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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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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