There has been increasing recognition recently, from all sorts of angles, that we are failing effectively to engage with the Bible as a living, formative encounter with God. This is especially so with children and young people, and one of the most challenging contexts to do this is in all-age services.
A few years ago I contributed some of the ideas on how to use the Bible effectively to Chris and John Leach’s Grove booklet W194 How to Plan and Lead All-Age Worship. Here is the section on using the Bible, which includes nine distinct ways to engage with a reading. They all take a little (or a lot!) more time, energy and preparation than simply standing and reading, but the investment is well worth it.
We have always believed that it is exposure to both the Bible and the work of the Holy Spirit which forms and disciples Christians, but that depends on how the Bible is presented (and of course how the Spirit is allowed to work), particularly in the context of AAW. Hopefully the work of Bible-teaching will be going on week by week for children in their groups and for adults through sermons and homegroups, but we have both opportunities and difficulties at all-age services. The next section will talk more specifically about teaching, but what about the way we read the Bible?
First, it is worth saying that it might not always be appropriate to include the three readings plus psalm which the lectionary dictates for each Sunday. We try to follow the Common Worship rule of two readings, and try to keep the balance between Old and New Testaments. Readings will need to be accessible to both youngsters and non-churched visitors, but at the same time we do want to introduce people to new bits of the Bible. A diet of Joseph, Daniel and Noah’s Ark every week is unlikely to nourish and nurture discipleship.
Secondly, you need to choose your readers with care. For AAW you particularly need those who can read with meaning and bring the passage alive. There are all sorts of helpful hints in How to Read the Bible in Church which is essential reading especially for those who are functioning during AAW. But there are other ways of presenting a Bible passage than simply reading it out. Here are a few suggestions.
The Dramatized Bible has the Good News and New International Versions of the text of all the Bible passages you are likely to need for AAW arranged like a play for different characters, narrators and so on. Clearly this works better with some passages than others. The section on Levitical rules for holiness from chapter 19 is a bit limited, but the narrative sections can really be brought alive by a few good readers taking the different parts. It is also relatively easy to dramatize your own Bible, perhaps using one of the downloadable versions and word-processing it into dramatized form.
It is possible to be even more creative with the text by getting someone gifted in story-telling simply to present the story without actually reading it. We once saw someone ride in on a scooter, stand and tell the Bible story, and then scoot out again. It had great impact!
If you are blessed with some gifted actors, why not dress them up and act the story? If the passage is a narrative it might be usefully acted out, or alternatively a sketch might illustrate the story with a new angle.
You might put together a presentation which combines the reading of Scripture with music and images. The actual reading could either be done live, or recorded as part of the presentation. If you feel you lack the technical know-how to do this, most school children would be able to help you, which in turn would help give them ownership of the project.
There is a wealth of videos available which can retell the story. Films such as The Miracle Maker, Prince of Egypt, Jesus of Nazareth and so on can be useful for telling the stories, although watch of course for any directors’ gloss. Nowadays you can even do this legally by purchasing a video copyright licence, which is similar to the one you no doubt have for songs.
Learning a text and reciting it by heart can be particularly effective, especially when the reading consists of Jesus’ teaching. Ian Paul comments: ‘I once learned the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) and recited it in the all-age part of our main service. Everyone was gripped—and those on my left found it particularly memorable!’ This should not be surprising really; Jesus’ teaching was sufficiently engaging for the gospel writers (or their sources) to have memorized it.
Another technique which works well is to read the story, then read it again with deliberate ‘mistakes’, for example, substituting place names in the Bible story for local place names, or names of characters for names of or known to the congregation, or even adding references to contemporary issues or jokes. You need to brief the congregation beforehand that you are going to read it twice (so they listen carefully the first time) and offer prizes (such as chocolate) for anyone who spots a mistake. Be careful not to make too many mistakes, or it can last too long. This is in fact a variation on a well-known teaching method.
Bob Hartman has his own distinct approach to congregational story telling, but it is not difficult to learn for yourself. Repetition and congregational actions make for a memorable and fun way into Bible stories. See his books, including Telling the Bible.
We live in an age when things on television or the big screen have a particular authority—so why not claim it for Bible reading? Video someone reading the passage, either by heart, from hidden prompt cards, or simply from a Bible, in a nearby location, and show it as a video in church if you have data projection available. It is a great project for a small team, though needs some planning ahead, and editing the video for projection is another task that teenagers in the church will rise to.
Personally we would want ‘proper’ Bible readings as well as all these ideas; a diet of different ways of presenting Scripture is no substitute for actually hearing it from time to time, but to ring the changes and use creative methods can really help bring the Bible alive.