Why storytelling matters for children's ministry
“Tell me about a time when you were a little girl,” I asked my mother time and time again growing up. There was something amazing and soothing, something funny and wonderful about hearing my mother (or father) tell me stories about their own lives; I listened enraptured to hear about the things they thought, or felt, or wanted when they were a child. Very few things made me feel closer to my parents than listening to tales of my mom being the principal’s daughter, or what it meant for my dad to be the youngest of three brothers.
As a child, I wanted to believe that my parents were willing and able to take care of me, but more than that I needed to know that they had been through the same kinds of problems and joys and fears and excitements that I experienced daily as a child. And the truth is, they could have told me plainly that they knew what I was going through. They could have explained exactly the kinds of emotions they had dealt with. But instead, they told me stories. Praise God they told me stories.
Children need stories to give context to the things they learn. It’s the reason “why?” is such a popular question with younger children. They want to construct a framework for what happens when they make different choices. They want to know the background of the story, and their place in it.
The gospel is a story. It’s not a new or novel revelation to remind ourselves that gospel means “good news,” but I do find it helpful to remember that we invariably deliver news in the form of stories.
In my opinion, that’s what makes The Gospel Project for Kids such a powerful curriculum. I grew up in the church, but never realized until adulthood that each and every story in Scripture is linked by the over-arching narrative of God’s plan to save us through Jesus. David and Goliath, without the proper context of God’s whole story, became a story about me standing up to bullies and being brave. It should be about an unexpected rescuer who defeats a seemingly unbeatable enemy and frees an undeserving people. I am King Saul, certain that I can help David do his job better by trying to protect him. I am David’s brother, angry that David would presume to insert himself into my battles. I am the Israelite forces, shaking with fear, unable to defend myself from such a great enemy. I am not David. Nor am I meant to be.
Story provides more than information, it provides understanding. And in the church, information without understanding is a recipe for legalism. Legalism, in turn, will either drive away frustrated kids or cause a desperate clinging to the structures and traditions of the church rather than the Head of it.
Imagine the full power and luminosity of the sun being squeezed into a flashlight; that analogy fails to capture what God did in putting on flesh. We cannot, nor can the children in our ministries, fathom the magnitude of condescension needed for God to become man. I needed stories about my parents growing up to help me relate to them. How much more do we need stories about Jesus to help us relate to Him!
So, as we tell God’s story from the beginning, remember this: “Tell me a story!” is just as much a request for knowledge as it is a demand for entertainment. Perhaps more so.
Sam O’Neil is a Content Editor for The Gospel Project for Kids, as well as a writer and aspiring author. Although he is originally from Garland, TX, he and his wife, Stephanie, now live in Nashville, TN with their puppy, Barnabas. Prior to his position at LifeWay Christian Resources he worked as a resident at The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, TX where he helped write children’s curriculum and develop family resources.