Rightly handling the word of truth: How to teach the Bible to children

  • Alison Mitchell
  • 1 November 2007

This article was first published in Briefing #350, November 2007, and you'll find that Alison's experienced advice is both exceedingly valuable and timeless.

“Does anyone have any food? Jesus is asking for food. Do you have some to share?”
Zach looked up in surprise. He had food. His mum had packed a special lunch for him. She knew he was always hungry! Shyly, he crept over to where Jesus was sitting with his friends.
“I have a little food, Sir”, he whispered. “It’s not much, but you’re welcome to have it.”
“Thank you, Zach. I can use your gift to help these people”, Jesus replied.
Zach blushed. Then he watched in amazement as Jesus took his small packed lunch and shared it with the crowd. He only had five rolls and two small fish. But they went on.
And on.
And on.
Even Zach had so much to eat, he wasn’t hungry any more!
“I’m so glad I shared my lunch”, Zach thought to himself as he slipped away again. “I wonder what else I can share with others?”

Do you tell Bible stories to children? Do you read them Bible story books? Do you watch Bible cartoons with them? Sharing Bible stories with children is a fantastic privilege. It’s also great fun! But is it okay to tell Bible stories the way I’ve done above? Stop for a moment, re-read my story and see if you can spot any problems with it. Then read John 6:1-15 to compare:

After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul tells Timothy to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth”. This verse applies to all Bible teachers. However, what does “rightly handling the word of truth” look like for those who teach children? And how (if at all) can we use our imagination and creativity?

These are the main questions addressed in this article. I’ll be talking mainly about storytelling, but what I say can be applied to children’s Bibles, dramas for all-age services and Bible story DVDs.

When teaching the Bible to any age group, a simple rule of thumb is neither to add to Scripture nor subtract from it. This principle comes from Scripture (Rev 22:19). However, unless we just read Bible stories straight from the text, it’s almost impossible to retell a Bible story to children without adding, subtracting, or both. So here are some principles to bear in mind:

  • Always start with the text.
  • Be cautious about addition.
  • Be thoughtful about subtraction.
  • Build your application from the main teaching point.
  • Choose supportive visuals and activities.
  • Be careful with published material.

These principles assume you’re retelling Bible stories to children. But why should you? Can’t you just read them the Bible text? Of course! I know parents who take their children through an adult translation, discussing each section as they go. However, we must remember that the Bible is an adult book. It contains concepts that children struggle to understand, imagery that relies on a mature grasp of language, and people and events from the depths of history. When we retell a biblical narrative, we can open up some of these things to a child’s level of understanding. It’s not about ‘bringing the Bible to life’ (the living Word needs no further injection of ‘life’!); it’s about making the richness of the context and background more explicit so that the child is more likely to comprehend the original meaning of the passage.

Let me discuss each principle in further depth.

Always start with the text

Those who teach children face a particular danger: we spend so much time working with well-known Bible stories, it’s easy to assume that we know them. We may even find ourselves telling such stories without having read the Bible passage first! This is why we must always start with the text.

But “always start with the text” doesn’t just mean reading it. We then need to do the hard work of establishing the main point.1 For example, when reading John’s Gospel, it doesn’t take long to discover that he was very intentional about the stories he included. John 20:30-31 tells us that:

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Jesus’ signs (or miracles) were like signposts which pointed to who Jesus is. Therefore the story of the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6:1-15 is a signpost which points to Jesus. It calls on people to believe in him. Asking questions about the text and checking the context to see what happened before and after helps us to see what kind of signpost this particular miracle is and how it shows us “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”.

The main point then shapes the rest of our decision-making. Any additions or subtractions we make to the text, any applications from the story we choose to make, and any decisions we make regarding supporting visuals or activities will be shaped by this main point. Unfortunately the story I began with doesn’t say anything about Jesus’ identity; the focus is all on the boy.

Be cautious about addition

Did you notice the number of additions I made in my story about Zach? I gave him a name; I added speech for Jesus, his disciples and Zach; I invented a back-story about Zach’s mum knowing how hungry he would get; I imagined Zach’s emotions and thoughts; and I even popped in a random application about sharing!

How do you decide what (if anything) you can add to a story? The main point is the key. Once you’ve established the main point, it helps you determine the appropriateness of any additions. Here are some tips:

  • Avoid unhelpful distractions. We know this miracle is one of the signposts which point to who Jesus is, so that’s where the focus of our storytelling must lie. Unfortunately most of my additions shifted the focus to the boy instead.
  • Telling a story from the point of view of one of the characters can be a helpful and interesting way in for children—but only if it can be done in such a way that doesn’t obscure the main point, and only if the character is already in the story. (You can’t tell the Christmas story from the point of view of the donkey because the Bible never mentions one!)
  • Always be careful about adding speech. Never put words in Jesus’ mouth. The Bible is God’s inspired word, and it already tells us all we need to know about what Jesus said and did.
  • Sometimes it may be helpful to include speech for other characters if it helps children understand scenes that are described in minimal detail in the biblical account (e.g. suggesting what the crowd may have discussed as they walked up the mountainside to Jesus). But even then, it’s a good idea to preface this by saying something like, “The Bible doesn’t tell us what the people said to each other, but they may have said something like this …”
  • It may also be helpful to include information based on the text which explains the text further. John 6:10 tells us that “there was much grass in the place” so you might like to get the children to imagine how it looked, felt and smelled, sitting on that grassy hillside. This verse also tells us that there were 5,000 men. Coupling this with Matthew 14:21, you could let the children know that women and children were there too, which means Jesus fed more than 5,000 people!
  • Never make a teaching point out of something you have added or assumed. For example, in my story, because I’ve added Zach’s thoughts about sharing, it’s easy to make sharing a teaching point. Sharing is good but that’s not what this story is about!
  • When considering an addition to the story, ask yourself whether it supports or detracts from the main point, and whether it is really necessary. Children won’t know what has been added and what hasn’t; they simply accept the story as they hear it. If they find out later that only some of what they heard came from Scripture, they may also end up questioning the rest of what they were taught. This means I tend to add very little.

Be thoughtful about subtraction

The Bible is God’s inspired word. This means we can’t just leave out the bits we don’t like. But sometimes—especially if you’re teaching very young children—you may want to subtract some of the detail to make it clearer and easier to understand. Again, the main teaching point will be your guide. If subtracting something difficult means you end up obscuring the main point, leave it in and explain it. But if you can teach the point clearly while leaving out some of the confusing detail, consider doing so.

In my story, the boy made his own way hesitantly to Jesus. But John makes it clear that it was Peter’s brother Andrew who introduced the boy to Jesus. So I both subtracted something (Andrew’s involvement) and added something (an imaginary conversation between Jesus and the boy).

The story of David and Bathsheba is a helpful one in thinking through the issue of subtraction. Often a children’s series on David will leave this story out altogether because it’s too difficult or it’s inappropriate for children. But children need to know that David wasn’t perfect. They can also be helped enormously by learning about how God forgave David and by exploring Psalm 51, the psalm David wrote in response. I would teach 2 Samuel 11-12 to children but I would subtract some of the surrounding detail without changing the main point. A parent reading 2 Samuel with his or her child can choose whether or not to explain what adultery is, but when teaching a class, I would keep it simple: “David wanted to have Bathsheba as his wife. She was already someone else’s wife, but David took her anyway.” This is enough to teach them about David’s sin.

Build your application from the main teaching point

The Bible is God’s living word. Through it, we come to know him better and understand how he wants his rescued people to live. This means we don’t just teach the content of a Bible story. We also need to apply it.

The application must come out of the main teaching point of the story. We know that the miracles in John’s Gospel are signposts pointing to who Jesus is, so this means the application will also be linked to who Jesus is and what it means to believe in him.

Never base your application on something you have added to the story. In my bad example, I added Zach’s thoughts about sharing with others and even phrased them so that Zach made his own “sharing is good” application. Because I focused my story on the boy, it’s easy to make him the focus of the application as well. This is not the sort of thing you want to pass on to the children! It may seem obvious that the story is not about sharing, but how about “We all have something to offer Jesus” or “The only hands God has are our hands”? I’ve heard people deriving both of these applications from this passage but they shift the focus away from Jesus. It’s delightful that our gracious God chooses to work through his people (even the very young!). But it’s because of who Jesus is that he can take the little we offer him and work through it. Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God”; he is not limited by what we offer him!

The application must come out of the main teaching point, but this doesn’t mean we apply the main point in the same way. There may be several ways of applying it. For example, an application about trusting God will need different examples for a ten-year-old than for a three-year-old.

Decide when you will make your application. Will it be at the end? Will it be as you go? Will it even be at the beginning? Will you include it as part of the story or build it in later in the session? Will you tell the children how the story applies to their lives, or will you ask them to work it out for themselves with your guidance? Will your visual aids support your application as well as the content of the story? These are all important things to consider.

Choose supportive visuals and activities

Most of us use some kind of visual aid when telling Bible stories. If the story is part of a longer teaching session, we will also surround it with a range of related activities. What guidelines are there to help us choose these visual aids and activities? As you’ve probably already guessed, the main point is the key! Here are some tips:

  • Choose visual aids that support the content and/or application of the Bible story rather than distracting from it.
  • Choose activities that reinforce the main point and/or help children understand the ideas or concepts being taught.
  • Remember that activities can be helpful for introducing concepts before the Bible story, as well as reinforcing them afterwards. For example, boys were considered to be men from the age of 12. So it was normal in Bible times to count only the men and boys over 12 when counting a group. An opening activity which uses this kind of ‘Bible maths’ to count groups would help children to understand why John only lists 5,000 men when Jesus ended up feeding more than this number.
  • If you have a fantastic visual aid or activity but the children remember that instead of the main point, it’s actually a poor visual aid or activity. You must be willing to jettison it. For example, it can be tempting to create gadgets that seem to recreate the miracle you’ve been teaching (perhaps a basket with a false bottom so you can keep pulling fish and bread out of it!). But it’s a pity if the children go home excited about that gadget instead of excited about Jesus. Furthermore, it’s extremely unhelpful if they also think that Jesus’ miracles may have involved trickery too.

Be careful with published material

Be careful especially when using published material. Don’t assume that because something has been published in a book, DVD, or website that it must be good. It may be fantastic, but it may not be! The people who write these things are fallible (as am I, so please check what I’ve written in this article and think about it carefully).

So check re-told Bible stories carefully. The authors of children’s story books are usually gifted, creative storytellers. There’s a lot we can learn from their gifts. But, in my experience, creative storytellers often add to Bible accounts. So check carefully, comparing their version with the Bible text. If there are only a few small changes or additions, you may be able to adapt the story and use it successfully. But if you find that too much has changed, you’ll need to tell the story yourself or find a more accurate story book.

Also check the illustrations. Even if the storytelling has been faithful to the original, the illustrations may not be. Too many infant Bibles show a young Daniel huddled in the den with the lions, but in fact he was in his 80s or 90s!2 Biblical accuracy matters. We are teaching historical truth, so our storytelling and visuals should reinforce this. Therefore ‘cute’ infant pictures of characters with pink skin and rosy cheeks (rather than middle-Eastern skin colouring) are unhelpful. It’s a good idea to refer to Bible stories as ‘true stories from the Bible’ to distinguish them from the many made-up stories that children read and hear.

Applying these principles takes time and effort.It means working hard on the text. It may mean discarding stories, ideas or activities that look great at first glance, but turn out to be not as faithful or as helpful as you’d hoped. If you are committed to “rightly handling the word of truth”, you will put in the extra work because you know it matters. Teaching the Bible to children is a fantastic privilege, and one which we must take seriously.

But what if you mess up? What about the things you’ve done in the past which you now realize were really poor examples of how to handle the Bible? Let’s remember that our God is a God of grace who loves the children in our care far more than we do. I was a child when someone first explained the gospel to me. I know now that some of the verses this person shared with me were used out of context and were not properly explained, but God, in his grace, worked through them anyway and drew me to himself—something for which I will forever be grateful. This isn’t an excuse not to bother with hard work; we are called to teach God’s word as faithfully as we are able. But we can also trust that our gracious God will use what we have done for his good purposes in the lives of the children in our care.


1. A particularly useful book to help you understand a Bible passage and discover the main point is Dig Deeper! Tools to unearth the Bible’s treasure by Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sach (IVP, Leicester, 2005).

2. As a young man, he would have been carried off to Babylon around 605 BC, and he lived to see Babylon conquered by the Medes and the Persians in 539 BC.