For a long time the Church has shared Bible stories with children that have included someone else’s moral or theological interpretation. In truth, the Bible has always been used to teach children right from wrong and the Golden Rule. In some part, this has lead to a generation of children (and adults) who are really moralistic therapeutic deists. Thankfully there are other opportunities to engage children IN the biblical story without adding our own interpretation or the “correct” answers as to why God did this or that. We the advent of Godly Play and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, we know the importance of open-ended questions, wondering, and allowing children to experience the stories of God with their heart before their head.
I believe our role as passers on of faith includes the sharing of Bible stories along with being models in action of what we profess according to our own faith tradition. In Postmodern Children’s Ministry: Ministry to Children in the 21st Century, Ivy Beckwith states, “… work with the idea of story, experience, and discovery in teaching children the Bible and then discover … methods and content that work best …” We want children to be able to make God’s Story their own story, one that they can envision in their minds and place themselves in the midst.
That is the goal of a new curriculum first launched in 2018 entitled StoryMakers. Their mission is “dedicated to creating imaginative content that engages children through the stories of the Bible. Through our offerings we hope to capture the hearts of our children, draw families back into church, and equip volunteers with the tools to form our children.” Each child that engages with the curriculum is called a StoryMaker, an explorer of God’s Story. The adults (parents or teachers) play the role of guides who delve into God’s narrative alongside the StoryMakers, encouraging their discovery of God as Creator and Redeemer. Themes are appropriate and approachable for children and don’t shy away from the hard parts of the biblical story, like the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and Jacob having a “moral dilemma” in the form of a dream. Art and imagination are used as a gateway to meet God in the stories. The colors and contrasts in the illustrations are emotive and familiar to today’s child using a variety of local artists.
How it works
Each “edition” or “adventure” contains six to twelve sessions based on a theme, story, or book of the Bible. The Zine is the key component to the program – a high quality magazine/book graphically designed with modern fonts and digital illustrations and collages with vibrant color. It often includes patterns to cut-out to use in the story-making. The Zine is for the child – a place to write, draw, read, and retell the Story. Extras include a Guide (with a simple overview, scripture reference, open-ended questions, and instructions for an activity to be used by the adult), Memory Cards, a Playbook, and Visuals. The Memory Cards are portions of scripture from the story on one side with an illustration from the story on the other ( 5 1/2 X 4 inches on card stock – see below for some examples). The Playbook is a unique contribution to the program. It is a script of the story for children to re-enact the story as a play, puppet show, or any other method with characters described before the story begins through acts/scenes. The Visuals are posters, replicating the content of the Zines for hanging up in a classroom. Each session (chapter) includes an activity which can be constructed using materials easily found at home or school: crayons, tape, scissors, glue, etc. The construction of shadow puppets is also used regularly to assist the children in being able to re-tell the Story either using the Playbook or using their own language.
Simple maps are often included in the Zine to locate the places in the stories and contemporary topics in “Field Notes” expand the imagination with the story. For example in The Flood, the Fall is explained as “when Adam and Eve reached up and disobeyed God” which is followed up by “Ripple Effect: when one action leads to another, then another, and another, …” and “Did you know that animals have dreams and on average can have up to 7 dreams per night?” In the Lent edition, one of the stories focuses on the Samaritan woman at the well. The Field Notes explore the background of Jacob’s well (then and today) in addition to the role of women in public in Jesus’ time.
The program’s creators wanted to spark the same experience grown-ups might have in church to pause and ponder the sermon or readings during the Liturgy of the Word before moving into the communion portion of the liturgy. There is a social-emotional portion of each lesson that offers that opportunity. The goal is to foster positive memories in the child as they explore God’s Story, allowing the child’s voice to be heard by others (children or adults) in mutual-conversation.
To keep StoryMakers interactive, especially when families remain home during this time of COVID-19, weekly Sparks are offered to engage children in the story. You can view them on the StoryMakers’ Vimeo Channel. StoryMakersNYC has also created options and suggestions for putting together “home boxes” to give to families to use at home until everyone can gather together in person again. On Wednesdays, free downloadables are also made available for the current story in their rota of publication.
These are the “adventures” available now or soon:
- Creation (Genesis 1-3): the days of creation, Adam and Eve, the temptation
- The Flood (Genesis 6-9): the family tree, the search, a dream, giants, blueprint, two by two, tick-tock, the storm, pinky promise, the raven, olive branch, rainbow (the story of Noah)
- The Stars (Genesis 11-33): Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rachel, Rebekah, Leah, Esau, Jacob
- The Dreamer (Genesis 37-47: The story of Joseph, his brothers, and going to Egypt
- Advent One (Year C – John and Genesis): “Light Enters Darkness” Discover how God works in a world that needs to be rescued. God brings hope and light where there is none.
- Lent One (Year A – Matthew and John): the desert, kingdom, samaritan, miracle, true life, the donkey
- Easter (Holy Week): Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter
- Advent Two ( Year A – Luke): “Faith Seen and Unseen” Despite what we may see, God is at work through ordinary people to bring about an extraordinary savior to the whole world.
- Lent Two (Year B – Mark and John) – forthcoming
Each chapter (or session) offers six parts:
- Visual: spark curiosity and the imagination
- Scripture: give a hint at what is to come in the story . . . just a clue
- Play: act out the story of the Bible
- Field Notes: learn fun facts, historical context, and scientific information
- Social-Emotional: explore feelings and how they relate to elements of the story
- Activity: creative something that ties the story together for everyone
A little background about StoryMakers NYC
StoryMakers NYC currently serves 100 parishes in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. Materials are being used in the dioceses of Connecticut, Daejong (South Korea), London (England), Long Island, Los Angeles, North Carolina, Oklahoma, San Diego, the Episcopal Church of South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington (DC). They serve churches in a variety of denominational and non-denominational contexts. While the StoryMaker staff come from Lutheran and Episcopal backgrounds, the program does not have a denominational affiliation. Prayer and liturgical actions are not included in the program materials.
Currently an LLC, StoryMakersNYC is seeking to become a stand-alone non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization. They currently have a partnership is Mockingbird Ministries, a Virginia-based non-profit that creates original content connecting faith and culture via digital, print, and podcasting media. As StoryMakers was a fledgling start-up, Mockingbird provided an “umbrella” of administrative assistance, infrastructure, and consulting around content creation and publishing. They gave StoryMakers full freedom, space, and ownership to build their own team based in New York. The Diocese of New York has been very supportive, and thanks to a diocesan grant churches in New York StoryMakers is able to match Zine purchases one-for-one whenever a church expresses a need. Bishop Allen Shin caught the vision of StoryMakers early on and was excited to have another resource for churches, especially those that were small.
A few downsides to the curriculum (that I have shared with StoryMakers NYC) could easily be fixed in upcoming adventures. God is referred to as “he” which, while traditional for many, can be problematic if we want our children to have a deep, wide, and broad understanding of “who” God is (neither male, female, or binary). In “The Flood” adventure, Moses is named as the first StoryMaker, one who told the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. While long ago it was assumed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (Torah, first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures), most biblical scholars today would say that is not true (or possible). So a little editorial oversight of biblical statements is recommended.
Granted, this is a new program put together by a small group of folks (mostly women of color) and not a publishing company. Things roll out slowly and “adventures” can be expensive to purchase a la carte. However, bulk orders are possible and all the extras are not needed if you are on a tight budget. The Zines are not meant to be disposable; a child could develop their own library of biblical stories if each issue is kept. At the moment, there is a limited amount of the biblical story covered; it will take a long time to cover the foundational stories of Salvation history from the Hebrew Scriptures and our Christian Testament for this to be a curriculum that is able to be planned out on the calendar far in advance and over the course of several years. I can see families using the Zine and Guide at home together very easily!
Trainings via Zoom and launch parties are often held to share new “adventures.” Very responsive and generous, creative director Melina “Mel” Smith is always happy to help. And you will love watching Chelsey Haynes introduce the story alongside a young friend each week on their Sparks video. Their website contains numerous videos that explain the vision of StoryMakers and how to use the materials at home or in church. A comprehensive website lists prices for getting started, bulk for churches, and ideas for use at home.
StoryMakers NYC has offered a new program to the church that offers different perspectives of the characters in the biblical story – what might they be thinking and feeling? Children are given the opportunity to practice and stretch their imagination while they play with the Story. Review how it compares in my Spring 2020 Children’s Curriculum Chart.
By centering our teaching of the Bible on the powerful stories of God give to us for the transformation of life, we are moving our understanding of the Bible from a dry book full of unquestionable morals and absolutes to a live, breathing, exciting book form which there is always something more to experience, understand, learn, play with, and think about. We are introducing our children to a relevant God who is passionately in love with them. Our use of the Bible should reflect this God and reflect our own transforming relationships with this God.Ivy Beckwith, p. 139
Note: Thanks to creator Mel Smith and her team for providing the background information of how StoryMakersNYC got started and where the curriculum is being used. Printed materials that I reviewed were given to me at no cost by Mel at the “Rooted in Jesus” conference held in Atlanta in January 2020.