Three Ways to Tell a Bible Story to Kids

What do the kids in your class remember after you’ve taught a Bible lesson? Who do they identify with in the story? Think about the story of David and Goliath. There are at least three ways to tell it.

1. An Example Lesson. You may have heard this story taught so the main point is to be brave and face big obstacles with courage. When we tell the story this way,  kids will remember all of the little details about David. He was too little for Saul’s armor. He took five smooth stones and a sling. David even cut off Goliath’s head! The kids will also remember to be brave like David! They will identify with him, because David is the example to follow.

That’s one way to tell the story. But if we just teach example lessons, the kids may only remember the key Bible characters. What will they remember about God?

2. A God-centered Lesson. As I've written before, God is the Bible’s main character. We shouldn’t overlook or forget about David. But focusing on David shouldn’t keep us from seeing that God is the true hero. David reminds us that God rescues his chosen servant from wild animals and enemies (1 Samuel 17:37). When Goliath came against him with a sword and spear and javelin, David didn’t start naming his weapons: “Well, here I come with my sling!” No way! David said, “I come against you in the name of the Lord” (1 Samuel 17:45). David’s weapons may be weak, but God is strong. The battle belongs to Him. If we’re listening to David, we’ll hear that this story has little to do with David’s example at all. It’s a story about God. That’s who we want our kids to remember.

It’s true. One of the first things we should ask ourselves when crafting a lesson is, “What is God doing in this story?” The Bible was written to show us God. He’s the main character. But when we’re crafting lessons, does that go far enough? 

Illustration and layout by Trish Mahoney from   The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible     by Jared Kennedy, (New Growth Press, 2017).

Illustration and layout by Trish Mahoney from The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible by Jared Kennedy, (New Growth Press, 2017).

3. A Gospel-centered Lesson. I recently heard Marty Machowski talk about one of the best ways to craft a gospel-centered lesson. He said, “We want to help our kids identify with the people in the story who need the Good News.” In this story, that’s the Israelites. They have a strong enemy and a weak king. When Goliath marches out into the valley of Elah, he challenges king Saul, all of Israel, and Israel’s God. Israel needed a courageous hero to save them from their oppressors.

Enter David. Even though the people there didn’t know it yet, we know that David stepped onto that battlefield as Israel’s newly anointed king. He was the people’s representative. God won the battle, but he won the battle through David. In this way, David gives us a sneak peak into a specific way God saves his people. God saves his people by sending them a representative king. David points beyond himself to Jesus! After we’ve discovered what God is doing for his people in a story, we should look for how that action points to what Jesus has done. We should ask, as Jack Klumpenhower has phrased it, “How does God do the same for us--only better--in Jesus?” In this way, we can move from a lesson that is merely God-centered to one that is Gospel-centered.

Which of these kinds of lessons do you find yourself teaching on a regular basis?

The illustrations in this post are from my book, The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible. Check out the New Growth Press website to purchase a copy or learn more.

Show Them Jesus: An interview with Jack Klumpenhower

Jack Klumpenhower’s book, Show Them Jesus, challenges the culture of low-stakes, low-expectations teaching. It makes a radical pledge to do nothing less than champion and treasure the gospel. Jack is not a pastor, but he has more than thirty years of experience creating Bible lessons and teaching children about Jesus. Back in 2014, I published a series of questions and answers from Jack. Here they are all together in one post:

Jared: Why not just say, “Teach them the gospel”? How is “Show them Jesus” different?

Jack: My wife came up with the title Show Them Jesus, and I immediately liked it because it feels broader than “teach the gospel.” For many people, teaching the gospel has come to mean telling what Jesus has done for us so that kids will be motivated to serve him out of gratitude rather than guilt. That’s a good principle and the book is partly about that, but by itself that’s too small.

Looking at what Jesus has done for us should also cause us to look at him—the whole, marvelous person he is. This adds the motivations that flow from wonder and awe: love, admiration, hope, and even a healthy dose of reverent fear. Kids not only learn that they should be grateful, they also sense the majesty of God. They see holiness. They discover divine love. They come to shudder at the ugliness of sin and to gasp at the lengths Jesus goes to rid them of it. They learn to cling to him. They treasure absolutely everything that’s part of being found in him. They yearn to be for Jesus, like Jesus, and with Jesus forever. That’s the Show Them Jesus vision. It’s a big vision, but big fits Jesus.

Jared: Won't kids get bored if we're teaching them about Jesus every week. Is this approach setting us up for failure?

Jack: They might get bored if we’re teaching the same thing about Jesus every week in the same, tired way. When I get lazy and just tack a bland mention of the cross onto the end of a lesson to make it “Christ-centered,” I deserve students who yawn. But Jesus actually is the most fascinating, best topic in the universe. God the Father is delighted with Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). To notice and love Jesus is a way to imitate the Father. So if kids are bored, it’s not because we’re looking at Jesus too much, but rather because we aren’t looking enough. Skimming over Jesus leaves us with only moralism or self-help or spiritual warm fuzzies. That stuff is what gets old.

To help myself get a big view of Jesus, I try to keep in mind the many blessings that make our salvation in him so big. God’s people are chosen, called, renewed, made alive, bought with a price, forgiven, adopted, made holy, given an inheritance, brought home… and much more. Remembering these things helps me look at a lesson, notice the particular way God is blessing his people, and then apply it to life with Jesus in a new way that has its own richness with each lesson.

Another thing that helps, especially when teaching from the gospels, is to slow down and notice details in the text. We in the Western world are so used to light, fast reading that we often pass over fine points that ought to amaze us. As a teacher, I need to look at the text and think about it long enough that I come into the classroom truly excited over something I’ve already noticed about Jesus. Only then am I ready to teach, because kids will catch what I’m excited about.

Jared: How did you come to make your own teaching more Christ- and gospel-centered?

Jack: I learned it from others. Like many teachers, I grew up knowing only one approach: I looked at how we should or shouldn’t be like the various characters in a Bible story. It’s fine to do some of that, but eventually I met a few teachers who were particularly good at noticing the main character. They first of all taught what Jesus did and how God helped his people. Since I heard preaching that did the same, it was easy for me to see how that was better.

I’d also been in a church that was on the leading edge of what we now call the “grace movement” already in the 1980s. So I understood discipleship that’s grounded in believing all that we are in Christ—justified, holy, adopted children of God. That fit nicely with the focus on Jesus. So in short, I had good teachers. I think most big strides in learning how to teach come from observing other teachers and picking up ideas.

Jared: The Bible is not a G-rated book. Can you give us some pointers for how to approach the sex and violence in the Bible when teaching kids?

Jack: I seldom shy away from sex and violence. Even younger kids understand fighting and killing and that it’s bad to hurt others, so I include it if it’s part of a Bible story—because it’s important to be true to the story.

Kids also understand adultery if you explain it something like, “They behaved with each other like they were married even though they weren’t married.” That’s all the detail necessary for kids to understand that it’s a betrayal and is wrong. The only topic I usually avoid is sexual violence. Most young kids don’t have a place for that in their thinking, and I feel it’s fine to let them stay innocent until they’re older. Not every Bible passage is well-suited for the youngest kids.

The overwhelming majority of Bible stories are good for them, though, even if those stories include violence and evil. It’s important for kids to know, from a young age, that God is at work even when life is brutal and sad. In fact, this is why Jesus came to save us. If every kid’s first exposure to murder, for instance, were in a Bible story where they also heard how Jesus entered into the evil and suffering of this world in order bring healing, that would go a long way toward producing kids who’re well prepared spiritually for whatever they may face in life.

Jared: Kids learn more from what we do than what we say. What can children's ministry leaders do to have a good-news environment in their classrooms?

Jack: My very best classes have been those where everyone felt it was safe to confess sin and seek help from Jesus.

That’s basic Christian living, but it’s still hard to foster that kind of environment. American kids are taught to be achievers, and they come to Bible classes thinking they need to look like the best Christians—memorize the most verses, give the smartest answers, and above all hide their sin. Even bratty kids have the idea that Sunday school is for good kids, and being good or bad is how you fit in or stand out.

Kids desperately need a classroom where that kind of pressure melts away as everyone rests in the only truly good person we know, Jesus. I’ve never gotten it to work as well as I’d like, but I’ve found a few things that seem to help.

First, I as the teacher have to be open about my sin. Within appropriate bounds, I need to talk now and then about shameful things I’ve done, show my sorrow, and share my confidence in Jesus both to forgive me and to help me do better. When it’s clear that I’m a sinner in need of grace, the kids start feeling it’s okay to admit the same about themselves.

Second, I must be quick to pray in class about anything and everything. Prayer is the chief way we practice faith in God. When concerns lead to prayers for help, and sins lead to prayers for grace, and successes lead to prayers of thanks—then it’s hard for anyone to get too self-focused about their goodness or lack of it. Constant prayer keeps us looking to Jesus. Where it thrives, self-pride dies.

Finally, I need to celebrate repentance rather than false perfection. Instead of acting shocked when kids misbehave (“We don’t do that in Sunday school!”), I need to treat the classroom more like a doctor’s office. Everyone is there because we have sin problems, but we expect to make progress and to leave more hopeful than when we walked in.

I’m so thankful for Jack Klumpenhower sharing his time and thoughts with the Gospel Centered Family blog back in 2014 during our first month online. If you’ve enjoyed this interview, share your thanks with Jack in the comment section below.


Be sure to check out more from Jack at his blog, jackklumpenhower.com