Telling Bible Stories Creatively
A young boy listened as his teacher told the story of the Good Samaritan. When a character passed by the hurt man, she made the hurt man call, “Help!” But with each person who passed, the “Help!” got softer and weaker until the man’s cries could hardly be heard. After church, the boy’s mother asked him what he had learned in class. The boy said, “I learned that you gotta’ call for help louder than that!”
Who Tells the Stories?
There’s a story told about a wealthy traveler who went on an African adventure tour. One day, his tour took him to a remote tribal village where there was no electricity. The wealthy traveler felt sorry for the people who lived in the village, so he paid to have electricity brought to the village, and he shipped a television set to every hut.
A few years later, the wealthy traveler had an opportunity to visit this same village again. To his surprise, he found all the television sets piled into one large hut.
He asked the head man, “Why do you not use your televisions?”
The head man answered, “Because we have a storyteller.”
“But TV knows thousands of stories,” said the traveler.
“That’s true,” said the head man. “But the storyteller knows us.”
George Gerbner, a researcher of the role of media in our culture, says, “Whoever tells the stories controls how children grow up. . . Television now tells most of the stories.” That may be true, but there is still a tremendous attraction to the storyteller in person, as the legend of the African tribe illustrates. Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, writes, “If a plastic box in your living room can turn on your child to chocolate breakfast cereal, then you should be able to do ten times as much – because you are a sensitive, loving, and caring human being.”
Stories are powerful. Storytelling is powerful. Yet the Bible story is often the most overlooked and ho-hum part of the Sunday school hour. One well-worn technique of storytelling in Sunday school is for the teacher to read the story aloud from the teacher’s guide, which is on her lap in front of her. Meanwhile, she moves figures on a flannel board according to the instructions she’s reading. It’s no wonder children get restless and bored. If you use this technique, realize that this is a starting point. Grow and move on from there.
Dr. Howard Hendricks, author of The 7 Laws of the Teacher, writes, “We teach Bible stories as if the people were cardboard characters who had none of the feelings, thoughts and problems we do.” Robert Coles, author of The Spiritual Life of Children, was asked why he says Biblical stories aren’t always interesting to young people today. His answer was, “Because they’re not presented as stories by and about human beings. They’re abstracted and presented in an unreal world in which religion equals some kind of Sunday-at-11 duty and obligation. . . . If the story is told with conviction and aimed at their hearts, they’ll listen.”
Our Heritage of Story
Storytelling is breathing life into characters. What God did literally, the storyteller does figuratively. “And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). We make people come alive in the child’s mind, in his imagination.
Why? Peninnah Schram, a Jewish storyteller, puts it this way: “When a generation can feel its ancestors’ feelings, share their ideas and sorrows, the lessons of their lives will live on.” Many cultures, including the Jewish culture, have preserved a body of stories, handed down from generation to generation. These stories serve to give people a cultural sense of heritage. These are their roots.
Storytelling is a shared experience. The storyteller is a tour guide, taking listeners on a tour of the story. In our case, the story is God’s story, our heritage, our roots, the truth of how God deals with his people. It’s the perfect blend of knowing Bible facts and learning how God works in our daily lives. That’s all the more reason to make the story exciting for the listeners.
Amat Victoria Curam
The Latin expression “Amat Victoria Curam” means “Victory Loves Preparation.” If you are going to have success in the classroom, you must prepare. When Jack Maguire, a professional storyteller, teaches people to tell stories, he takes them through five steps. I’ve taken these steps a bit further and have made them into what I call a Five-Day Sandwich.
To build the Five-Day Sandwich, you add one ingredient each day for five days. Since there are seven days in a week, you have five days to “build the sandwich,” and one day to teach the story. That leaves one day of “grace,” so that you have room to forget, or to be too busy, or too tired, or whatever else comes up.
All you need is five or ten minutes a day to build this sandwich, although you can spend longer if you’d like. Try to work this into your regular schedule, doing it at the same time each day. Any time is fine. My best time is the ten minutes at night just before going to bed.
Begin learning next week’s story on the day after you have taught. For example, if you teach on Sunday, look at next week’s lesson plan on Monday. Try to start learning the story for next week. This gives you an entire week to think about what you might do during your next lesson. For example, as you read the next lesson, let’s say you think of a wonderful activity you could do. It requires balloons. You now have time to get balloons at the store. If you had kept the lesson book closed until Saturday night, you wouldn’t have had time. Or you may be in the grocery store, passing the bin of oranges. “Hey!” you think. “I could use a couple of these for next week’s lesson.” If you don’t know what the lesson is for next week, opportunities like this can’t happen.
Now let’s build that sandwich!
The meat is the story itself. So on the first day, read the story for your next lesson from the Bible. Read it simply to ENJOY it and relate it to your life. Does it have a meaning for you? Does God want to tell you something from this passage?
This is the cheese on our sandwich, which you will add as you read the passage again the second day. In this reading, take a good look at each main CHARACTER. Close your eyes. What do you think this character looked like? If you were with him on this occasion, what would his voice sound like? If you shook hands with him, what would his handshake feel like? How would he walk? Does he have a smell about him? Practice this now with the story of David and Goliath. David’s handshake would certainly be different from Goliath’s.
Of course, you won’t go into the classroom and tell the children, “David was 5’10”. He had wavy brown hair and dark brown eyes.” You won’t fictionalize. You will tell only the facts as the Bible tells them. The point is for you to start thinking of the characters as real flesh and blood people. Because they were. If you can start feeling that they were real, you will tell your stories with more excitement. You will be animated about it. You will tell the story as if the characters were real living, breathing people in a real hot and cold, up and down, quiet and noisy world.
You might try doing some of these exercises with your students in class sometimes. Ask them to imagine what David might have been like. Ask them what they think Goliath looked like. This will help them think of these characters as the real people they were.
Here is the onion to put on the sandwich. You will read the same passage the third day, this time reading for any PHRASE that you might need to memorize. Your aim is not to memorize the story word for word, but to retell it in your own words. However, if the story contains the memory verse for the lesson, you should memorize it. You will want to say it word for word in the story at the right time.
In some stories you’ll find special phrases that give the story a spark. You should also memorize these. For example, in the story of David and Goliath, I would memorize what David said to Goliath. “You come against me with a spear and a sword, but I come against you in the name of the Lord.” This is a powerful part of the story.
Another example is a very simple phrase that appears in the story of Gideon. His small army surrounds the enemy. It’s night. Everyone is watching Gideon and waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting. At last Gideon blows his trumpet, breaks his pitcher, and holds up his torch. The soldiers also blow their trumpets, break their pitchers, and hold their torches high. Then they shout, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” I yell this phrase right there in the classroom. It makes everyone want to jump up and shout, “Yes! Hurray for Gideon!” It’s exciting. As it should be.
This is the tomato for your sandwich. As you read the same passage on the fourth day, pay attention to the environment, the setting of the story. Occasionally the biblical account tells what the weather was like. The previous example of Abraham showed him sitting outside on a hot day. His tent was near the trees of Mamre. So we know there were trees, there was a tent, and it was a hot day.
But often we are not told much about the environment. So again, close your eyes. What do you think it was like? Is the landscape rocky, sandy, forested, a meadow? Is there a lake or pond or ocean? Imagine yourself there. What do you see? What do you hear? Birds? Wind? Thunder? A brook? An army? A crowd of people coming down the road? What do you smell? Do you smell the dinner that Martha is cooking – or fish the disciples caught? What is the weather and the temperature?
Again, you will not tell children something that is not fact. But you can make it real to yourself so that the telling will be believable.
Now put the lettuce on the sandwich. On the fifth day, read through the story passage again. You will probably enjoy it more than you did the first time you read it, because you have made it seem real. And it was real once upon a time. It happened to real people in a real place, just as real as where you are right now.
The key to successful storytelling is believability. Make it believable. Be excited to share this story. Remember: if you’re not excited, the children won’t be excited.
But something is missing from this sandwich. What is it? We have meat, cheese, onion, tomato and lettuce. We need bread. Surround all the steps with PRAYER. Pray before you begin. Pray after you’ve finished. And why not go ahead and pile this sandwich high? Pray in between, too. Let the Lord guide your preparation and touch your own heart with what He wants you to glean from this passage.
A Story a Day
If you teach in a school setting or day care in which you tell one story a day, you can still prepare using some of the 5-Day Sandwich principles. At some point as you prepare for the next day’s story, read the passage and think for five to ten minutes about the character and setting. Try to think of it as a real happening so that when you tell the story, you’ll express the energy of the event.
Four Storytelling Tools You Carry Everywhere
As far as the delivery of the story goes, you have four useful tools that you carry with you no matter where you are:
Use your hands and body language to reinforce your words. For example, you not only say, “She had a little baby,” you also hold your arms as if cradling a baby, rocking back and forth.
2) Tone of Voice
You can yell, as I do in the story of Gideon. (Practice at home when no one’s around.) Or you can whisper loudly. I do this when I’m telling something that happens at night. Or maybe you want to create a suspenseful mood. Lower your voice. The children will get as quiet as they can be in order to hear you.
You can also speak slowly. I do this when I tell about Abraham sitting outside his tent on a very hot day. If it’s a very hot day, nobody is moving very fast. Or you can speak very quickly. Do this when someone is running or riding in a chariot. Maybe there’s a storm, and you want to build tension by speaking urgently.
You can make the pitch of your voice go up if someone is climbing up a tree or going up a mountain. You can start high and make your voice go lower if someone is coming down a mountain. Try some different skills with your voice and incorporate them into your storytelling.
Children will have a natural response to your story. You can adjust your storytelling according to their response. If they look like they don’t understand, explain. If they look like they’re losing interest, get more animated and move on to the next part of the story. If they look overwhelmed or frightened, lighten up on the dramatics.
Know the ages of the children to whom you will be telling the story. Take into consideration the words they can understand. Remember: Preschool children don’t understand symbolism and will take you literally.
Storytelling purists say the only way to be true to real storytelling tradition is to tell the story without any props, using only your voice and body movements. You can do that, of course, but it’s usually not necessary. There are many kinds of materials that can help you tell stories. So as you plan the story, think of the materials available to you.
You can use the traditional flannel figures. These are always good for children to use to retell the story themselves later in the class time. But be careful not to use flannel figures all the time. Vary the materials you use from week to week, so children always wonder what exciting and fun things you have planned for them today. If they seem bored with one method, don’t use it. Opt for something else.
Puppets are fun. They can be store-bought, or homemade. One easy way to make hand puppets is to staple two paper plates together and draw a face on one side. Insert your hand between the two plates. Your wrist becomes the neck of the puppet.
You can also use story pictures. The smaller the group, the more intricate and detailed the picture can be. For larger groups, simpler, bold pictures are better so everyone can see. But be careful. It’s easy to get in the habit of relying on flannel figures and story pictures. A steady diet of these becomes dull. There are so many other exciting ways to get students into the story actively that you may never even need flannel figures and story pictures. The important thing is to choose methods you can get excited about.
You can use blocks or boxes. Let children build the houses or the tower or the city that you will use when telling the story. Try using children’s toy figures to represent Bible characters. Tell the story in a box of sand, or if the setting is on a lake, tell it with figures in a tub of water.
Children usually enjoy acting out the story. Let them dress up in old sheets, towels and pillowcases with arm holes cut in them. For younger children, it helps if the teacher narrates and moves the children around where she wants them to stand. Blue sheets can be large rivers or seas. Pitch a tent in the room when you tell stories of Abraham or the Israelites in the desert. Bring stuffed animals to help tell the story of Noah or the story of Creation.
Baby powder is a fun addition to your storytelling kit. Sprinkle some baby powder on children’s arms to represent leprosy. When the “lepers” are made well, let children rub their arms to rub off the powder.
Stories for Older Children
Let older students draw a mural “backdrop” to set the stage for the story. Let them look up geographical and historical details. Find out what’s happening in that part of the world today. For these story-related activities, teachers may need to be resource people, finding and providing these details at one or more “information stations.”
One interesting possibility for story exploration for older students is to set up a “Jigsaw” classroom. This term was coined by educator Eliot Aronson for use in his public school classrooms. But the concept can be used to study the Bible, too. Children are divided into groups, three or four students to a group. Each group is like a separate jigsaw puzzle, with each member of the group being one of the puzzle pieces. Each member becomes a reporter and is given a different assignment. For example, the first member of each group tries to find out what happened to Paul in Lystra and Derbe. Another member of the group finds out where these cities would be located on a globe today. The third child finds out what kind of transportation they had in those days. A fourth could find out about the climate.
You provide the resources for the students to use in research. These resources could be simple information pages that you have posted at different parts of the room. You give the children time to accomplish their assignments. Then they meet back in their original group (the “jigsaw” puzzle comes together). The students then teach each other within their groups, reporting on what they discovered.
Older students can also:
- publish a newspaper with Bible stories written as if they were current events
- write a commercial for the story
- act out the story and make a visual recording
- narrate the story for an audio recording, using different voices and sound effects
- write letters about the story to one of the story’s characters
- write a journal as if they were traveling with the story character
- write or tell a sequel to the story
- practice telling the story, then go to a younger classroom and tell the story there
The difficulty in telling Bible stories is that many of the children have heard them again and again. Finding new and interesting ways to tell these wonderful stories is a challenge. Or consider telling Bible stories that the students have not yet heard. Jesus said, “Every teacher . . . who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52). New stories as well as fresh approaches to classic stories keep students interested.
Remember, we don’t tell the story for the story’s sake alone. We tell the story to see in it a truth that is relevant to the child’s life. As one pastor said, “The Bible is not for information, but transformation.” Get to the issues that affect the children you are teaching. Then let the students discuss these real life issues.
–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 14
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.