This post is part 3 in a five part series on four imbalanced children’s ministry frameworks. In children’s ministry, balance is crucial. An imbalanced children’s ministry will lead to collapse. What is the purpose of children’s ministry? Much of what we will look at this week flows from thoughts on that very question. One imbalanced framework often employed in children’s ministry is what I will call “The Story-Time Framework.” This framework views children’s ministry like a family reading night at a local library. Volunteers read children various stories from the Bible. This is one of the most common frameworks used in children’s ministry, and one of the most detrimental for a child’s understanding of the Big Story of Scripture.
The Story-Time Framework
I can see it now. The teacher gathers the kids around the storyboard and begins by saying, “A long time ago, people were doing really bad things on the earth. God decided to send a big flood to destroy the earth. But he chose one righteous man to save. This man’s name was Noah and God told him to build a really, really big boat…” And then out come the story characters. A big boat. An awkwardly smiling man with a beard. And of course, all those creepy smiling giraffes, elephants, tigers, and bears waving from inside the ark as if they are going on the cruise of a lifetime.
There is an appropriate time and place for storytelling in children’s ministry. I would even say that storytelling should be a common element in children’s ministry, particularly in ministry to preschoolers. The Bible is in fact one big story. Gospel-centered storytelling is a healthy way to teach the Bible. In fact, I use The Jesus Storybook Bible with the preschoolers on Sunday nights in the children’s ministry I lead. Capturing the imaginations of children through stories is a way I truly look forward to using with my son as I teach him the Christian faith. However, storytelling in children’s ministry that is devoid of the gospel is dangerous and can damage a child’s understanding of and confidence in the Bible for years.
The Story-time Framework is particularly dangerous for the biblical literacy of children. Typically, this framework flows from the idea that children have shorter attention spans and love stories. Because of these facts, the Story-time Framework limits biblical teaching to the reading of stories. Storybook Bibles are usually employed. And while some storybook Bibles are absolutely fantastic at weaving together the main stories of Scripture within the Big Story of God’s redemption, many of them present disconnected stories designed to entertain children.
In the Story-time Framework, most of the time the actual account from Scripture is chopped down to the point that you may not even be able to find it in an actual Bible. Contextualization is necessary in children’s ministry, but when the message of Scripture is lost in the process, we are missing the point of discipleship. Stories are told in ways that overemphasize certain details while the overall message of the story or how the story fits in the metanarrative of Scripture is overlooked.
When children’s ministry is viewed as story time, leaders will take a few stories from the Bible and read them to the kids. There are three big problems with this method when it is employed on its own.
1. Children view the Bible as a book of disconnected stories with moralistic lessons
The problem here is kids begin to view the Bible as just a book of disconnected stories, like Aesop’s Fables. Under the Story-time Framework, children’s ministry leaders teach moral lessons from Bible stories to help kids make better choices or better follow the rules at home and in school.
2. Children view the Bible as a source for “hero worship”
Under this pitfall we find the danger of “hero worship.” When we only teach our children stories in a random and disconnected manner, we typically over-glorify a biblical character. Abraham, Noah, Moses, David, Solomon, Ruth, Esther, and others are put forward as heroes we should emulate. We see how they responded in certain situations and then place them on a pedestal for kids to look to when they live their lives. This misses the gospel. There is only one true Hero of the Bible, and all of the characters in all of the stories are in need of his work on the cross.
3. Children view the Bible as an unrealistic fairy tale
The more we emphasize the story-time framework, the more kids will associate Bible stories with other fairy tales they hear. Most of them are being taught at home that Santa Claus is real, so the lines between reality and fantasy in their education and upbringing are blurred enough as things are. When we show unrealistic images and present chopped up stories, over time kids begin to view the world of the Bible like the world of Narnia–maybe just too good to be true.
When we forget that every story whispers his name we fall into the Story-time Framework for children’s ministry. Under this framework, we tell stories for entertainment as we unintentionally distort the reality of the biblical accounts. We tell stories for emulation as we set biblical heroes up on pedestals. And we tell stories for moral education as we aim at the actions while shooting past the heart.
May our storytelling be more balanced. May our storytelling be more about Christ. May our storytelling always point to the reality of the greatest story ever told. Children love stories. So, let’s take care how we tell them.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.