“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
Stories capture our imaginations. Stories clarify abstract concepts. Stories imprint long-term memories. A well-told tale will both instruct and motivate any audience. Jesus often laced unforgettable stories into His sermons. Via stories, the Lord related truths that rebuked His detractors and energized His followers.
As educators who grasp the importance of planting the Scriptures into the minds of children, perhaps our greatest opportunity and challenge is to teach Bible lessons in engaging and memorable ways. We must make stories “stick” to their hearts and minds.
Alyssa stared wide-eyed at the children’s lesson for the week; then she glanced at me for assurance. “Do I need to say all of this?” she asked. “I’m not good at memorizing!”
“Oh, no!” I responded quickly. “Don’t memorize the whole Bible story; just read it through several times to get the gist and heart of the story. The goal is to tell the story naturally each Sunday; maybe just practice it a few times at home.” After talking through techniques and assuring Alyssa that she need not memorize scripts verbatim, she breathed a sigh of relief.
After that conversation, I polled my volunteers to get their feedback on effective ways to tell Bible stories to young children. Several shared concerns about the lengthy story script; they also expressed doubts about their skill to execute. I applauded their desire for excellence, but realized it was time to re-train my teachers on the art of storytelling! Several simply read the Bible story aloud to the kids—straight from the lesson—with minimal voice inflection, energy, or excitement. They were more concerned about saying all the right words than engaging kids’ minds and imaginations. So I went to work, determined to provide skills and techniques for my whole team of volunteers.
On the scheduled training date, I asked everyone to sit on the floor. Beforehand, I had placed stations for an experiential walk-through of Psalm 23. A fuzzy, green blanket represented the “pastures”; a small fountain made soft, bubbling sounds for the “quiet waters” (cups of water were placed nearby); a dark tunnel (huge trash bag propped over chairs) simulated the “valley of the shadow of death.” The end of the journey featured a pretend “feast” table with treats and container of olive oil.
My storyteller arrived, dressed in full shepherd gear with a large staff. He led the volunteers through each station, reading portions of Psalm 23 along the way. He invited the team to lay in the meadow, drink peacefully at the quiet waters, and stay close beside him in the valley of the shadow of death. During the entire experience, the storyteller glanced at his script several times, but he mostly went by paraphrase to communicate the general idea at each station. The volunteers listened raptly and followed the instructions.
Finally, we talked about creative storytelling techniques and practiced on each other! Alyssa approached me afterwards, grinning from ear to ear. “Thank you! I have so many more ideas; I never thought I was good at storytelling, but I think I can do this!”
Storytelling and Culture
For centuries, telling stories has been the primary way that humans have communicated, connected, and interpreted the world. Via storytelling, the Hebrews transferred to new generations the amazing news of God meeting with their forefathers. It should be no surprise that children today are just as hungry for real-life stories—often packaged in movies, books, and digital pictures. (Unfortunately, while adding vivid images, these media have marginalized kids’ use of imagination and diminished the storyteller’s role.)
Jesus often taught with parables and object lessons. Instead of relying on fact-filled sermons, He appealed to the masses by citing current events and relating personal situations. Jesus knew people would struggle to understand and remember, so He included word pictures and engaging stories. He knew that stories would connect to the souls of people in ways that detailed explanations could not.
Our brain remembers stories more vividly than facts or figures because our heads, hearts, and imaginations are interconnected. Think back to your own childhood: your favorite teacher may have started the lesson with a personal story. The details were compelling, the silly mistakes were funny, and you may still be able to picture each character. Your teacher’s enthusiasm, vivid descriptions, and hand motions emblazoned the tale into your mind.
Ten Interactive Storytelling Techniques
Here are ten tried-and true storytelling methods to introduce to your children’s ministry team TODAY.
1. Story-mime: Children use gestures and hand-motions to silently “tell” the Bible story.
Create simple actions or motions for key portions of the story. As you tell the story, show each hand-motion and invite the children to do the same. Example: When you tell the parable of the Lost Sheep:
Line 1: Today’s story is about a flock of fluffy sheep.
Action: Cup hands around ears and say, “Baa!”
Line 2: The shepherd took care of 100 sheep.
Action: Pretend to count “1, 2, 3, 4…100”!
Line 3: One day the shepherd counted only 99 sheep. One sheep was missing!
Action: Cover your mouth and say “Oh no! Where did my lost sheep go?” [Etc.]
2. Imaginary Journey: Children pretend to be in the actual Bible story.
Example: When you explain Jesus Calming the Storm, bring in a fan for the wind, spray bottle for the sea mist, recording of ocean waves to play in the background, and a metal pan and spoon to create thunder sounds. Just for fun, make a snoring sound for Jesus sleeping! Ask the children to close their eyes; then start the journey. “Imagine you’re on a boat at sea. You feel the wind blowing (turn on the fan); big waves are crashing against the boat (turn on the wave sound-effect). The water is spraying everywhere (lightly spray the crowd).” After you set the scene, then move the story forward adding additional props and imaginary prompts as the situation changes!
3. Object Bag: Children see, touch, taste, and smell items represented in the Bible story.
Before class, place all the objects for your story in a bag. As you introduce each character or event, draw the appropriate object from the bag. Example: When you describe the Sower and the Soils, gather props such as: farmer’s hat, seeds, rock, toy bird, thorn bush, Bible, picture of the sun, and some dirt or potting soil.
4. Reader’s Theatre: Children watch actors read the Bible story.
Beforehand, ask adult or teen volunteers to “become” a story character. Give each volunteer a script so he/she can prepare to read the lines dramatically. With minimal costumes or movement, actors stand in line or sit on stools. They primarily on gestures and facial expressions as they read their lines. Scripts must be engaging so the children grasp what is taking place.
5. Teen Drama: Children watch actors dramatize the Bible story.
Volunteer teens and adults prepare together to present the story. They dress in basic costumes and memorize or paraphrase each line. Actors must coordinate major cues and actions. The most important thing is to move the story forward.
6. Child Narration: Children act out the Bible story.
Before class, gather props so each child will have something to wear or show. Example: When you act out Daniel in the Lion’s Den, bring a crown for the king, a shawl or simple robe for Daniel, and funny mustaches/beards for the advisors (you can cut them from felt). For the lions, look for masks (or simply draw whiskers), and make wings or long white t-shirt for the angel. Just before your “live” action, summarize the story aloud. Then read the Scripture narrative line-by-line, pausing occasionally to direct the actors.
7. Puppet Drama: Children watch puppets tell the Bible story.
Select full-size or finger puppets for each story character. Encourage puppeteers to alter their voices to fit the characters. Though using puppets requires preparation and practice, memorizing lines is not necessary because scripts remain hidden behind the stage.
8. Re-Telling: Teacher tells the Bible story with props; then children use props to repeat the story.
Beforehand, select simple props that will help tell the story. Example: When telling about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, use a pencil for the shepherd, colored felt or paper for grass and water, cotton balls for sheep, and blocks or Legos for a sheepfold and gate. As you tell the story, move each figure around the table or floor. Ask questions to draw out student imaginations. When you’re done, place the props at a station so children can re-tell the story to each other.
9. First-Person Character Reading: Children watch costumed leader tell the Bible story.
Dress up as the main character and tell the story from the “first-person” perspective; you ARE the character. The costume will draw attention to the story and capture children’s attention. When appropriate, use props as well.
10. Scene Simulation: Children make a replica of the Bible story setting.
Recreate a scene or place of historical significance. Example: When you teach a series of lessons about the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, bring a tent or drop-cloth to simulate the Tabernacle in your room. Have children help make the sacred objects to place inside the Ark of the Covenant or around the Tabernacle. Create key items as you learn more about the story. Guide small groups of children through the Tabernacle area and explain the significance of each station.