Last Sunday, a chicken named Pearl attended our online worship service. Also in attendance: Anu’s stuffed bear, the Webers’ dog Ella, a photo of Linda’s cow, and a bunny (who hopped away before being properly introduced).
We unmuted everyone’s mic and invited them to describe the ways in which they care for their beloved pets. Their stories helped worshipers of all ages connect to the children’s message that followed: the story about how a young shepherd boy named David cared for his sheep, and the ways in which the Lord who is our Shepherd provides for all of our needs. It was wonderful.
I love the ways in which having to worship online has led to out-of-the-box thinking about how to tell God’s story with children. It’s been a joy-filled adventure at my church as our little team of storytellers takes turns engaging worshippers in God’s story each week, and we’ve learned a great deal along the way.
As you think about what worship will look like at your church this fall, you may be looking for creative ideas for children’s messages during worship, particularly if you won’t be able to offer your usual children’s ministry programs. Below you’ll find some of the best practices I’ve discovered over the past few months; each one can be adapted for use in virtual or in-person worship gathering during the pandemic and beyond.
Be prepared. Read the story you’ll be telling out loud several times to yourself so that you can tell it well with children.
Be warm. Smile and let kids know how much you look forward to seeing them and spending time in God’s story together. Be a familiar, friendly face during an anxiety-inducing time.
Invite participation. Include ways for the children to use their minds and bodies to engage with the story. Some ideas:
If you’re gathering virtually, invite kids to bring something connected to the story you’ll be telling and which they can use during or following the story. Examples of the simple items we’ve asked our kids to come to online worship with: paper boats (Jesus Calms the Waves), a “walking stick” found outdoors (Road to Emmaus), a cup of water (Woman at the Well), and empty jars with a pitcher of water (Widow’s Oil).
Begin by taking a deep, calming breath together; invite thumbs up/thumbs down responses to questions; use echo prayers and prayers that include actions (you’ll find ideas on the God’s Big Story cards).
Encourage families to have art supplies and building blocks nearby, and encourage kids to use whatever they have on hand to retell the story after you’ve told it to them. If your virtual church gathering is live, kids might enjoy holding up what they’ve created. If you’re telling the story during in-person worship, provide each family with a sealed bag containing drawing materials and pipe cleaners (to shape the story).
Invite Wonder. Pause periodically as you tell the story and ask “I wonder…” questions about what’s happening. Wondering questions have no right or wrong answers and they help listeners reflect more deeply on what they’re learning. We use the Dwell curriculum at my church, and I’ve been thrilled to discover how well the Dwell stories and the wondering questions each one includes work as children’s messages. If you’re meeting online and have the time to do so, you might invite kids to unmute and share their answers. If you’re gathered in person in front of a congregation, please don’t ask the children to share their answers unless you’ve prepared the congregation in advance to be respectful and not react as children share answers.
Use story symbols as a visual reminder of where you’ve been in God’s story and where you’re going next. If you use the Dwell curriculum, you already know about the fabulous colored symbols that are available for every story. (Download symbols for free under Leader Support at dwellcurriculum.org or purchase sturdy sets here.) Show the appropriate story symbol prior to telling the story, and wonder out loud what clues it might hold about the story they’re about to hear.
For additional support as you determine best practices for telling God’s Story in your context this fall, be sure to check out this excellent free Template for Leading a Simplified Dwell Session. Although it’s designed to be used with the stories in the Dwell curriculum, you could use the outline with any Bible story. Parents may find it helpful as well as a pattern for at-home devotions. Something I’m also excited about: beginning in August, Dwell Digital subscribers* will also be able to access 36 stories designed to be told in person or online with multi-age groups of kids. Stay in the know as new resources are made available by signing up for the Dwelling e-newsletter here.
Blessings to you as you navigate best practices to telling God’s story with children in your context this fall. Let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear what you’re learning too.