With more DVD-based children’s ministry resources available than ever before, Anya Briggs prompts us to ask: just how effective is the use of film in children’s work?
We’ve all been there. We feel rushed, we don’t feel we have the energy to plan and run a group, and so we pick up a DVD. Job done; and with time to sit down with that cuppa as well.
But when children are said to be spending an average of 2.5 hours a day watching TV (according to this year’s Childwise annual report), should we be worried that we are contributing to the excess of screen-time when we use DVD resources? Can a method of discipleship that doesn’t involve direct contact with children ever be that effective? By using DVDs in our groups, are we buying into a consumer culture where sharing the gospel has a price tag? Or into a culture of convenience where we let others be creative for us? As children’s worker Martin Price pointed out, ‘using children’s DVDs can be a lazy way of doing children’s work.’
Or, on the other hand, do DVD resources simply make sharing the gospel easier and more relevant? Fiona Stewart, managing editor of assembliesonline.com, which offers assemblies for primary and secondary schools that link the latest films, music and TV to spiritual and moral issues, says: ‘We are undergoing a cultural shift from a text to image-based society and the children we work with have no concept of life before the digital age. Whether we like it or not, the stories they are growing up hearing are the ones told by Pixar, Dreamworks and the rest. The challenge to us as Christians is how to introduce them to the real story, God’s story, and help them find their place in it. In exploring the stories Hollywood tells we find fragments and hints of that bigger story: tales of love and redemption, forgiveness and creativity, good and evil. By finding creative ways of helping children explore and critique their culture we have an opportunity to share the gospel. Rather than run away from the power of film, why not do as Paul did in Acts 17 and use the culture as a starting point for finding Jesus?’
Nick Willoughby, co-creator of the Walk with Jay DVD resource, says that ‘Children can find it difficult to talk about their own issues, particularly in a group setting. Film allows children to discuss issues in their lives in a non-threatening way.’ So, should DVD resources actually make up a key part of our children’s ministry?
To help us get to the bottom of this, I have reviewed the effectiveness and entertainment factor of a number of new DVD resources for use in children’s ministry.
VeggieTales: The Little House That Stood
(Authentic Media, 2013) For under 6s £9.99
Those vegetables you love to hate are back, and this time their adventures are centred around the parables of the wise and foolish builders and the good Samaritan. As always, this is well-written, witty and most importantly, gets the message of the parables across in a way that children can understand. Using well-known children’s characters, this episode teaches about wisdom through the story of the three pigs and about helping others through the story of Humpty Dumpty (and let’s not forget the brilliantly pointless ‘silly song’!).
It may seem that VeggieTales can do no wrong. While these are excellent resources, however, they are not perfect. At £9.99 for a double episode, it is expensive. On the other hand, it is packed with bonus features, and the quality of Veggietales is so high that each DVD can be used on more than one occasion without the children getting bored.
Relive Parables: Six short films
(Relive Resources) For 5-13s £19.99
This resource consists of six films less than ten minutes in length, each based around a different parable. It has a ‘home-video’ feel as it uses the same actors/actresses, and is set in a variety of accessible places such as someone’s garden, a beach, a field etc.
The use of accents, slapstick and costume means that this DVD is highly engaging, and the team have done an excellent job of making these parables understandable.
The best thing about this resource, however, is that it has an assembly plan, a Sunday school plan and a craft idea to go along with each film. James Hamilton, founder of Relive Resources, says, ‘We do not just want children to engage with the films, but to experience the Bible through the extra resources too.’ In this way, DVDs are surely best when they are used as a small part of a children’s session, as children who are visual learners, kinaesthetic learners and cognitive learners all have a chance to engage with the message. You get excellent value for your money with this DVD: while the actual footage is the same length as a VeggieTales DVD, you get six sessions out of this instead of one. reliveresources.co.uk
Walk with Jay
(4six3; Authentic Media) For 6-11s £9.99
Walk with Jay from 4six3 is another DVD resource that uses the ‘short film and discussion questions’ approach. This series of DVDs engages with ‘reallife’ difficult issues that children may encounter, such as feeling left out and disagreements with siblings. Each DVD includes two five-minute episodes, showing groups of children in different settings being taught and reminded of Bible passages by Jay, an adult, as they come across problems in life.
As well as an initial clip, each episode includes three or four discussion questions, an extra clip that expands on the lesson learned and gives points to pause the film for children to reflect.
While extra work may be required to come up with a relevant craft or game, if you are using this as the basis of your children’s group time, this is a brilliant resource that will engage children spiritually with its simple and direct messages. Children will also learn how to apply the Bible to their day-to-day lives in a very practical way 4six3.com
Friends and Heroes: Episode 3
(Friends and Heroes LTD) For 5-9s £15.00
Friends and Heroes is arguably as good as any secular production in terms of the quality of animation and depth of characters created. It has been shown by the BBC and the team behind this series have credits to their name such as The Empire Strikes Back and The Miracle Maker.
Set in first century Alexandria, this series follows two friends, Macky and Portia, as they fight for freedom from the Romans. Each episode includes two Bible stories, and is animated and explained in a way that children will understand. One of the only things that could be questioned about this DVD series is how much children are spiritually impacted by what they watch. No doubt they will be entertained and reminded of Bible stories, but they may find it difficult to distinguish the fictitious stories of Macky and Portia from the true stories from the Bible.
The Friends and Heroes website offers activity sessions for use in schools and churches that are centred around each 25-minute episode. Using the resources available on the website will ensure that the DVDs become better value. friendsandheroes.com/UK
DVD Read and Share: Bible, Volume 1
(Tommy Nelson) For 5-7s £6.99
Aimed at younger children, these simple animated stories bring the Bible to life in a simple, easy-to-follow way.
While some of the DVDs in this collection offer longer films about Jesus’ life, my favourites are those that offer a collection of three-minute versions of different Bible stories. Volume 1, for example, includes 13 three-minute episodes, with eight stories from Genesis, and five from the Gospels. The short length of the films means that they could easily be used in a Sunday school setting to illustrate a teaching point, opening up a story to the children without consuming too much of your session time.
Superbook: Miracles of Jesus
(CBN) For 5-9s £20.00
Superbook is a DVD resource that appears to tick all of the boxes. Created by some of the team behind Disney’s The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, it is extremely well made. Each 25 minute episode follows the story of Chris, Joy and Gizmo; children (plus a robot) living in the future. Superbook takes them back in time to observe Bible stories as they happened, teaching them a new lesson each time.
This resource is as commercial as you can get. With apps that children can use on their smart phones, cards to collect, competitions to win iPhones and gift vouchers and countless online games, this seems like more of a complex resource than a simple way to teach children the Bible. One episode can be bought for £20; this includes a family guide and character cards, as well as two further copies of the same DVD in colourful printed cardboard sleeves to give away to friends. superbook.cbn.com
(Hilltop Media LTD/ Kingsway) For 4-11s £12.99
This resource is packed with useful material. With ten sessions on the DVD, each comprising of two Bible-based story films, activities, questions, prayer and journal time, you will definitely get value for money.
Uniquely, this resource is aimed at families, with the view that our busy lives can make it hard to grow together spiritually as a family. Younger children may find the Bible stories challenging to follow (they are told in a modern-day setting through poetry). However overall this is a fantastic all-round resource. hilltopandco.com
Duggie Dug Dug’s Chuffed
(Elevation) For 5-11s £14.99
Whilst this DVD tends to have the ‘Marmite effect’ on children’s workers (it’s either a guilty pleasure or unbelievably irritating), children love it. A resource of a different kind, this praise and worship DVD is a live recording of one of Duggie Dug Dug’s events. It includes catchy pop and hip-hop-esque songs, break dancing, puppets, actions and a room of hyper, dancing children. About this style of resource, Doug Horley (Duggie Dug Dug) says, ‘Action songs are not the be all and end all, but are rather a means to engage the children, laying the groundwork to be able to talk about deeper issues.’
The pure joy and energy of the children is amazing to watch. There is nobody ‘shushing’ the children here, and they are free to worship God with everything they’ve got. With sing-along subtitles, two songs that incorporate sign-language and a break in the middle for a puppet-led Bible study time, this is a practical resource that can be easily transferred to a Sunday school setting.
Henry Hand Puppet
(Taylormation) For under 5s £9.99
One of the few DVD resources made principally for under 5s, Henry Hand Puppet stands out as well-produced and effective. Each DVD comprises six 10 minute episodes that explore Old Testament Bible stories. It includes a Bible story, games and interactions between the puppet characters. While the animation is simplistic and the puppets don’t speak, the DVD has an artsy feel that I loved.
What arguably makes this resource so effective, however, is the teaching pack for schools that goes with each episode, and can be downloaded from the website. Each of these guides holds five elements: talking, doing, thinking, praying and linking between the Old Testament story and Jesus. As it is heavily Bible-based is may not be suitable in all school settings, but could easily be adapted for use in Sunday schools. henryhandpuppet.com
So take stock of your use of film in children’s ministry. What are your motives in using film? Are you depriving children of their God-given gifts of leading and teaching in doing so? While putting on a longer DVD as an occasional treat, our main objective should always be to creatively engage children with biblical lessons and ways of thinking. In this way, shorter DVDs may prove more effective as part of our sessions.
Ever-changing technology means that we have better on-screen resources at our disposal for children’s ministry than we have ever had before – use them well
Four secular children’s film clips to try in your ministry
Andy Avery, a children’s and schools worker based in Chester, has used the following clips in his children’s ministry:
The Simpsons, series 1 episode 4 – ‘There’s no disgrace like home’ (14:48 – 19:50). This illustrates how family is not always perfect, but can still be supportive of each other
Mufasa sacrificing his life to save Simba in The Lion King (32:34 – 36:50). This parallels the sacrifice of Jesus
The Genie in Aladdin (33:38 – 37:57, or carry on until 38:33). This shows how God is not like a Genie, he doesn’t necessarily give us what we want but instead what we need
Marlin in Finding Nemo (12:11-15:57). This shows where Nemo goes missing; talk about Marlin’s search to find him.
Damaris Trust’s website culturewatch.org offers also free resources to help you explore the messages behind secular films.
Our favourite Christian children ’s films
The Narnia Series
Lion of Judah
The Prince of Egypt