StoryMakers Creates ‘Cool Stuff’ for Child Formation

Michelle Palmer (center), children’s, youth, and family minister at Fellowship Lutheran Church, created weekly video guides to accompany the StoryMakers curriculum | Photos courtesy of StoryMakers

By Lauren Anderson

Jacob’s Well Community Church in Evergreen Park, Illinois, was in transition. When its children’s pastor left to take a position elsewhere amid a pandemic that had already disrupted the rhythms of church life, pastor Scott Moore began searching for a new approach to children’s education.

The central Illinois evangelical church has in recent years aligned itself with the church calendar and lectionary under the direction of Moore, whose spirituality has been shaped by Anglican theology.

Melina Smith (left) with StoryMakers team members Echo Chan and Karen Weber

Moore hoped to find a curriculum rooted in the gospel message that would also introduce the youngest members of Jacob’s Well to the liturgical year and bring more cohesion between “kids church” and the worship taking place upstairs on Sunday mornings. He didn’t want the church to build something from scratch.

“I just knew we needed something different for the season that we were in, both in our church and our growth and who we’re becoming. And with the difficulties that were introduced by the pandemic, we needed something that was going to be able to pivot quickly from being church-based to home-based,” Moore said.

He found StoryMakers, a curriculum incubated at the Parish of Calvary-St. George’s in New York City and linked with Mockingbird Ministries. Delivered through booklets — called “zines,” short for magazines — StoryMakers annually guides grade-schoolers through 40 weeks of lessons designed to draw them into the Bible story through social-emotional prompts and vibrant visuals.

The program found initial traction within dioceses of the Episcopal Church when it launched in 2019, and it’s now used in roughly 400 churches, spanning denominations and membership sizes.

Children at Jacob’s Well are among a growing number of young learners across the country discovering the Word of God through StoryMakers.

The curriculum was born out of a need at StoryMakers’ founder Melina Smith’s parish.

When Smith, a behavioral health professional, and her husband, the Rev. Jacob Smith, moved to New York City for his appointment to Calvary-St. George’s, she recognized a gap in its children’s education offerings.

StoryMakers’ “Emoji Prayer Color Wheel” exercise helps kids identify their feelings and take them to God in prayer.

Tapping into the Manhattan parish’s network of artists and creatives, Smith launched a summer program, called Creative Arts Camp, designed to engage children in the story of the Bible through art. From the outset, Smith was mindful of the program’s evangelistic potential. Done right, it could not only engage members of the parish, but also draw in families who didn’t have strong ties to the church.

“We didn’t want to create a VBS because that’s not really that sexy in New York,” she said. At Creative Arts Camp, “kids had this physical experience of the story of the Bible, and they went into classes and retold the story for themselves. And as kids saw themselves in the story and retold the story, memory was built. Then you get positive associations in a church setting, and that increases the likelihood that kids are going return to church. … We wanted them to come, have this really awesome experience, and then consider, ‘Maybe I want to go there in the fall. Maybe I would go to Sunday school there.’”

The free program grew over the years to a pre-pandemic peak of 150 children in the summer of 2019. Other church leaders began asking how they could replicate the ministry in their parishes. Smith saw an opportunity to expand the program beyond Calvary-St. George’s.

She approached Mockingbird Ministries (she is a board member) with the idea for what would become StoryMakers, the Creative Arts Camp concept re-envisioned as a year-long experience.

Smith raised funds throughout 2018 and 2019 while working with a small team to develop content.

The team had just begun publishing its first zines before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered church doors everywhere, rendering weekly worship and educational programs virtual.

StoryMakers’ reach has grown in the past two years despite those headwinds. Besides Smith, who is full time, its staff includes five freelance design illustrators, two freelance editors, and two positions related to customer service and distribution. The team continues to build out its offerings, with plans to launch curriculum for teens this year.

While Mockingbird has served as its fiscal sponsor since its launch, StoryMakers is pursuing 501(c)(3) status in New York as it continues to grow.

Recognizing a need among smaller parishes, the organization has partnered with dioceses as part of their memberships, offering quarterly trainings with volunteers.

Churches using StoryMakers find it addresses both pedagogical and practical concerns: The curriculum engages with Scripture in a serious manner but doesn’t require a burdensome level of prep time for volunteers.

And as the pandemic has many Sunday school programs toggling between in-person and virtual meetings, StoryMakers’ digital resources have provided a lifeline.

When Fellowship Lutheran Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had to convert its children’s chapel to video lessons, Michelle Palmer, the children’s, youth, and family minister, created her own videos guiding students through StoryMakers’ curriculum.

“Months later, when we were back in person together, they remembered the story,” Palmer said. “I realized, ‘OK, this really worked.’”

Working on their StoryMakers zines

With StoryMakers, each Bible story — or “adventure” — starts with a visual prompt to pique children’s interest: What colors do you see? What do you feel? What questions do you have?

The artistic integrity of the curriculum is about more than just aesthetics, Smith said.

“We believe art is the back door to the heart,” she said. “The Church, for adults, has always taken art seriously, and I think we just need to make that same connection for kids.”

StoryMakers’ content isn’t obvious; it communicates familiar stories in surprising ways. A literal illustration of Esau and Jacob’s reconciliation in Genesis might depict the brothers embracing one another, for example. On the pages of StoryMakers, they are floating toward one another in hot-air balloons.

“When I’m meeting with the artist, we’re always saying, ‘This can’t be on the nose,’” Smith said. “We want this to be imaginative. We want this to spark curiosity.”

The curriculum’s cycle has children reading both the Old and New Testaments throughout the year, including special series for Lent and Advent. Other lessons highlight days within the church calendar, such as All Saints’ Day, and heroes of the faith, or “StoryMakers of the past,” like St. Augustine.

Its design often uses surrealism to illustrate Old Testament passages and comic and manga-style art for New Testament texts — a visual cue for children to recognize the shift in narrative.

It also draws out nuances that might otherwise be skimmed over — highlighting stories like King Melchizedek breaking bread in Genesis as a foreshadowing of Christ. The role of women in the Bible, such as the bravery and faith of the midwives in the opening Exodus narrative, are brought to the forefront.

“There’s a lot in the Bible … and there’s a lot of cool stuff for kids to discover; we want to bring that to light,” Smith said.

The four-week Advent series takes kids through the “epic arrival of Jesus,” based on the Year C lectionary readings. The Advent 1 zine opens with an illustration of a cosmic scene: the surface of an orange planet and a ray of light heading toward its surface. It sets the stage for a rich text: the first chapters of Genesis and the Gospel of John. Kids are asked to consider these questions: “If you could shout anything into being, what would it be?” and “Who do you think is the ultimate light?”

“Kids do the scripts and put themselves in the stories,” Palmer said. “It’s really awesome. It’s a way to help them to engage with the stories in the Bible without it being too heady. Sometimes those stories can be pretty confusing, so it’s putting it in words that kids can understand and help them to tell the story, and they are also getting to play. It makes it really special.”

Capturing kids’ innate sense of wonder should be chief among the goals of any curriculum, said Dr. Amelia Dyer, coauthor of the Episcopal Children’s Curriculum, which was widely used in the early 2000s.

“The most important thing is not to lose the sense of awe or surprise that young children particularly have,” said Dyer, the James Maxwell Professor Emerita of Christian Education and Pastoral Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary. “And if we can hold on to that in some way through Sunday school — that’s the goal of Godly Play, that was the goal of ECC, and I hope that is the goal of other curriculums as well — not to tell them what the answer is but to allow the children to use their imagination and guide them.”

Kids benefit from having the space to ask questions and envision themselves inside the stories as they bridge the gap between ancient texts and their lives. And by integrating social-emotional prompts that invite children to bring their whole selves to church, StoryMakers aims to build positive associations with church, Smith said.

“We take kids seriously in that we trust their emotional and visual intelligence,” she said. “I think curriculum often leans hard on information and facts, which we do integrate with our content; but simultaneously, we know we’re raising a visual generation.”

Smith is mindful of the current cohort of parents of school-aged children — those who grew up in the 1990s, who may have complicated feelings about their early church experiences. For many Millennials, memories of worksheets, flannel graphs, sword drills, and Popsicle stick crafts are associated with a rigid engagement of Scripture they have since left behind.

“How can we draw those families back into church who may have negative experiences with the Church? They may open this thing up and think, ‘This is so different from what I grew up with; maybe I’ll give it a chance,’” Smith said. “We sort of thought of the burned-out Christian and the most unlikely when pursuing StoryMakers.”

StoryMakers doesn’t shy away from the complexities of the Bible story, including its accounts of rebellion and human frailty, recognizing those same patterns show the need for God’s intervention in the world.

Moore has found StoryMakers’ ethos resonates with his approach to expounding the Scriptures: Some passages are just difficult to exposit, and many don’t lend themselves to pithy takeaways.

“I’ve been preaching regularly for five or six years, and the thing I’ve known all along — but has become more and more real the more frequently and longer I’ve had to preach — is that application or a moral at the end of a sermon is not adequate, and I don’t think it can be adequate for kids’ ministry either,” he said.

Young readers need a better framework for reading the Bible, including tools that will continue to serve them as they grow older. It’s natural to focus on the hopeful texts, such as God sparing Noah’s family, but what about the less palatable parts, like the flood?

“StoryMakers, I feel, just lets the story be the story without having to boil it down to a point or moral or application, and they’re really aware that kids need to engage this as whole people,” Moore said. “They need to be able to ask questions about the bewildering parts of the story instead of papering over it. They need to be able to think about how they themselves would feel if they were in those moments with Noah or with Abraham or with Mary in Bethlehem. … I really feel like in our better moments of using this curriculum over the last year, the kids have been able to grab a sense of just how large their faith can be.”

Smith hopes building a healthier relationship with Scripture will help tether young people to their faith as they grow older.

“We want them to have these great experiences in the moment, but really we’re thinking ahead down the road,” she said. “How are we increasing the likelihood that kids are going to return to church when they’re in college and when they’re young adults?”

At Jacob’s Well, Moore expects StoryMakers will help ease the transition from “kids church” to regular Sunday worship in the pews.

“For better or for worse, that’s what we’re doing upstairs. We’re engaging a cycle of readings,” he said. “Sometimes the stories are hard, and yet we’re not going to give up on this story that’s been given to us so graciously by God and that we’ve been called to participate in.”

The hope is that children, not unlike adults, will have ears to hear the good news in God’s Word as it’s told again and again.

“Children will take the story as they are able to perceive it at their developmental level,” Dyer said. “They’re not going to get all the nuances. But that’s why the lectionary comes around every three years. Every time we hear it, we hear something new in it — even if it’s an old familiar story.”

Lauren Anderson is an associate editor of BizTimes in Milwaukee.

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