Telling the whole story
People often have big questions about God: for example, ‘How come God let my grandma get ill if he loves me?’, ‘I can’t see what the God of the Old Testament has to do with the God of the New Testament’ or ‘Why doesn’t God just sort it all out?’ And as church leaders, we know that the Bible is the book God has given us to help us understand him.
But it doesn't always feel easy to explain things well. The Bible's not the easiest of books to understand. It's a huge book for a start! And it’s one enormous story – the story of how God loved the world and determined to fix it - but also dozens and dozens of smaller stories. It covers an enormous timeline and is set, for the most part, in cultures now buried in history. Some of it’s easy to read and some bits feel like you need a degree in theology even to get started. We teach it to adults and children alike. Some stories are suitable for the tiniest to hear and some have violent or sexual content. And it’s very long and we usually just dip into it rather than reading it cover to cover.
So how do we share the Bible well?
Learning from the screenwriters
I remember, with great excitement, going to see each of the Harry Potter films as they were released. Years later, I can’t remember much about them at all, but I do remember one thing from the film of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. They didn’t include the scene where Harry de-gnomes the garden. And I was cross: it was my favourite bit! And as the subsequent films came out, I realised that the screenwriters were having to pare the story to the bone, tasked with squashing bigger and bigger books into just two hours of screen time. But even though lots of the details were missing, they were still telling the whole story because they made sure they left in the key characters and the big plot lines. And the screenwriters’ skill is one that we need as Bible teachers. As Rachel Turner says:
'There is a difference between telling the whole story and every detail of it, and we need to be very careful that we remember this when we are teaching children and young people the truth of the gospel. We can’t expect to cover every intricate nuance of Jesus’ imagery in the parables, or to present the full implication of Paul’s theology and how it relates to the Jewish foundations of Christianity. But children of every age need to be taught the whole truth – the key elements which make it the same story that they will hear again and again as they grow older, and journey deeper into as they mature in their faith.'
When people don’t know ‘the whole truth’ – the key elements that make up the gospel – there is a danger that they end up with lopsided or even incorrect ideas. They might home in on those stories and teachings that make sense to them such as ones that emphasise God’s love, while ignoring (or being ignorant of) stories that talk about his wrath and judgement. Or they might prefer the New Testament and rarely explore the Old. By making sure we teach the key elements, the whole truth, we can help people see the Bible as one big story that makes sense both of history and of what they are experiencing today.
The key elements: the whole story
When we are teaching in church, it seems impossible to cover everything. After all, there are only 52 Sundays a year! So we create sermon series that cover themes or a book of the Bible, and select a range of life-group materials. And how do you teach children the whole story of the Bible when so much of it seems unsuitable or difficult for them? Curriculums for young children often focus on important truths such as how much God loves them and how precious they are, but are less forthcoming on things like sin and mission. Which bits should we prioritise? How can we fill in the gaps in people’s knowledge? What do they need to know? What is the whole gospel? It all seems so complicated!
But what if we go back to those key elements? In Parenting Children for a Life of Faith Omnibus, Rachel Turner identifies six points which make up the whole gospel; these, she suggests, can be used as the foundational teaching for all ages. They make a theological framework which children will add to as they grow, but which tells the whole story from the very beginning. These are the key elements:
- God is love. He made all things from his vast creativity and created each man and woman to be loved by him or and to respond to that love, and, in turn, they are to love all those around him.
- People walked away from God. The world and its people chose, and keep choosing, to separate themselves from God. Instead of loving him and loving other people we choose to love ourselves, our stuff and getting our own way, and to only love the people who give us what we want. This makes us move further away from God and further towards evil. Even people who try to love God and other people do this sometimes. It affects decisions and the very way we build society because if people in power act this way it has even more impact. It creates lots of bad things in the world such as people in pain or hunger; people who are lonely or who are treated badly just because of where they live or what they look like; or people trying to fix things themselves with things that don’t work but simply make them sadder or more selfish. This separation between the world’s way and God’s way is so big that some people don’t even believe he is exists anymore, especially when they look at the mess we have all made.
- Jesus cleared a way back to closeness with God. These things are hard but we don’t need to be afraid or give up hope because God is bigger than all of them. Through Jesus, and what he did for us when he died and rose again, we have a way back to love and relationships with God and other people that he intended at the start.
- God is active in the world and we can partner with him to transform it. Knowing God and being his friends means we can love him; be forgiven for all the bad stuff that gets into our hearts; and love other people again properly. And if we follow him he invites us to work with him to help us, other people, and the whole world, move away from evil to good. That means working with him to share his story with others; stand up for what is fair; care for the poor and hurting; pray for others; be generous; and much, much more.
- God gives us his power through his Holy Spirit to join with him in putting love at the centre of everything again. The broken stuff in the world is being changed. None of it is as big as God, or beyond being changed by his love as we join in with that work. No one has gone so far that they can’t come to know God again.
- One day it will all be the way God meant it to be forever. When Jesus comes again, the whole world will be completely good and loving again and there will never be anything else that gets in the way of us loving God and each other.
(Six points adapted from ‘Parenting Children for a Life of Faith Omnibus’).
This is the whole story. It contains the key elements and key characters of the plot line and is simple enough for a small child to understand.
Building on the framework
The power of starting with this ‘whole story’ is that these six points provide a robust framework that can be built on as people learn more about God or as children grow older. There are no new key facts and even in its simplest form, they explain the whole relationship between God and people, and the wonderful truths of salvation. Essentially there is nothing new to learn about the whole gospel: we just deepen our understanding of it.
In ‘Parenting Children for a Life of Faith Omnibus’, what this might look like in practice is explained in detail, but here is an example of how the understanding of one of the key elements might develop over time:
People walked away from God: at age 4, a child might be able to understand that bad things happen in the world because people have said ‘no’ to God’s love, and that God cares very much about people who are hurting. By age 10, there’ll have a much a deeper understanding: The world is broken because people choosing themselves over God and other people has created a mess; the Bible tells us how God feels about that, and why it keeps on happening; and that people chose and still choose the wrong way.
The impact of knowing the whole gospel is incredibly powerful. They can help us answer big questions people have because knowing the whole story is a really powerful tool for helping people understand how God operates in the world. So for example, this might help us answer the following questions:
- ‘How come God let my grandma get ill if he loves me?’: God does love me and he loves grandma, but the world is broken and bad things happen. I can pray for grandma and the doctors who are looking after her. But whatever happens I know that one day, it will all be the way God meant it to be forever and that includes grandma.
- ‘I can’t see what the God of the Old Testament has to do with the God of the New Testament’: God was there right at the very beginning. He created the world to be a good place, but people walked away from him and so we see how much damage that has caused. The story of the Old Testament is how God started to fix the problem; the New Testament is the continuing story of God fixing things, first through Jesus and then inviting us in to join him.
- ‘Why doesn’t God just sort it all out?’: God created the world to be perfect, a place where we love him and love each other, but the world was broken when people walked away from him. There are terrible repercussions for us: people choosing themselves over God and other people has resulted in hurt and sickness, violence, hopelessness … the list goes on. But God cleared a way back to himself through Jesus so the world can be perfect again. And God is busy in the world, inviting people to move away from evil to good. And he asks us to partner with him in fixing it, helping him to rescue people and put love at the centre of everything again. And one day, when Jesus comes back, the job will be done: the whole world will be completely good and loving forever.
Building the whole story into your ministry
Whether this is a new idea for you, or you are already doing it, here are some things to think about:
- Sunday services: how can you tie your themes and sermon series to the whole story? Often this can be done simply by referencing where that idea fits into the whole story. Or you could base a sermon series around the whole story; one church did a year’s worth of all age services unpicking the ‘Big Story’, covering each of the key elements in order. You may want to consider how often you need to reinforce what the whole story is as people’s memories can be short and there are always new people joining your church.
- Festival services: ensure you tie Christmas and Easter services to the big story: it’s a fantastic opportunity to help people who maybe don’t usually come to church understand that God has an amazing, coherent plan for the world he loves, and that they can play their part in that.
- Small/home/life groups: these might be a great place to introduce the idea of the whole story and give people time to explore it well.
- Children’s and youth work: we often use pre-written curriculums that don’t necessarily set everything they teach in a whole story context. Few of us have the time and resources to write our own but if you do, it might be fun to spend a term on the ‘big story’. You could create a ‘Big Story’ poster or display and as you talk about each week’s story or lesson stop to consider how that fits into the big story. When you are telling Bible stories with children (and adults), session 2 of the Parenting for Faith course includes a great tool for helping people see how God is involved. In a nutshell, this involves simply asking questions about what God might have been thinking, doing or feeling at that point in the story. This method will help to link the individual stories to the big story.
- Creche and toddler church: curriculums and Bible books for very small people often focus on truths such as ‘God is love’, ‘God loves me’, ‘God loves it when I am kind / help’ etc. Is there a way you could build in the whole story at a very basic level? You may want to take a look at the baby and toddler Bible books you have and consider adding some which focus on different key elements: for example Psalms for Young Children retells a selection of Psalms with great illustrations; or ‘I’ve got a job to do’ by Dandi Daley Mackall, which retells the Great Commission for toddlers. For older toddlers and children ‘The Garden, the Curtain and the Cross’ tells the whole story.
- It may also be worth coaching your volunteers in how to simply set a Bible story into context: for example, when reading the story of baby Moses you could say: ‘God’s heart must have been very sad when he saw his people hurting. He always wants to bring his love to change things.’
- Schools work: if you are able to take assemblies on a regular basis they are a fantastic opportunity to make sure that children (and adults) who maybe hear very little about God from any other source know the whole story. If you are able to choose your own subjects, this would be a great theme for a term’s worth of assemblies. If you only go in occasionally or aren’t free to choose your own topics, you can introduce each story you use by explaining where it fits into the big story (think: Did you know that the story of God is one great adventure story – and we’re invited to be part of it? You see, when God made the world, he didn’t want it to be broken, and when we messed up, he made up his mind to fix it. Jesus is part of the plan to fix it – but you know what? He’d love you to join in too. And this story tells us a bit more about that plan.’)