Forming Faith Blog

Lessons or Stories? (March 1, 2020)

Lent is finally here and with it comes additional work and pressure for many faith formation leaders. Bless you in this time of Lenten series, additional church services, and other work leading up to Holy Week and Easter.

A hand picking up gold coins from a stack. Items like this can be used in object lessons.

In the lectionary, as we do every year, we move from the mountain to the valley, light to darkness, the transfiguration to the journey to the cross. In our work, we have ended the unit theme of the Power of the Kingdom and are now focusing on God’s call to serve.

The Rich, Young Ruler

The text selected for this first Sunday of Lent is often known as the “rich, young ruler,” and it is fairly well known among the community for which stories in the Gospels are well known. Interestingly, “rich, young ruler” is a combination of the story found in the three Synoptic Gospels. Mark just tells us that he is a man (with mention of his many possessions and teaching afterward making the “rich” clear). In Matthew he is young, and in Luke, he is a rich ruler. Random observation, but it brings up the question: how closely do you follow the given passage? Do you freely borrow from other tellings, or do you stay with the passage and its context?

The Meaning?

The main question we encounter when we are planning to teach, preach, or lead a Bible passage is: what does it mean? And this is how it should be. The biblical writers wrote these things down to teach us about God and the priorities of God. However, when I was reflecting on this passage and the questions it raises, I found that I couldn’t think of anything original to say that I hadn’t heard before. Multiple times. So, I’m taking a different approach, related more to the posts I wrote on the healing of the two women (Which Mode?) and the triple story of Jesus’ rejection, the sending of the twelve, and the death of John (Choose Your Own Adventure). Namely, examining our approach to faith formation.

Children’s Sermons

Depending upon which circles you run in, children’s sermons can be a bit controversial. Okay, “controversial” might be a bit of an overstatement. I hope to reflect on some of my thoughts on children’s sermons in general at some later date, but for now, I just want to think about the approach. In my experience there are three main categories here:

  • Object lessons
  • Storytelling
  • Other
Other

To get it out of the way, “Other” basically means that the children’s sermon is about something other than the Bible passage. Often, this relates to a liturgical season or festival. These are important things to teach, and often the children’s sermon is the only time available to directly address the kids (which relates to some of my views on it).

Object Lessons

Wikipedia tells me that “An object lesson is a teaching method that consists of using a physical object or visual aid as a discussion piece for a lesson.” This is a common method used in children’s sermons and other types of faith formation. The point here is to teach students a lesson, a specific truth, insight, or doctrine. You can even broaden this category to include a teaching method that extracts an image, metaphor, or another piece from the Bible passage to teach a lesson, not just a physical object.

Storytelling

A third approach is storytelling. Here, often, the goal is to make the Bible passage (story) accessible and understandable. There are a lot of ways to do this, including re-setting the story in a different/modern setting, inviting responses from the hearers, or engaging multiple learning styles (e.g. asking people to act out the story, using props, etc.). The goal here is for hearers to better know and understand the story.

Lessons vs. Stories

The problem that I see with the object-lesson approach is that it takes a Bible passage and extracts from it a single meaning, the lesson. Here, students are not necessarily becoming more familiar with the Bible. The person doing the teaching takes a biblical story and flattens it into a point of doctrine (which literally means “teaching”). This creates a separation between the student and the Scripture and takes away from them the opportunity to learn the skill of interpretation.

On the other hand, storytelling (done correctly) stays faithful to the narrative of the appointed passage. Clearly, the storyteller is doing the work of interpretation (it is impossible to teach, or even read, the Bible without an interpretive lens), but hearers stay closer to the biblical text, and, at the very least, are shown how to interpret meaning from the story.

Narrative Approach

If you’ve read this blog in the past you are probably not surprised about my love and passion for stories. That is why I love the Narrative Lectionary, which seeks to show the underlying narrative of the Bible from creation to the early church. So, it is my opinion that a children’s sermon should be replaced with a storytelling time (with the whole congregation as the audience and the entire service accessible to children, but that’s another topic).

Lessons

Now, (object) lessons aren’t necessarily bad. They can be important and useful in teaching concepts and, well, lessons. My beef is when these take the place of students/hearers/participants encountering Scripture itself in an accessible way.

Non-Narrative

A brief note: not every part of Scripture is a story/narrative, not even in the Narrative Lectionary. However, everything is a part of a story. A story, in the most basic terms, involves someone doing something somewhere. For example, in the prophets, God and/or the people are doing stuff in a specific context (setting). Digging into this and telling it as a story will help make these passages accessible to everyone.

Free Resource

This week, I’m providing an activity from our Living the Word: Kids (PK-2nd) curriculum called “Doorway to the Kingdom.” Here, students can experience a part of the story, namely the hyperbole of the camel going through a needle. Given my argument above, I think this should be used to supplement telling the entire story, not replace it. In the context of the curriculum, that’s what this is, an additional activity.

May you experience the peace of God this Lenten season.

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)


If you would like to know more about our perspectives on faith formation and cross+gen ministry, you can check out the following links:

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence