Sharing God's stories with the smallest - in some senses "the least."
In some ways God is an abstract not a concrete, although once a child's imagination kicks in God is probably more real to children than He is to us. Don't misunderstand what I'm saying here and take it out of context. (God is not another imaginary friend. He is God. He is very real)
And don't underestimate the significance of regularly picking up a Bible (or Bible story book) to tell one of God's stories. That's concrete. First thing in the morning? Bedtime? Naptime? Mealtime?
Does a little child follow a word for word read from that soft black book? Perhaps. But probably more importantly they know you are close. You are happy to be with them. You are making time for them. You are sharing a story with them. Sharing time with them, telling God's stories is important to you. You're building a foundation on a lot of different levels.
There are all kinds of children's Bibles and Bible storybooks on the market- probably more engaging than that tiny black and white text in a picture-less soft black book. Should I use a children's Bible or Bible storybook or should I read scripture verbatim? Beware of watering down the scriptures or changing what the scriptures say but if it's a fun way to understand God's truth, God's stories? 20 years ago I would have said absolutely - read it verbatim from that soft black book. Did my toddlers follow the story? Probably not. (I used Bible story books, too.) Would they eventually remember phrases they heard over and over year after year? Probably. I guess you'd have to ask them...
Let's use Luke. This is Advent. Let's take the story of John the Baptist because it's the first story - but it's a hard one.
Who are the key characters in the story? Who will show up later in the scriptures? Are there any objects I can use- tastes, smells, things to touch? Can I use pictures, puppets, faceless puppets, dolls? What are the words or images that would be familiar to this age group of children?
Here we go. . . A long long time ago in Bible times, there was an older man named Zechariah. He loved God very much. Elizabeth was his wife. They did what God told them to do. Zechariah went to work everyday to worship God in the temple. Today, it was his turn. He burned some incense. [burn some incense, turn the lights down]] The other workers stayed outside.
All of a sudden there was an angel standing near Zechariah. Zechariah was soooooo afraid.
The angel said, "Don't be afraid, Zechariah. When you prayed, God was listening Elizabeth is going to have a baby boy. Name him John. He will be so much fun for you! Lots of people will be happy. He will grow up to be a great man but he will have special rules to follow. He will bring many people back to God and get people ready for Jesus."
But Zechariah said, "How can I be sure that what you're telling me is true?"
The angle Gabriel said, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God. He sent me to tell you this. If you don't believe me then you won't be able to talk until all these things that I've told you happen."
The people waiting outside began to wonder, "Why was it taking him so long?" When Zechariah came out, he couldn't talk! Then the people knew he had seen a vision from God.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were pretty old. But they soon found out they were going to have a baby just like the angel told Zechariah. ["going to have a baby" is a familiar phrase to lots of toddlers & preschoolers. You could include a mom who is going to have a baby, a grandma, a grandpa in your audience. Maybe an older woman who is going to have a baby. "Elizabeth was an older lady like ____ but she was going to have a baby like ______." You get the idea. The rest of the story is in Luke 1:57. This might be way too much for young toddlers but not for preschool.
What will toddlers remember? How animated you were, how much fun they had listening to the story, the incense, the guests, maybe that this was a story about someone "having a baby", your props, the angel, maybe the old man, the old lady, maybe not being able to talk...maybe...
But each time they hear that story a little more of the story will make sense to them. They'll remember a little more.
During the Christmas season point out things in everyday life that the kids might hear in the Christmas story. Visit a live creche or a farm. Point out a donkey, a cow, straw, someone who is going to have a baby. Point to the stars. Bring them to worship so they can hear lots of singing. Go outside on a hillside at night.
Will they remember and connect these things to the story? Maybe, but again, you're building a foundation. Sit outside in the dark. Have someone turn on the car headlights. Isn't that similar to what the shepherds experienced but without electricity? Does a toddler know the difference between electricity or not? No, but they might remember the experience, the surprise, the light in the darkness.
Take a LONG walk - not as long as Mary & Joseph's but... you get the idea...
If you do things like that with kids before they hear the Bible story, they will have more to bring to the story when they hear it. Infants? Toddlers? Preschoolers? Everything you do or don't do is creating a foundation for what's to come - not just cognitive knowledge but emotional and kinethetic memories - something tangible they can associate with the words they hear in God's stories. It can't hurt.
Instead of thinking about the things little children don't understand, think about what they do understand. Every time you read or tell the story build on it just alittle. Build on their understanding of and knowledge of God and Christ Jesus. And never underestimate God's Holy Spirit or the power of His Word. John moved in his mother's womb in the presence of Mary and Jesus - both much younger than your toddlers ... anyway... more to ponder..