I am often asked to recommend bible story videos for children to watch at home or for Sunday school teachers to use with their classes. Unfortunately this can be more challenging question than it first appears. While there is certainly a lot of bible story videos out there for parents to choose from, there are very few that I can happily recommend that present the bible from a Reformed theological perspective, and even fewer that take into consideration how children of a young age hear these stories and understand them given their stage of development.
Recently, a minister sent me an email asking about a video series called the Bible App for Kids. It had been found by a member of her congregation, and rather than immediately beginning to use it with the kids of the church, she asked her minister to have a look at it and let her know if it was a good fit for their kids. While having a look for myself I thought that it might be helpful to share with you what I discovered as well as what I look for when I’m reviewing children’s videos, bible storybooks, and other resources.
Hopefully this might help give you an eye for viewing materials you come across along the way and wonder if you should use.
So to begin, I viewed two of the videos from Bible App for Kids. I chose to view Two By Two, the story of Noah and the Ark, and It is Finished, the story of the crucifixion. I wanted to examine one from each of the Old and New Testaments, while also choosing stories that are frequently shared with children yet ought to to be carefully considered before doing so. The stories of Noah and the crucifixion are complicated, violent, and require parents and leaders of children to think carefully about the age and personalities of the children they are sharing them with. Young children hear stories quite literally so stories such as these can be quite frightening, cause anxiety, and leave children with more questions than answers by the story’s end.
We often think children will love the story of Noah and the great flood because of the many animals featured in it, but sometimes forget that the story also involves God’s choosing to wipe out all of creation except for this one faithful family and a handful of animals. Noah and the Ark can be a very scary story for young children who, as a followup to the creation story where God has said that all of creation is good, hear that God has now decided to flood the earth as a way of cleansing creation of all that have turned away from God. Children can be left to wonder, “would God kill me if I do anything wrong?” Parents and children’s leaders need to first consider if this very adult story should be told at all with children until they are of an age when it can be better understood. If it is to be told to pre-school and primary-aged children we need to consider carefully how and what of this story will be presented.
Likewise, with the story of the crucifixion we hear about the intentional killing of Jesus by a group of religious and political leaders and a theological reasoning for his death. Once again these are difficult topics to share appropriately with young children and require careful planning and presentation. With It Is Finished I listened for an appropriate explanation of why Jesus was arrested and killed, was alert for any unnecessary depictions of extreme violence, and listened for problematic statements such as ‘Jesus died for your sins’. All of these can cause nightmares and fear for young and even more so primary-aged children. They may also spark feelings of unresolvable guilt when statements of atonement attribute personal blame to children who are not developmentally capable of understanding or responding to them.
So, how did it go?
Let’s start with the video Two By Two. While Bible App for Kids videos are about 25 minutes long, the actual presentation of the biblical story is very short. It is placed within a varied programme that includes our getting ready for our bible adventure with our hosts Shine and Emily, the animated presentation of the biblical story, a followup meeting with Guy to learn a bible memory verse, a contemporary application of the story/memory verse with Blinky, meeting with the Music Man to learn a theme-related song, and finally a return to home base for a final summary of our adventure with our hosts.
With the presentation of the biblical story children learned that Noah and his family survived the flood because Noah was God’s friend and Noah obeyed God. Everyone and everything else perished in the flood because they did not obey God. The narrator states that if Noah had not been obedient, he too would not have been safe from the storm. The narrator acknowledged that the story was not just about the animals and was indeed scary, but unfortunately his acknowledgement went no further than this and did not offer a means for children to live with the scary parts.
The overall theme of this video was centred on God’s instruction to obey. The narrator told the children before the bible story began that ‘obey’ “means doing what your parents and leaders say.” The narrator did not say that children are to obey God, only that they are to obey their parents and leaders. This leaves children to implicitly understand that parents and leaders are obedient to God, and therefore that they as children only need to obey their parents and leaders to be obedient to God themselves. The chosen memory verse for the Noah’s ark story was therefore, “Children, obey your parents because you belong to the Lord.” (Eph. 6:1). This memory verse was applied in a contemporary story with Blinky, a firefly, being told by his caregiver that he had to finish his soup before he could go out and play. Blinky declared that the soup was yucky. Shine (one of the series hosts) reminded Blinky that their memory verse instructed them to obey their parents and leaders. Blinky prayed about eating his soup, finished it, and was able to go out to play. There was no option for Blinky to discuss his dislike of the soup with his caregiver (neither actually spoke to the other in the story); the expectation was simple obedience by Blinky.
The song that followed this contemporary story reinforced the importance of obeying our parents and leaders with the instruction to children to carry out simple chores such as picking up their toys and cleaning their rooms. In the final summary Emily told her listeners that “God’s friends show they belong to God by obeying their parents and leaders.”
The video ‘It Is Finished’ recounts the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. Our narrator lets us know that the theme of this episode is ‘How do I love like Jesus?’ The storyteller says that this story is found in all four gospels. In the telling of the story the narrator says that the religious leaders believed Jesus was dangerous and because of this took him to Pilate to be arrested and punished. Pilate saw no cause for Jesus to be punished and wanted to release him, but the crowds demanded that Jesus be crucified. Jesus states that his crucifixion would complete what he came to do. The story included visuals of Jesus being nailed to the cross, his hanging on the cross with the nails in his hands and feet, but thankfully showed minimal injuries and blood. The crucifixion scene concluded with Jesus’ words, “It is finished.” The narrator states that Jesus “didn’t do any sins or make any wrong choices” and that “Jesus took the punishment for our sins.”
I appreciated that the retelling of the story made no anti-semitic statements about who killed Jesus. I would have preferred less of a focus on the nailing to the cross and the pain Jesus endured as such scenes are scary and unnecessary for children who frequently focus their grief in death on how it affects them directly; through death someone they love has ‘gone away’ and will never return again. Who will be their friend now and who will take care of them? This ‘gone away’ focus by young children to the crucifixion story turns to marvellous joy at Jesus’ unexpected return through resurrection Easter morning. This is unexpected return is the far more profound part of the story for children than hearing that Jesus coming back from the dead.
I have deep concerns about teaching a theology of atonement to young children as it frequently leaves children with a sense of blame and guilt for something they were not literally a participant in and have no control over. While the words, “Jesus died for our sins” and “Jesus died for you” are commonly spoken in church circles, children are not able to understand the nuances of such statements and are therefore left feeling guilty for no reason they can understand and have no way to resolve it.
The bible memory verse Guy chooses for us to learn comes from John 13:34, “Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” This is the answer to the thematic question posed by the narrator at the beginning of the video, “how do I love like Jesus?” It is explained that in Jesus’ dying for everyone Jesus showed his love for everyone. We too need to show our love for others by loving sacrificially as Jesus did. In this we love like Jesus.
This understanding of the biblical text is lived out in the contemporary application of the crucifixion story when Blinky shares his blanket with Cloudette. Blinky doesn’t want to share his favourite blanket with Cloudette, but once Shine reminds Blinky of the memory verse, Blinky willingly does so. Once again there is no discussion about it, the memory verse is used as a moral instructor and Blinky does as he is instructed.
The followup song to this contemporary application encourages children to show their love for others by giving people what they need. This could be by sharing our lunch, our toys or being a good friend.
So, what were my overall impressions of the Bible App for Kids?
To begin there was little room for children to sit in awe and wonder with each bible story. Each story was told with and for an explicit purpose. Open-ended questions were not posed and children were not invited to reflect on the story in any way before the narrator quickly leapt to a clear theological and behavioural conclusion. Children were clearly told the meaning of each story and were also told what their response to the story ought to be. The bible stories often felt secondary in the video. The moralistic themes of obedience and giving to others took centre stage with the memory verses selected and their contemporary application with Blinky. The goal of each was episode was to teach moral lessons and impart behavioural responses from the children using biblical stories as the jumping off point for the teaching.
The videos were presented with a constant upbeat tone to the point of being overly saccharine and unaware of a child’s broad range of emotions. Emily, the human host throughout the videos, asks questions and responds to the story and situations as a bubbly child might, bouncing and dancing throughout the video regardless of the mood and tone of the biblical story. While this upbeat tone might be perceived as a means of connecting with young viewers, it is belittling of children and was at times completely inappropriate given the context. For instance, immediately following the story of Jesus being crucified our host Emily and Guy are bopping and giggling while reading the bible and presenting the memory verse. I couldn’t help but compare their behaviour to episodes of Mr. Rodgers that dealt with issues such as death and divorce with a more appropriate gentle kindness, considered compassion and deep understanding of how children feel and respond in difficult circumstances.
I found the music to be simplistic with little care for engaging lyrics and/or music; singing seemed to be included as a means of reinforcing the theme as literally as possible.
Having viewed these videos as well as additional materials that accompany the videos I cannot recommend them for the children and families of our churches.
An Alternative Option
If you are looking for an alternative series of video bible stories for young and primary-aged children you may wish to check out The Beginner’s Bible Videos – These videos are free and expand on the bible stories presented in the book The Beginner’s Bible published by Zondervan.
Each of the videos focus’ on the bible story itself and does not include any additional teaching or unpacking of the story. Each video lasts about 25 minutes (some longer) and presents the story within the wider context of ancient daily life with lots of activity and conversations to help children connect with the characters. Unfortunately, they, as many do, present the biblical characters as white Europeans rather than ancient Middle Eastern persons.
The videos are far gentler, theologically more appropriate, and leave lots of room for children to sit with the story in wonder and awe. Noah and his family are presented as a very kind and close family. At one point in the story, Noah tells the people about the flood that is about to occur in spite of their laughing and mocking Noah for building an ark. When challenged by one of his sons, Noah states that it is only fair to let the people know ahead of time and to offer them an opportunity to prepare for the worst. Once the family and animals find themselves confined to the ark there are lots of animal tales as you might expect. Noah and his family are thankful to God when they rest on dry land and are able to come out to view God’s rainbow and promise of care.
The crucifixion story with the Beginner’s Bible videos is told within the larger story of Holy Week and Jesus’ resurrection. The story begins from the perspective of the people lining the streets of Jerusalem wanting to see the king. While some know who Jesus is, others focus on the inappropriateness of a king riding on a donkey. The temple is visited, and Jesus prays in the garden where he is ultimately arrested. Jesus anticipates his arrest and prevents the disciples from lashing out at the guards. The crucifixion story is told with compassion and speaks of his being hung on the cross to die, but there are no visual close ups of this; his death is viewed from a distance with the three crosses set on hill far away. The resurrection is a day of joy with the women visiting the tomb and sharing their good news with the disciples. The story of Thomas and the story of the disciples fishing and meeting Jesus on the shore are also included.
While these free videos and the purchasable bible story and colouring books are intended for pre-school and early primary children, some children may find them quite lengthy. Parents and teachers may wish to show them over time in shorter clips if children wander off.
I hope this extended review of these two video resources helps as you consider not just these, but any bible story materials you might offer to your children. Taking time to view the more challenging stories of scripture through the eyes and ears of children will help you discover what wonderful resources there are out there, while weeding out those that are neither helpful and perhaps even damaging to those we love.