“Once Upon A Time …”

Think about a story or book that meant a lot to you as a child. What made it so special?

I ask this question at some of my workshops, to start a discussion about telling Bible stories in our groups. Often, the answers are very similar from one group to another – some of the most common are:

  • There were characters I identified with.
  • I loved the world it was set in and I wanted to live there.
  • It gave me hope, or inspiration, or got me through a tough time.
  • My grandmother read to me, and being in her lap and having her read me a story is a special reminder of our relationship.
  • The person who told/read me that story clearly loved it, and their passion for that story was contagious.

reading

All of these things about stories can help us think about how we pass on the stories of the Bible to children in our groups, and how we encourage parents and carers to read Bible stories at home. I have a Pinterest board of good Children’s Bibles or Bible stories – many of them are designed to be read aloud. The ones that work for under-5s can be given as gifts to Christening families if your church has the budget, and parents/carers can be encouraged to read a Bible story at bedtime. That special time with a beloved adult, hearing the stories of God’s people, will be treasured.

It’s also a reminder that the relationships we form, as children’s ministry leaders, are important. If we know, and care for, the children we tell stories to, our storytelling will have more impact, because it will come from a relationship of trust and love.

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) 1849-50 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
A very human, relatable Mary in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Annunciation. The model is his sister, the poet Christina Rossetti.

Another thing I take from this is how important it is that the Bible is full of diverse characters, and we need to include a broad range of them, for children to identify with. If we portray all Bible characters as perfect, obedient, brave, etc., we limit children’s ability to connect with the stories.

Moses was far from obedient to authority – he was a troublemaker for Pharaoh and other oppressors. Joseph went on a journey from arrogance to reconciliation. Ruth showed bravery and faithfulness in a new country not her own. Esther stood up and spoke truth to power, risking her life. Daniel stayed true to his own conscience, no matter what. Peter could never remember to think before speaking. John wasn’t afraid of having strong emotions. James was trying to follow Jesus while also feeling responsible for his little brother. Mary Magdalene wasn’t believed by her own friends when she told them what she’d seen. All of these are traits and experiences that children can relate to – let’s remember that we’re talking about real people in our stories, not idealised cardboard cut-outs!

The power of stories to get us through tough times, or give us hope, is also clearly relevant to our Biblical storytelling. The stories in the Bible are full of loss and pain, exile and despair – they tell the story of people who, in the words of the Beulah Land feltboard storytelling set, “lied and cheated and stole from each other, they fought and hurt and killed each other, and trampled the poor, and spoiled God’s earth, and worshipped gold and silver instead of God.” But the Bible also tells us that God never stops loving us, God never stops trying to save us, and that God has fought death for us, and won, and invites us to share in that new life in a Kingdom where death and suffering and cruelty are no more.

Often, we are afraid of some of these stories – and, in many cases, for good reason. The Bible is also full of what seems to be God-sanctioned genocide, and patriarchy, and the deaths of children as revenge for the sins of their parents. So we shy away from the tough stories, and give our children only the parable of the lost sheep, and the creation, and a sanitised version of the Christmas story without the politics of occupation and oppression. But that means we’re depriving our children of the very heart of the Gospel – that evil and oppression and cruelty are real, but that God’s love is stronger than them, and God will never abandon us. (What we leave out, and how, is a difficult question, and one that deserves more space than I can give it here.)

cloven-skies
Space for awe and wonder – a child’s artwork after learning the hymn “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” This is pretty spooky and intense, with a real sense of MYSTERY, and was the child’s own idea. The adult supplied a variety of craft and art supplies, but left the activity to be child-directed.

And let’s not forget to leave space for awe and wonder. I’ve heard this spoken in many ways in response to my question – and about books from The Famous Five to the Narnia Chronicles. That longing to be in that world, with those people, the way a book fires our imagination and gets us wondering. Creating that space for a child to explore the story for themselves, to make meaning out of it, and to play with it, is very important. This means we don’t need to draw a moral lesson from every story – the story itself can be the gift we give to children. Open questions like “I wonder …” questions can help your group explore what the story means without closing off the power of imagination. And providing response time that isn’t just reading comprehension or creating an identical craft can also encourage children to enter deeply into the world of story, and make it mean something to them.

For expansion on these ideas, I recommend Rebecca Nye’s “Children’s Spirituality: what it is and why it matters,” Gretchen Wolff Pritchard’s “Offering the Gospel to Children,” or Elizabeth F. Caldwell’s “I Wonder … engaging a child’s curiosity about the Bible.”

The Children’s Ministry Channel

Oh, I wish there was one. However, I’ve found a few programmes over the last few years which have actually been very useful, with information, inspiration, and ideas that are easily related to what we do with children and families in church.

Old People's Homes For 4 Year Olds Series 2

The first is “Babies: Their Wonderful World” – a three-part series in which famous studies in development are re-created and discussed, and a few new experiments are tried, with children up to 12 months. Unfortunately, the full episodes aren’t available at the moment, but a few good clips can be found here, and a fascinating bit about how some aspects of morality may be innate can be found here. (And yes, I asked on Twitter if they re-created the experiment with the blue square/yellow triangle roles reversed, and they confirmed they had, and babies chose the blue square when it was the “good” puppet.) If our sense of good and bad is innate, then that suggests our spirituality may be innate – what researchers like Rebecca Nye and John Westerhoff have suggested. In which case, what we’re doing in church is not filling up an empty vessel, who knows nothing about God, but helping a child understand and express a relationship, and a set of ideas about right and wrong, help and harm, which they possess from birth. This clip can be a good way of starting those conversations with your church groups.

Channel 4 thankfully keeps their programmes available on catch up for longer than the BBC, so you can still watch full episodes of their incredible “Old People’s Home for Four-Year-Olds.” This inter-generational experiment, in which a group of two-to-four-year-olds came into a residential care home, is a model of how mixing the generations helps us all. The parents get more adults who love their child, the elderly residents show benefits in physical and mental health from contact with children, and the children get love, care, and wisdom from older people. The implications for churches are obvious.

There is also a series called “The Secret Life Of Four-Year-Olds,” which now has expanded into series about 5- and 6-year-olds as well. It’s a lot of detail about a very narrow age group, but if this is your speciality area, it’s well worth a watch. You can find all 25 episodes here.

This isn’t a programme, but a useful clip:┬áThe Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney gave some children video cameras and they filmed what worship is like for them. An eye-opening “child’s-eye view” of an Anglican service. What do you notice?

And finally, sadly, there is “Exposed: The Church’s Darkest Secret.” It makes for harrowing watching, but it provides a vital glimpse into how church culture helped cover up the crimes of Bishop Peter Ball, and his abuse of young people in his care, and reminds us of how vital our Safeguarding responsibilities are. Watch it if you can, but if you know you can’t, that’s also fine. (Any current or historical Safeguarding issues relating to St Albans Diocese can be reported to our Diocesan Safeguarding team. You will be listened to and taken seriously.)

Are there any useful programmes I’ve forgotten?