Many of us who grew up going to church spent our mornings in Sunday school with Sunday school teachers who prepared lessons to teach us about the Bible.
The idea of Sunday school started in the 1780’s. School on Sunday came out of the Industrial Revolution and began as literacy schooling for impoverished kids who worked in factories throughout the week.
Over time it morphed into what we experienced growing up in the church. While the practice of Sunday school has certainly changed through the years, we continue to use old vernacular like “teachers,” “classrooms,” and “lesson plans.” We look for volunteers who embody the stereotypical “Sunday school teacher” etched in our brains.
But at some point we need to ask, is the Sunday school model initiated two centuries ago the most relevant to 21st century kids?
When I think about my own Sunday school experience, I remember only a handful of teachers. Those memorable volunteers had one thing in common: they didn’t act like teachers. There were more like mentors or guides. Today, some might even call them small group leaders or storytellers.
It’s not that we weren’t learning anything or that we didn’t see our Sunday school teachers as authority figures. We were, and we did. But rather than positioning themselves as the experts with all the answers, they approached our time together as fellow travelers on this faith journey. They shared stories from their own experiences. They also began conversations with us that cast a vision for what it meant to follow Jesus.
Recently, I’ve had opportunities to coach churches that were trying to move from a traditional Sunday School model to a large group/small group model of children’s ministry. I noticed that more often than not, vocabulary matters. When we use traditional Sunday School vocabulary, we’re doing a disservice to the environments we create for kids and families to grow in their relationship with Jesus. This can start with a simple shift in moving from “large group teacher” to “large group storyteller.” When we start shifting the vocabulary we use, you have the potential to revolutionize the dynamics of what can occur in your children’s ministry. You’ll find you can start recruiting a different kind of children’s ministry volunteer.
Think about it: What if instead of finding typical Sunday school teachers, we found people who were gifted to connect with kids through conversations and storytelling? If we did that, we might find ourselves with a larger pool of potential volunteers to serve our kids.
Building a team of Bible storytellers starts with knowing the difference between storytelling and teaching. When you understand this, it will change how you view children’s ministry programming. You’ll find you might want different curriculum that reinforces this new mindset. You’ll need different sorts of volunteers. You may even completely change how you plan your ministry year. All for the better!
Please don’t hear me saying that teachers are bad. Teachers are amazing. I love teachers. I’m a trained educator and have many friends who’ve dedicated their lives to teaching. It’s one of the hardest and most important professions on the planet. But in your children’s ministries, having a teacher mindset on Sunday ultimately does not build the sort of relationship between a child and storyteller where the Bible comes to life and captures their heart.
Take a look at the differences between Sunday School teachers and storytellers when it comes to children’s ministry.
Everyday Occurrence vs. Special Event
Having a teacher is an everyday occurrence for most kids. Kids spend roughly 1,500 hours of their year in a classroom with a teacher.
Kids may watch stories in movies or TV shows or read stories in books every day, but for most kids, the chance to experience a captivating live storytelling is a special occasion for theme parks or theater. Having a storytelling mindset can make Sunday mornings feel like a special event that leaves the kids wanting to come back the following week..
Learning vs. Transformation
Unfortunately for many teachers, the content they need to cover drives their classroom priorities. More often than not, teachers end up focused on transferring only the information kids need in order to pass standardized tests and complete their grade.
Rather than just learning, storytellers shoot for transformation. Yes, storytellers also hope their audience will learn something and gain new knowledge. But more than that, storytellers are also concerned with how the story connects with the whole person—emotionally, morally, and spiritually. The storyteller shoots for a level of engagement that will serve as a catalyst for transform in a person’s life.
At vs. With
Throughout the day, most of a teacher’s time is spent talking at a room full of kids, where the average ratio is one teacher to 26+ kids. Sure, there are one-on-one conversations that happen throughout the day. But the majority of the time the teacher is communicating with the kids happens through lectures spoken at the students.
According to the National Storytelling Network, the definition of storytelling is “a two-way interaction between a storyteller and one or more listeners.” By that definition, the storyteller is building a relationship through communicating with their audience. Storytellers invite their audience into the story and create a space for kids to imagine themselves in another world. That world the one found in the pages of the Bible. Storytellers act as a guide—creating a dynamic two-way interaction—where the kids have a direct impact on how the storyteller portrays the Bible story. Wonder and discovery are unleashed when, storytellers can create an atmosphere where kids take ownership of how they experience the story. This allows kids an atmosphere to grasp God’s truth, start to apply it, believe it, and live it out.
Teachers are amazing, and many of them are excellent storytellers. But creating your environments with the traditional educational model kids experience throughout the week will not result in long-term engagement with your ministry. Instead, create a culture of storytellers trained and gifted to engage kids in a two-way conversation about faith week after week.
If you’re ready to build a storytelling mindset in your children’s ministry, sign up below to be part of the first group of leaders to go through our free introductory video course for Tell Better Bible Stories.
Tell Better Bible Stories makes it easy for you to build your storytelling team, develop their skills, and create a successful environment for kids to grow in their relationship with God!
Get an early start on building a dynamic storytelling team with these two great tip sheets: