Bible Storytelling: Creating an Atmosphere to Tell the Story
My wife’s brother recently bought a headset that allows him to slide his smartphone into it to experience virtual reality environments and games using apps on the phone. He was over at our house the other day so I slid on the headset to try it out. In a split second, I was fully immersed into a music video where I could turn my head in any direction, including up and down, to see the band and others singing and performing in 3D. It was amazing.
I heard Francis Chan share a story one time about his experience with virtual reality where he was told to stand on a board about the size of a 2×4 on the floor and put on the headset. When he did, the floor “fell away” leaving him standing on a board over a cavernous hole beneath him. Although he knew that he was just two inches off the floor, he found it frightening. The developer explained to him that many people cannot walk across the board because their fear overwhelms them. They know it isn’t real, but they still can’t move.
And that’s what a good story should do for our kids. No, not paralyze them with fear—immerse them fully into the story. As we are developing ourselves as Bible storytellers, we want to keep that goal in mind. We want our kids to engage fully with the Bible stories we are telling them so they get the most out of them. I can guarantee that the music video I experienced in virtual reality left a much bigger impression on me than had I just watched it on television. Why? Because I was immersed into it.
Just as virtual reality creates a compelling atmosphere for us to experience the video, game, or whatever else we are seeing more fully, we want to create an engaging atmosphere for the Bible stories we share as well. Here are four tips to help you do just that each week:
1. Develop Different Storytelling Styles
We produce the Bible story videos with a variety of styles. We do this for two main reasons. First, kids want some variety and second, some styles work better with certain stories. For example, it’s hard to use kids acting out a story with the creation account in Genesis 1-2. That is why we used claymation for that story.
Now live storytelling is quite a different medium than video storytelling, but there are still different styles you can employ depending on your resources, talents, and space. Puppets and flannelgraphs are two long-standing kids ministry favorites, but don’t limit yourself to just those two options. Here are a few more ideas to get your creative juices flowing:
Props and Sound Effects: As you tell the story, act it out using props, sound effects, and music. For example, think of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24). You could use the following props and sounds as you tell the story:
- Play money (or real money) for when the father gives the inheritance (v. 12)
- Backpack for the journey (v. 13)
- Happy music for the journey and spending the money (v. 13)
- “Wa wa wah” sound effect for when the son ran out of money (v. 14)
- Empty plate for famine (v. 14)
- Pig sound effects and bucket for feeding pigs (v. 15)
- Epiphany sound effect like a light bulb “ding” for when the son came to his senses (v. 17)
- Backpack for travel back home (v. 20)
- Robe, ring, and sandals from father (v. 22)
- Celebratory music for party (v. 24)
You can either use sound effects from a CD or from online or have the kids provide the sound effects when you prompt them.
Dramatic Conversation: For Bible stories that involve a conversation between two or more people, engage in a one-person “dialogue” where you shift your body, use different voices, and so forth to role play the characters in the conversation. As Aaron Reynolds puts it, we need to step into the story:
Rather than talking about the characters, become the characters. Not necessarily all of them (though that’s fun too). Pick moments to slip into the characters, giving your audience an immediate sense of being in the moment—a sense of witnessing this amazing happening right in front of them. — Aaron Reynolds, The Fabulous Reinvention of Sunday School (Zondervan, 2007), 87.
So think of the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. Mark out a spot on the stage, or in the room where you will portray each person in the story. The spots should not be too far away so the flow of the story isn’t interrupted. As you speak for each person, move to that spot and turn your body toward the person to whom you are speaking. So, when the serpent talks with Eve, turn toward the spot where you portray Eve. We will cover this more in depth in the last blog post of this series, but also consider changing your voice and vocal patterns to match the person you are portraying as well. So you might want to say the serpent’s words with emphasized S’s and also in a clever, yet sinister tone.
Art: A flannel graph would fall under this category, but wether you have one or not, or want to make one or not, there are other options as well. You, or an assistant, can draw parts of the story on a dry erase board, chalk board, or large sheets of paper on the wall as they occur. Or, people and scenes from the story can be drawn in advance and taped or hung with hook and fastener tape. Another option is to draw pictures to show as a “slide show” either by hanging them on the wall or projecting them from a computer during the story.
Think of the encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-30). You could draw the following as you tell the story or before it:
- A map showing Judea, Samaria, and Galilee
- A town of Sychar
- A well
- Jesus sitting
- The Samaritan woman standing
- Conversation bubbles (to place over the person speaking)
- A stream of living water
- A husband
- An X to put over the husband when the woman says she has no husband
- Five more husbands
- The mountain in Samaria
- The temple mountain in Jerusalem
- Two Xs to put over the mountains
- Water jar
Keep in mind that the drawings do not have to be elaborate. Sometimes simple works the best. For example, a silhouette town for Sychar will get the job done effectively. But at the same time, if there is someone in your church who is artistic, this would be a great opportunity to involve them in your kids ministry.
Play dough, models, etc: Use play dough, models, building blocks, and so forth to illustrate the story. This style would probably work best for smaller groups where the kids can come in close to see or for larger groups if you are able to use a camera zoomed in on what you are building which you can then show on a large screen for the kids to see.
The story of the four friends lowering the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12) is a good candidate for this style. Imagine building a house with interlocking building bricks and showing the friends carrying the paralytic on the roof, then removing part of the roof, and lowering him down to Jesus and a room full of people below. Simple? Perhaps. But memorable? Most likely. I can see my kids trying to recreate this at home afterward with their bricks.
2. Consider the Story
Developing several different Bible storytelling styles will not only help you engage your kids in different ways, it will also give you some flexibility for telling each Bible story. Think of each style as a tool in a toolbox. Just as there are certain tools for certain jobs, there will be certain styles that will align with certain stories better. Take the dramatic conversation for example. That wouldn’t work the best for a Bible story with little dialogue.
As you are preparing to tell a story, think through the different styles you have in your toolbox and consider which would work the best. You may want to also look at the stories coming up to do your best to add variety to your styles. For example, if you are working on a story that could work well as either props and sound effects or art but the next four stories would be better as art, you may want to do this one as props and sound effects.
3. Get the Most out of Your Space
No matter what style you use, be sure to maximize your space. We mentioned moving around on the stage or in the room where you tell the story, but don’t limit yourself to that. Try to use the entire room when you can. If you are telling the story of Paul’s missionary travels, you might want to create different cities in different areas of the room and move from one to the other along with the story. Don’t forget moving vertically when you can too! Are you telling the story of Zacchaeus? Prop a ladder up against the wall and climb up a few rungs when you talk about him climbing the tree to see Jesus. Are you telling the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness? Stand on a stool or on a platform when you get to the part of Jesus being taken to the top of the temple.
Don’t forget about lighting, too. When you tell the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night, you might want to turn the main lights off and hold a flashlight or small lantern to give the feeling of darkness. If you are sharing the story of Paul on the road to Damascus, you may want to have someone shine a bright light on you when you reach that point of the story.
4. Involve Your Kids When Possible
One last tip to consider is to involve your kids as much as you can. Consider having the kids act out a story, provide the sound effects, draw the pictures. or build the play dough models. Here’s what Maxine Bersch suggests:
Think of ways you can involve them in the process. For example, they love to make the wind blow, to make the animals growl or roar, or to say in concert anything repetitious in the story. — Maxine Bersch, Storytelling in a Nutshell: A Primer for Storytellers in Christian Education (Genevox Music, 1998), 33.
It is true that when you engage the kids, the chances of a “perfect” story dwindle. But in place of a “perfect” story, you have the opportunity to encounter a memorable one. Not only for the kids you involve, but the kids listening and watching the story unfold before them. And again, that’s the main goal, isn’t it?
So have fun and get creative when it comes to setting great storytelling atmospheres each week!
TRY IT OUT: Now, why don’t you give it a try! If you were going to tell the story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel 17:1-58, what style or styles do you think would work best? Brainstorm how you could create an engaging atmosphere for this story.
Brian Dembowczyk is the team leader for The Gospel Project for Kids. He served in local church ministry for over 16 years before coming to LifeWay. Brian earned a D.Min. from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Brian, his wife, Tara, and their three children—Joshua, Hannah, and Caleb—live in Murfreesboro, TN, where Brian enjoys drinking coffee and teaching 4-5 graders at City Church.