Everyone loves a good story. But the truth of the matter is that stories actually hold a special place in the brain. Research from Sung-Il Kim in 1999 (and later reflected upon by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham) showed that the brain treats information told in story form in a different manner. There are a few general characteristics of story that are pertinent for our conversation as children’s and family ministry leaders:
1) Stories are more interesting than facts. It’s easy to spend lots of time relaying facts to kids in a church setting, especially when it comes to memory verses or background information on characters. Stories are “privileged” in the sense that they are more interesting by way of their structure.
2) Stories are easier to comprehend. When I visit churches, I’m looking for different cues in the language of teachers. One of the questions I hear the most when talking about a specific Bible passage is, “Is Luke (or whatever book the passage comes from) in the Old or New Testament?” Think about this – kids don’t read stories in Testaments. In fact, the only book I’ve ever read with Testaments is the Bible. Testaments confuse kids. What are we trying to teach when we focus the kids first on which Testament the passage comes from? Are we hoping that one day they will want to read the story on their own and having trouble finding it say to themselves, “Oh wait! I know which Testament it’s in. Now I can find it!” As I’ve mentioned before, kids are using computers, iPod Touch, and other handheld devices as part of their daily life. All of these tools have Bibles available with search functions. If they know the story, they’ll be able to find it. Is knowing which Testament the story is in really helpful for spiritual formation? (All this talk of Testaments is making me crave some Testamints. (As St. Matthew of Hampshire once said, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use Testamints“).
3) Stories are easier to remember. Research shows that children retain 50% more from stories than they do from expository teaching. That’s a pretty big difference. Digital learners are connectors – when they hear stories, their brains are looking for connections throughout the narrative. For more on the characteristics of digital learners, check out Henry Zonio’s blog of my session at Conspire. Great connections aid children in remembering and learning the story. This is a critical point here. The story needs to be connected. I’m always confused by children’s and family ministry resources that introduce odd elements into teaching that have nothing to do with the story. I was looking through a 4th-5th grade curriculum the other day and at the end of every lesson there was a PowerPoint slideshow of a cartoon animal family that kind of related to the teaching for the day (and the cartoon animals changed every week and had no common setting). I’ve watched family ministry programs with a Frankenstein family singing songs like Frank Sinatra. When we do that, we confuse kids. They might think it is funny or amusing, but those elements counteract learning.
- Tell more stories. It’s time to put to rest the lecture style of teaching children. When God decided to reveal Himself to humanity, story and narrative were the primary tools.
- When you tell stories, look for ways to weave a theme through the narrative.
- Be very creative, but demand that creative elements fit into the structure of the story you are trying to tell. It’s time to retire the singing Frankensinatras. Seriously.
- Use conflict (a critical element in story structure). Ask good questions so kids and families can mine the conflict for greater understanding.