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.
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.
6 Keys to Improving Your Storytelling
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 Stor
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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