitely intrigued with it from the moment they walked into the room. Best of all, it worked great in the lesson.

Yes, I could have put that brain picture on a screen, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect. With the sign propped up on the stage, I could get it closer to the kids and have fun putting things in it and pulling other things out.  It kept the lesson interesting, and the kids were glued to it.  

I’m not a big fan of prepping lessons at the last minute, but by the time I thought of the big brain prop, it was either last minute or nothing.  I’m glad I went for it.  It made everything better for both me as the storyteller and the kids who were watching.  

So, if you want to go big, give Block Posters a shot. It’s cheap and simple to use and can make a real impact when you need it.

If you’d like more ideas about using props to enhance your lesson, check out this earlier post, Having a Ball with Storytelling.

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The Power of Storytelling

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.
  • Parents tell more stories to their kids than anyone else. Here are some ideas to help parents tell compelling Bible stories at home.

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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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What’s Your Favorite Story?

What is your favorite story?  

Is it a book, a movie, a TV show, maybe something you binge watch on Netflix? Maybe it’s a Broadway musical or even a story told through a video game or a comic book.

Whatever the medium, what is a story you love?

I asked that question to a group of ministry leaders at a storytelling workshop I led last month and heard everything from Lord of the Rings to Nacho Libre. Some people mentioned beloved picture books from their childhood while others chose epic Hollywood blockbusters.

The stories the audience listed were very different from each other in many ways – different genres, different mediums – but there is one thing they all had in common – the same thing they have in common with your favorite story too.

Something about these stories engaged us.  They grabbed our attention and held it. They captivated us and swept us into another world.  In fact, they was so entertaining and memorable that we would even say they are our favorites.  

Pretty powerful stuff.  

And yet, as powerful as those stories may be, we know there is an even greater story, in fact, the greatest of all time.  It’s God’s story, and not only is it mind-blowing and amazing, but it actually happened.  

These incredible adventures of God are actually true and, get this, they’re still going on today. The story is still unfolding. 

And the best of all? We are invited to be a part of it. This story – we can actually step into it and get swept up into an adventure with God that leaves us and the world around us changed forever.  

With that in mind, when it comes time step up in front of a group of kids and teach the Bible, we have to bring our best.  This isn’t just any old story we’re talking about here.  It’s God’s story and it is spiritual dynamite so we have to give our best to bring this story to life in a way that kids will never forget.  

Remember what we said about great stories?  We said great stories are engaging and captivating.  They sweep us off your feet into another world. They are fun and entertaining and they grab out attention and they don’t let go.  

But sometimes that’s not how we tell God’s story is it?  Sometimes we make it sound dull and lifeless and boring. Like it’s just a bunch of dusty old facts to be memorized.  All history and no mystery.  

But this is the Bible we’re talking about here! It’s the greatest story of all time and it demands the greatest storytelling to do it justice.  

That’s what this blog is all about, helping you hone your creative storytelling skills so that you can give God and the kids your very best.

Over the coming months we’re going to talk about how to engage kids, how to grab their attention from the beginning, how to sweep them off their feet and take them into the world of the Bible and introduce them to the greatest character of all time, the God who loves them and died for them and wants them to know Him more than anything in the world.  

In fact Jesus said knowing God is what his story is all about.  In John 17:3 Jesus prayed, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (NIV).

Then, in John 5:39 Jesus said to the religious leaders, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” 

Together we’re going to talk about how to tell amazing Bible stories that point kids to Jesus, and leave them wanting more.  And when someone asks them the question, “What’s your favorite story?” they may just name the one you told Sunday morning.

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