Engaging Kids Through Storytelling
by Jack Henry
It’s bedtime and I’m climbing under my covers as I do each night with great anticipation that the adventure will continue! My dad tucks the covers around me tightly, sits on the side of the bed, and continues the thrilling story he started a few nights before. Wow! I loved story time and I was blessed to have parents who took the time to tell them to me. The stories I heard as a small child were not biblical at all, because my parents were not yet believers. But, nonetheless, they were stories indeed! Most of the stories I was told were the adventures of my dad’s upbringing—fascinating truths of all the trials his parents endured. I loved hearing him talk about playing baseball and basketball, and talking about how he overcame obstacles in his own life. To me, he was a super hero, and to this day I remember the stories that were told (by his dad as well). I believe it helped shape who I am today and build character in my life.
Who doesn’t like a great story? The key word here is “great.” Everyone loves hearing about incidents in the lives of others, reading a classic novel, or watching a cinematic adventure! We have all heard stories that we thought would never end or we wished were never started. But when we hear someone telling a great story, it just does something to us! I’m 55 years old and I still love a good story. Being in kidmin now for 35 years, I’ve told a lot of stories … stories that make kids sit on the edge of their seats … stories that make them cry … stories that make them laugh. Even though many things have changed in 35 years, the one thing I never want to change is being a great storyteller!
Think about the Bible. The Bible is one incredible story! Somehow we forget that the Bible is essentially a book of God-inspired stories! That’s how God has chosen to communicate his Word to human beings. Just read Genesis chapter one. Wow! Moses took the creation work of God and tells an incredible story in those verses, a story I want to read over and over again. Even though these words are truth—actual events—the story form is amazing! We know that God used human instruments to pen the words of the Bible, but think about it. The Holy Spirit is the Author. And yet, He allowed some 40 different personalities to write out these incredible events in history! Even though we know the ending to the Scriptures, we still have no clue what all is in store for those who love God! Now that’s exciting! So, the story will continue for all eternity and we are a part of it.
Okay. So who is the greatest storyteller of all time? Dr. Seuss? Walt Disney? C.S. Lewis? Mark Twain? Edgar Allen Poe? Shakespeare? As great as these people are with storytelling, the greatest of all would have to be Jesus. Yes, Jesus! He told the most incredible stories that will ever befall human ears. He told stories and used metaphors long before it was even considered to be artsy or trendy. We know His stories as parables and they were life-changing to anyone who grabbed hold of their truth.
A parable is an earthly illustration with a heavenly truth. In fact, the Bible shows that storytelling was Jesus’ favorite technique when speaking to the crowd: “All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.” Matthew 13:34 (ESV). When Jesus told a parable, people were literally captured with the words and objects He used. (Objects are important as we will see.) No doubt, they sat and listened with great anticipation, afraid to move because they might miss something. Have you ever been to a movie or an event that was just amazing? It was so good that you refused to get up and go to the bathroom because you knew you would miss something awesome? I have!
So what made Jesus a great storyteller? You might say, “Well, He is Jesus and everything He does is amazing.” I agree completely. I mean, no way Jesus could tell a bad story! But what I am about to give you are some things that Jesus did right when telling a parable. The good news is that we can also take these traits, practice them, and become a great storyteller as well.
Before I get into this, please allow me to mention the great Apostle Paul. Now this man could tell a story! His shipwrecks. His imprisonments. His being stoned to death and visiting heaven (2 Corinthians 12)! The list goes on and on and He told his life stories everywhere he went. They were powerful and they brought many people to a saving knowledge of Christ. Is this not why we tell stories? We, too, should have an end result in mind and that should be to make people aware of their need for the Savior. Now, let’s talk about Jesus.
I have always thought it to be interesting that when Jesus was asked a question, He hardly ever just gave a simple answer. Instead, He gave a parable. He launched into a story! Now I’m sure this drove His enemies nuts, but He told stories that challenged the status quo and flipped people’s preconceived notions on their heads. (I would have loved to have seen some of their faces!)
There are many ways to tell stories, and we can certainly be creative. But, I believe we can greatly improve the stories we tell by following Jesus' examples. When we dissect the way Jesus told parables, we can see several profound principles about how to tell our own stories.
1. Jesus had structure in His stories. The source of Jesus' illustrations was often His imagination. Jesus rarely used personal examples, and while he regularly used material from Scripture, he only occasionally used historical examples. That's the opposite of what many storytellers do today.
2. The opening (first 10 seconds) of Jesus' stories established the setting. Too many times when we tell stories, we don't answer any of the six journalistic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? I encourage you to go read the parables of Jesus. As you read, you will clearly be able to establish the who, what, when, where, why, and how! Amazing! Look at the parable of the sower in Luke 8:5-6. In the first 10 seconds we see all these questions answered. Who? The sower. What? Went out to sow. When? Common sense would tell you it was at the sowing time! Where? His field. Why? Jesus will use this to illustrate spiritual receptivity. How? Jesus develops the details to fit His teaching purposes.
3. The opening of Jesus' stories directed the listener's interest. This could be called “the first impression of storytelling!” By establishing the basic plot in the first few seconds, Jesus then told a longer story. However, none of Jesus' recorded stories took more than three minutes to tell, while the shortest took just 20 seconds. If you want students to remember what you've taught, you need to be thinking "quick." Remember the attention span of kids.
4. Finally, the last sentences of Jesus' parables prompted a response from His listeners. What you want is a response! If you do this right, a response will be inevitable—a response that will lead to life change. That’s what you’re after, right?
I like the way Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’ answer of why He told stories. Mathew 13:11-13 (The Message) says, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everyone has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understanding flow freely. [Sound familiar?] But if there’s no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight.”
Storytelling is an exceptionally strong learning mode for children, so it’s crucial that you learn to tell stories … not only tell them, but involve children in them. When you teach children through the means of stories, it’s always good to listen to how others tell stories. I’ve learned a ton by listening to others. Eventually, you come up with our own style, of course, but it never hurts to follow the examples of others. As a rock solid teacher, you can use the following methods to nudge the children, and adults, toward this receptive insight.
KNOW THE MATERIAL. There is nothing worse (from a kid’s point of view especially) than someone standing there and just reading a story. When I teach a kids’ lesson or even preach a kids’ sermon as I do most weeks, I’d never dream of just standing there and reading from a paper. What this shows is a lack of care and preparation. You have to make time to get this right! The first impression of storytelling is knowing the material. When you know the material, it’s actually much easier to tell the story. You’re not confined to a podium or a piece of paper (or a tablet). You’re free to walk around and really put some emotion into what you’re saying. Hey, you make time for the things you really want to do, right? Be prepared when you share these amazing stories! It will make all the difference.
DON’T MEMORIZE; JUST TELL THE STORY IN YOUR OWN WORDS. Each week, as our Bible story leader stands on stage and does her thing, I’m thrilled beyond words by what she does! I give her the stories weeks in advance. She knows the material well. But when she tells the story, it’s not like speaking scripted lines. She follows the main points but tells it her way and in her words. It’s incredible! I always sit right in the middle of all the kids and listen.
PRACTICE. AGAIN I SAY, PRACTICE. If you want to do well at anything you have to practice. I love to play golf. I love being outdoors and smelling the grass. I love the sound of the club hitting the ball and the sound of the ball landing in the bottom of the cup. Nothing like it! I’ve played for years. But once I went for a period of about 6 months without playing. When I showed up again, I couldn’t hit the ball straight. What I should have done is paid a visit to the driving range a few times beforehand to practice. It would’ve made all the difference in my game. Practice that story! Go over it again and again so that when the time comes to share it, it just flows.
INVOLVE CHILDREN IN THE STORY. Let them act out the parts. I’m telling you, this is fun! Also, use sound effects. This is not as hard to do as you might think. I’ve been using kids to act out the stories and using sound effects for over 20 years. With technology today, it’s easier than ever to add sound effects in your presentation. I tell the story of when the men climbed up on the roof and tore a hole in it to let down the crippled man right in front of Jesus. I have the actors (kids) wear tool belts and hard hats. We also have a stretcher with a kid all wrapped up in bandages on it. I use all kinds of tool sounds, even a jackhammer, as they are pretending to tear the roof off. When they can’t seem to get the hole big enough, I have one act like he is pulling the pin from a grenade. Then you hear a BOOM sound effect! Hilarious! Hey, use your imagination when telling stories. Become a kid for a little while and ask yourself, “What would make this story amazing?” By the way, you can go to http://bringthemin.com/teaching-resources/read-act-stories and see where my great friend and fellow kids’ pastor, Larry Hipps, has a storybook that does the hard work for you. All you have to do is add kids.
Pastor Rick Warren gives us this valuable advice in one of his blogs. He says, “Here are a few benefits (out of many) of storytelling.”
Stories hold our attention. The reason television became so popular is because it’s essentially a storytelling device, whether you’re watching comedy, drama, the news, or a talk show. Even the commercials are stories.
Stories stir our emotions. They impact us in ways that precepts and propositions never do. If you want to change lives, you must craft the message for impact, not for information.
Stories help us remember. Long after the outline is forgotten, people will remember the stories of the sermon, so tell those stories!
Interestingly, the concept of storytelling has been making a comeback in Christian circles. We see it in the rise of Christian fiction, the storytelling aspects highlighted in today’s preaching, and even the use of video clips within churches and ministries. Stories, well told and appropriately used, bring the truth of Scripture to life. They bring change to all who will listen and act upon truth. It’s fascinating to watch how quickly a crowd tunes in whenever a speaker begins telling a story and how quickly that attention vanishes as soon as the story is finished! Stories are important! Crucial!
Jesus was a storyteller. He told stories to different audiences, but His root message spoke to what was the same in all of them. He spoke to the common needs in Simon Peter, Mary Magdalene, the tax collector, the woman at the well, lepers, and soldiers. Because He touched their hearts with a message of hope and love, His words changed the world. You continue Jesus’ story through the testimony of your life, as you bring freedom, healing, and hope to others. Let us thank God for telling us His story and inviting us to share it with others.
Pastor Jack (also known as PJ) has been a kids’ pastor now for 35 years. Currently he serves at Marcus Pointe Baptist in Pensacola, FL. He’s been hitched to his bride for 36 years and has 2 amazing young’uns—Danielle (22, getting married soon) and David (20, in college).