When I was little, Coca-Cola came in a glass bottle with a metal cap that you had to use a bottle opener to remove. That was it … one way. Nowadays, Coke comes in 2-liter bottles, cans, squatty little cans, 20-ounce resealable bottles, commemorative bottles, and the occasional novelty bottle that looks like a Christmas ornament or a football. Inside of each of these? The same Coke that was in the bottle when I was little. Oh, I remember when they tried to change the “recipe” for Coke, and it was met with defiant, outraged, demanding fans. What Coca-Cola came to realize was that their customers didn’t care how the packaging was changed to meet their drinking needs, you better not mess with the content!
There’s a kidmin lesson to be learned from Coca-Cola and it has to do with the way we present the stories God gave us in His Word—stories of faithful and not-so-faithful people. That’s the content. The packaging, though, is up to us. When we vary the methods that we use to present these Bible accounts, we’ve got a better chance of engaging kids and keeping them interested.
When the glass bottle was the only way Coke could be purchased, people were content, because they hadn’t imagined anything else. Once the different packaging options were launched, people came to expect the variety, because one of those ways would always meet their particular needs. That’s where our kids are today. They expect variety. And, as teachers, we know that presenting information in a variety of ways engages more kids. Hence, variety in storytelling helps retention and understanding.
The only guaranteed ineffective way to present a story that I know of is when you use the same method over and over and over. My dear junior church leader, Mrs. Sexton, was an artist when it came to creating backgrounds for flannel graph characters, but that was the one, the only, the sole way she knew to present a Bible story. I was totally amazed the first time I witnessed a Bible person come to life before my eyes as the story was told in first person. Believe it or not, kids are still delighted with flannel graphs occasionally, just as long as they’re part of the storytelling technique repertoire and not the only technique.
Not everyone is a gifted storyteller, but everyone can become a better storyteller. If you’re working in children’s ministry, Storytelling 101 is a must. Because we have God’s story—the most important, incredibly life-changing story—to tell, we’ve got to make sure that we’re presenting it in ways that will make kids raise their heads, turn to see what’s going on, and put them in a front row seat to God’s Word.
God deserves our very best—our personal excellence. When it comes to storytelling, the thing that will move you in that direction more than anything else is preparation. I need to say this one more time … this is God’s story! It’s a tremendous responsibility to communicate His story. Don’t take it lightly. Take off your shoes; you’re standing on holy ground. Prepare!
- Start off by reading the story straight from the Bible. Check out a couple of different versions and translations
- Then, read the story from a reputatable, biblically-sound Bible storybook. Make sure it doesn’t add people who aren’t in the Bible or have animals/inanimate objects telling the story. I always use Egermeier’s Bible Storybook because I know I can count on it being completely accurate. It also has 321 stories in it, so more than likely, I’ll never need to go in search of a story that isn’t there.
- Make a copy of the pages from the storybook. Get out your red pen and highlighter and mark it up according to what would be helpful for the storytelling technique you’ll be using. If there are key words that will come up in the lesson later on, then highlight those so you make sure you include them. If you’re going to ask kids to respond throughout the story, then mark the places where that’s going to happen.
- Practice out loud. You can read a story over and over, but until you have to say it out loud, you don’t really know how well you know it. Hearing yourself say the words will also cement it into your memory.
- Five words. If you need more than five words as prompts, then you don’t know the story well enough. A single word can cue you to the next part of the story. Write them on the back wall, on an index card, or on the palm of your hand—somewhere not very noticeable. As quick as a blink of the eye, you can check for the next word that will transition you to the next important scene in the story.
- Gather everything you need and practice using it. Don’t wait until the last minute and assume a prop or costume is available. You don’t want to get thrown off your game or have to come up with Plan B at the last minute. If you have props, then pick them up and go through the motions of how they’ll be incorporated into the story.
- Throw away your cheat sheet. If you’ve practiced, have your five words, and know the story, then don’t hold onto a cheat sheet … “just in case.” What will happen is that you’ll lose your confidence and find yourself reading from the sheet. If it’s not there, you’ll have to call upon your preparation to lead you in engaging the kids.
Since this issue of K! is focusing on creativity in ministry, let me just get your creative storytelling juices flowing by giving you a few techniques for starters.
Costumed Characters. You can have a whole lot of fun with this technique. These aren’t necessarily Bible characters, but just random costumed personalities. Create a character with a costume, but also include a profile and a voice unique to the character. There will be certain stories that your character will be very suitable to tell. A few of my often-used characters are Captain Kid, Chef Bakesalot, Winnie Wang, Betty Chickencoop, Dr. Bunsenburner, and Gertrude Frogbottom.
When there’s a story that happens on the high seas (like “Paul’s Shipwreck”), then Captain Kid shows up. Arg! If it has to do with food (like the Passover or the “Loaves and Fishes”), then we visit Chef Bakesalot on the set of her Food Network cooking show. Chef’s voice is course and reminds you of Julia Child. Soft-spoken Winnie Wang wears an authentic red kimono and takes care of a beautiful garden, so stories like “Creation” and “Mary Going to the Garden” are appropriate for her. I’m sure you can come up with your own characters from leftover holiday costumes. Be consistent with their personality and voice so the kids recognize who they are each time.
Rhyme Response. Rhythm and rhyme are part of the music family, and we know that music is in the long-term side of the brain. Therefore, if we incorporate music in the form of rhythm and rhyme in our storytelling, then it will find its home in long-term memory. For this technique, your story needs to have an action or statement that repeats itself at least three times during the story. Make up a simple rhyme with a heavy beat that describes that repeating action/statement. Teach it to the kids before you begin the story and then when it comes up as you tell the story, signal the kids and they will chime in with the rhyme. It’s also a lot of fun to give the kids rhythm sticks to use on the heavy downbeats. Here’s an example to use along with the story of “Jesus Prays in Gethsemane.” Each time Jesus finds the disciples asleep, the kids will say:
Why are you asleep?
Can’t you sit here and pray?
I need you to be strong.
This is an awful day!
At lunch that day, the kids will use eating utensils or whatever they can find to imitate their rhythm sticks, and pound out the story rhyme they learned … because it’s in their music long-term memory.
Change Environment. We know that when people sit in the same place day after day, or week after week, their ability to learn diminishes. That happens because they get too comfortable in their environment and assume they know what’s going to happen. So, move! Create a garden in the corner where the kids can gather on the floor around the storyteller. Take the kids outside. When it was time to tell the story of Zacchaeus, I asked a man to dress in costume and climb the sycamore tree in the front yard of the parsonage. As I paraded the kids under the tree, he yelled down at them. With head back and mouths wide open, the kids listened as Zacchaeus shared his encounter with Jesus that happened the day he climbed that tree. It was definitely a memory made!
There are so many different techniques for telling stories. I have almost 30 that I call upon when sharing God’s story. After you read the scripture and the Bible storybook, evaluate the different methods available and choose the one that will best make the encounter with the Bible most memorable for the kids. You’ll be a better storyteller and also enjoy it more. Change up the packaging, but make sure you keep the message the same!