Tell Me a Story

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The Bible is the greatest love story ever written and the most
thrilling adventure ever told. Yet all too often in children’s
ministry, when it’s time for retelling events from Scripture, kids
groan with boredom. Somehow we’ve managed to drain the wonder out
of the most wondrous, true story of all.

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But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Here are simple keys to improve your storytelling skills as you
strive to reach children with the greatest story of all.

KEY #1: Look for What Goes Wrong

Think about Jesus visiting Mary and Martha’s home. Mary sat
reverently at Jesus’ feet while Martha got stressed out trying to
get the lamb chops ready in time for dinner. I know I’m supposed to
be more like Mary. I know that; but when it comes right down to it,
I see more of myself in Martha.

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To be honest, Mary kind of annoys me. She’s too good. Too
perfect. And it’s not just me; most people I talk to can relate to
Martha as well.

Here’s why: In almost any story, we tend to identify with the
person who has the struggle, not the one who does everything
right.

So when approaching your story, rather than asking, “What
happens?” or “What lesson is this trying to teach?” ask “Who
struggles? What does he or she discover? How does he or she
change?”

When you determine who has the struggle, it’ll lead you deeper
into the heart of the event’s meaning, make it easier to remember,
and help you avoid the need to explain everything when you’re
through telling it.

KEY #2: Let Your Stories S.O.A.R!

One of the best ways to engage children in a story is to find
ways to involve them in its telling.

  • Sounds — When looking for ways to encourage
    participation, first look for sounds. Can kids supply sound
    effects? Maybe animals had a role in the event, and kids can make
    the animal sounds. Or maybe they can recreate the noise of the
    storm Jesus calmed, or the snoring disciples in the Garden of
    Gethsemane.
  • Objects — Look for objects that had a role in
    the event, or brainstorm ways to use simple props to help you tell
    the story. For example, you might use a silly costume, a puppet, or
    a surprise bag when you tell stories. As you retell the event, pull
    objects out of the surprise bag for the kids to see, smell, touch,
    or taste. They’ll pay close attention because they’ll wonder what
    you’re going to pull out next. This is a great way to motivate your
    children to pay attention.
  • Actions — Identify key actions that took
    place or ways to act out what happened. Use creative dramatics to
    help introduce the event, to dramatize it as you tell it, or to
    review it after you’ve finished telling it.
  • Whenever you invite kids to join you in movement or creative
    dramatics, create an atmosphere where participation is safe,
    encouraged, and fun. Invite kids to participate, but don’t force
    them. Clearly explain when you want kids to join you, what you want
    them to do, and when they should stop. You might say, “Whenever I
    put on my hat, you’ll start acting like those lions in the cave
    with Daniel. But when I take it off, you’ll stop. Let’s
    practice.”
  • Repetition — Capitalize on repetition that
    naturally occurs within an event. It might be the repetition of a
    specific phrase, such as, “And God looked at what he’d made and it
    was good!” or the repetition of a series of events. For example, in
    the parable of the good Samaritan, three people approach the hurt
    man in the ditch. You could invite all the children to join you as
    you say, along with the hurt man, “Anybody, anybody, please help
    me. I was beaten and robbed and I have an owie!”

KEY #3: Never Tell the Same Story Twice

One day I realized that although Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
all tell the story of Jesus’ life, they all tell it differently,
and they all tell it right.

How?

Well, because these books were written by different authors led
by God’s Spirit writing to different audiences telling different
aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry.

So it is today. We are, each of us, different and unique
storytellers telling God’s story to different audiences, and there
isn’t one “right way” to tell his story. When I finally realized
that, it really took the pressure off. I could simply relax and
tell the story without worrying about getting every word right.

The best storytellers combine careful and thoughtful preparation
with a warm sense of spontaneity. So don’t try to tell the story
right, just strive to tell it well. Don’t worry so much about how
the story is supposed to go; pay attention to how it’s going and
respond to your audience by adapting it to connect with them.

KEY #4: Engage the Story by Practicing It

As you practice your story, say it aloud, but don’t try to
memorize the words. Instead, try to enter the story, look around,
and talk about what you see. As you prepare, first tell the story
with lots of actions and gestures. Then tell it without any. Then
try using a few props. As you practice, rehearse your movement,
inflection, and gestures. Let your body help you tell the story,
and let the stories develop with each retelling.

Also, remember to keep your listeners in mind as you prepare.
Try to shape the story in a way that they’ll understand, relate to,
and then enter into for themselves.

By the way, the places where storytellers typically stumble are
at the beginning, the end, and at the transitions to and from
audience participation sections. So as you practice, pay special
attention to those parts of the story.

KEY #5: Let the Story Speak for Itself

I see the same advice in nearly every book on public speaking
that I read: “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna say. Say it. Then tell ‘em
what you said.”

That might be a good way to teach someone how to bake a
casserole, but it sure stinks when it comes to telling a good
story. Maybe that’s why Jesus never did it.

Instead, he spoke in metaphor, story, and imagery that appealed
to curiosity and imagination. Jesus didn’t preach three-point
sermons; he preached one-point sermons — and most of the time he
didn’t even tell people what that point was.

This leads us to one of the great paradoxes of education: The
more you explain a story the less impact it has. Think about it.
Haven’t you heard a pastor use a great illustration and then spend
the next 30 minutes draining all the impact out of it? We end up
diminishing rather than enhancing the impact of a story when we
start explaining what we think it’s supposed to mean.

Now, that doesn’t mean you want to leave your listeners
completely confused. Just remember that the power to impact lives
comes from the story itself, not the explanation.

KEY #6: Stay Focused on the Story

Rather than asking lots of questions during the story, which
distracts children, stay focused on the story’s action and emotion.
As you talk, watch your kids. Look at their faces to see if they
understand and enjoy the story. You can usually tell if you’re
making a story too long or too frightening by the size of their
eyes. Adapt to their reactions. Keep your stories short, simple,
and action-packed. Remember, the younger the kids, the shorter the
story.

If kids are unfamiliar with a story, consider telling it first,
before inviting them to act it out. That way they’ll understand
what’s going on. After telling the whole story, say, “Okay,
everyone! Now, let’s have some fun with this story! Let’s act it
out!”

Most of all, be you. Relax and enjoy. Use your unique set of
gifts to tell the story the way God shaped you to communicate. Tell
it from your heart, smile, and have fun. Value this time of
connection with your kids because if you’re not enjoying it, your
kids probably aren’t either. Then rely on God and let him work
through you as you help kids fall in love with the greatest story
and the greatest Storyteller of all.


Steven James (stevenjames.net) has written many books on
storytelling, including The Creative Storytelling Guide for
Children’s Ministry, and Crazy and Creative Bible Stories for
Preteens (Standard). He has a master’s degree in Storytelling.
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