I love children’s stories. Who doesn’t enjoy a story, well told, full of meaning, in the middle of the church service? I have heard some wonderful stories in church services, some more moving and memorable than the sermons they preceded. But I have heard some poor ones too. I have heard stories that were wonderful metaphors for the sermon idea, but they passed right over the children’s heads. I have heard tales of children that ended in disaster. However, these did not inspire any positive action from the listeners. There have also been long reminiscences, but sometimes these stories did not seem to come to a point.
Perhaps the most painful experience of listening to a children’s story was when I, at age 18, sat on the platform and waited to deliver my first sermon in the church where I was working as a volunteer. The older gentleman made an apologetic comment to me as he titled his story, “The Greasy Preacher.” He then ate up more than 15 minutes of the church service. His storytelling was good, but no one’s patience lasted as long as the story. My relief at having it finished even banished my sweaty palms.
No one wants to be the perpetrator of a bad story, and this may be why the children’s story slot in some churches seems so hard to fill. But for the pastor, merely avoiding the task does not provide a sufficient solution. In that audience of children sit some of your most impressionable, most important charges, and the Christ who told Peter, “Take care of my sheep,” also said, “Feed my lambs” (John 21:16, 15, NIV). The children’s story is not the only opportunity to minister to the young in your congregation, but the story time becomes one of the simplest ways to build your relationship and express your caring for them.
So then, how does one tell a good children’s story?
Know your audience
The first and most obvious point: it must be a children’s story, not an adult story told to children and not the opening illustration to the sermon. Nothing is wrong with coordinating the topic for both story and sermon, but the story belongs to the children and must be chosen with them in mind. And that requires knowing how children think.
Feeling vs. thinking. The complex process of thinking—sorting, categorizing, and manipulating information—includes a skill that develops over our lifetime. We start with the simple in infancy, moving on to basic cause-and-effect in the preschool years, and then abstract thinking some time later.1 Although your listeners are inexperienced in thinking about what they hear, the skill of feeling what they hear is fully functional. Young children feel emotion easily and express it just as easily. How they feel about church is their spiritual experience. Because of that, the emotional content of your storytelling is vital. By your voice, expression, and the gestures you make, you can communicate that the storytelling is an enjoyable experience and you are really focused on them. Their enjoyment of the story becomes part of the message, giving substance to the idea that Jesus loves and protects them or that obedience makes them happy. Illustrate your principles with positive examples by showing happy results whenever possible. When you must use a story of mistakes and negative consequences, be sure the feelings of fear or sorrow are outmatched by the reassurance of the happy ending.
Concrete vs. abstract. Much of the language of church comes in wordpictures—light, salt, giving our hearts, following Jesus, for example. Adults perceive these images as intangible things, and this makes them visible in their minds, but this does not happen the same way for children. Before the transition to abstract thinking in later childhood, a child’s mind does not translate these word-pictures into the specific actions or qualities they symbolize. If you want your audience to understand you, you must tell them exactly what you mean. If you want them to show kindness to their friends, you must tell them how. If you want them to show reverence for their Bibles, you must explain what this looks like in real life. Images of shining lights or treasure chests will not do the trick. Generalizations, likewise, will be opaque to your younger listeners. “Be faithful” can be just as problematic as “be a shining light.” Be specific. Be concrete.
This does not, of course, mean that you cannot use any word-pictures or generalizations in your storytelling, but you must be your own interpreter. You must explain what the image means. For instance, give examples of the actions that you mean by the word faithful. In this way, you help them practice a new cognitive skill, and you make your message clear.
Spiritual beginners. Your adult listeners may be concerned about the meaning of Daniel’s prophecies or the nature of God’s foreknowledge, but your children are not. As they are laying the foundations for their intellectual lives, they are also laying foundations for spiritual ones. What they need are the largest, most solid stones of truth to build their faith upon. Concepts like the love of God, the value of prayer, obedience to parents, and service to others are all vital supports for what they will learn the rest of their lives. Do not be afraid to teach such simple ideas, and do not rush your young audience. This stage of spiritual growth should be considered essential for forming their characters. Their faith is just as real and alive as their elders’, and just as valuable to God.
Finally, you must know something about a child’s attention span. Educators estimate that a child’s attention span, in minutes, consists of their own age plus one.2 Thus, an average four-year-old can listen for about five minutes before even a well-told story will lose them. Resist any temptation to stretch the story-telling time beyond about five minutes.
Know your story
Have a point. Pastors have a head start when it comes to the children’s story because much of what makes a good story also makes a good sermon. Foremost among those factors includes having one central concept that governs the story. This makes it a story and not a group of random events. With all stories, but especially with those for children, the central idea, the point, must be manifestly clear. Knowing your audience means you will state the central concept more than once, in concrete, specific terms. You will also need to weave it into the parts of the story as you show clearly how each aspect of the story relates to the main idea.
Stick to the point. This principle should be evident from the preaching of the sermon, but your audience and time limits make this doubly important. If you reminisce or provide background information for half of the time, your point may be lost. Young children do not filter what they hear; they will not sift through all that you say to determine what was important to the lesson and what was not. You must be the filter for them, cutting out material that does not strengthen the point. Furthermore, because five minutes comprises such a short time in which to introduce an idea, illustrate this concept through a story and apply it to the listeners’ lives. Keep to the core of your material. Stick to the point.
Apply the point. Again, this is like a sermon. If you tell a story but do not apply it to the lives of your audience, you are only an entertainer. For the children’s story, this job becomes even more important. The children rely on you to take the abstract thing—the point—and translate the concept into concrete, specific examples. If you have told them that Jesus hears their prayers for help, now tell them of times and situations when they should pray for help. If you have a story about loving their pets, tell them how they can show that love. If you cannot think of any good examples from the children’s daily experience, then you should pass over that story.
Give yourself a head start
Plan ahead. I do not like to recall the number of times I have come to church, opened the bulletin to see my name listed beside “Children’s Story,” and felt the cold hand of panic on the back of my neck. Start planning early when you have time to ponder and even practice. Better yet, plan a few stories to have on reserve in case of emergencies.
Train your eyes. There are as many sources for stories as there are sermon illustrations—daily life, the news, childhood memories, friends, books. You only need to open your eyes to look for simple lessons that can be applied in a child’s daily life. The best stories, of course, are those closest to your audience’s experience. Look first for stories of children; second best are stories of adults that teach ideas equally appropriate for children. Many Bible stories fall into this category. Also, look for stories with “motion”—events they can picture in their minds.
Once you have a story and know its main idea, look over the story again. Then ask: What details support the main idea? These will be the highlights of your story; and as you tell it, they will keep the audience focused on your point. Trim out the unnecessary or unhelpful. Consider how the idea impacts your young audience’s world and choose a few specific, concrete examples for application.
Practice. Your wording does not have to be perfect, and it certainly should not sound recited, but a few times through will show you the weak spots and the strong parts in the story. Plan your wording ahead of time so you can spend your storytelling time focused on the audience.3
Stories are powerful. They stick in our memories and hearts in a way that other kinds of instruction cannot. They live in our minds, growing our picture of the world and the God who made it. For you, the pastor, stories can be a bridge between you and the flock of young people in your care. They can be a means of showing them their value to the church. And moreover, they are an opportunity to feed the lambs, grow God’s kingdom, and bring everyone closer to the happy ending. Do not miss an opportunity like that.