Laughing until it hurts

Among the many responses I received to my Six Essentials for Preaching to Children were several requests for me to discuss specific strategies for dealing with congregational laughter. What do we do when the congregation laughs at the children during the children sermon? When is the laughter harmless, and when does it present a problem? And is it possible to handle this matter in a way that extends grace both to the children and to the grown-ups?

It is so hard not to laugh at what children say, sometimes – even when they are quite serious. I cannot claim, as a parent, to be innocent in this regard. Sometimes I have managed to stifle my laughter in the moment, and other times it has been necessary for my daughter to correct me sternly: “It’s not funny, Mommy!”  But I am fairly accurate when it comes to knowing when she is being intentionally funny (making a joke), and when she is serious about something that strikes me as funny.

So I want to be clear at the outset that the adults who are laughing probably love the children they are laughing at very much.  They just are not giving thought in the moment to what their laughter might mean to the children.  We want to give the grown-ups in the congregation the benefit of the doubt, starting with the assumption that the adults love the children and mean well.  When reminded of the vows they have made at every infant baptism to help to raise the children in the Christian faith, these grown-ups will desire to live into these vows to lead the children through example and through direct interaction.  Therefore, the first thing is to be gentle with the congregation.  Remember that they too are beloved children of God.

Something that is helpful here is to examine what is at the root of much laughter: surprise.  When something happens that we do not expect, or when what we expect does not happen, then we laugh.  Often we laugh hardest when we are lulled by the familiar, until any variation from the expected would cause surprise. Or when two familiar things are brought together in a surprising way.

Because I know my daughter well (and because I am growing into a greater understanding of children at different ages more generally), I can usually tell when my daughter or her close friends are meaning to say something strange / surprising / shocking, and so attempting to make me (or each other) laugh – and when they are saying something that surprises me because my 38 year old brain works so much differently from their 5 year old brains.

What is different catches us off guard.  And when we are caught off guard, one of our reactions is to laugh.

Personal confession:  when in the parish, I caused some confusion to my grown up parishioners with my laughter.  The cultural divide was so great, that often I thought they were telling a joke when they were serious, and so I would laugh.  And other times, I would fail to laugh when they were trying to make a joke, because I didn’t find the same things funny that they did.  Given more time in that setting, I feel I could have overcome that divide – but it took me time to figure out what was going on, and to begin learning who they were enough to start teasing out the difference between what I was taking to be dry wit and what some individuals meant to be literal descriptions of what was going on in their minds.

When it comes to children, I have had the advantage of being a child and being attentive to (and hurt and confused by) the laughter of adults.  I also took a class in developmental psychology in college, have continued to read a great deal about child and adolescent development, and my mother is a developmental psychologist.  And for the past five years, my intellect has been primarily focused on thinking about my daughter and her friends.  So it is not particularly remarkable that I notice when kids are not trying to get a laugh, and when laughing at them is inappropriate.  Not having had any context for understanding rural living, farming, factory work, living in the same county where you grew up and your mom grew up and her mom grew up… well, let’s just say that I am lucky that I had eaten food that my Dad had hunted and my Mom had canned as a kid, or I would have had little to go on for cultural connection.  To twist an expression originally used to talk about the relationship between the U.S. and England, we were divided by a common language.

My point here is that often, adults and children are divided by a common language.  Children are using words differently than we do, and saying things that are not what we would say, because they do not have the experiences that we have.  And to make things even more complicated than when grown ups from different cultures encounter one another, children do not even have the same brains we do – they do not have the same capacities for nuanced thinking, or for understanding metaphor, or for processing that different people have different points of view.  There is a lot of potential for humor here.  Which is why parents spend so much time sharing with one another the funny things their kids have said.  Just so long as these conversations are out of earshot of our kids, and they are accompanied by time spent trying to better understand our children, then no problem.

So the best remedy for inappropriate or hurtful laughter is education – getting to know more about child development*, and about the children in the congregation in particular.  And while it would be great if every lay person in our congregations had the time and inclination to show up to evening and weekend workshops, the reality is that some of this education is going to need to take place in worship.

But this post has gone on long enough!  Specific strategies and examples of how best to educate the congregation will have to wait.  In the meantime, your love and grace for yourself and the people of all ages who make up your congregations will go a long long way!

*There are so many wonderful books out there that it is hard to pick one to recommend.  But one that I adore because of how much unique and important information it contains is What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, by Lise Eliot

The Six Essentials for Preaching to Children – If you must do children’s sermons, here’s how

A few entries back, I mentioned that there were certain parameters within which a children’s sermon might operate – and outside of which it might do real harm.  These are the essentials of a grace-infused children’s sermon, from my point of view.  If you want to proclaim the good news to children, whether through a children’s sermon or in other ways, these six points need to be considered.  I would welcome discussion of these points – or your own additional points! – in the comments.

1) Love the children
This sounds obvious, but it gets overlooked too often. This is the starting place. God loves children. As Christians, we are called to love all who God loves, and that includes children. We are not to fetishize them or worship them or relegate them to the front or the back – we are to love them. And to love someone, we must first see them – we must desire to understand them. We must listen. Loving children means paying attention to children. Loving children means devoting time to thinking through how we minister to children. Engaging children ought not be an afterthought, nor ought it be a means towards reeling in their parents (the ones with the money to fix our roof and pay the salaries!) Children are not the future of the church – they are within the body of Christ NOW, and are within God’s providential care as they are NOW – penniless and vulnerable.

2) Think: Why do you want to do children’s sermons anyway?
“Because the congregation expects it” or “Because the pastor before me did them” is not an adequate answer. The parents are looking to you for guidance on how to teach their children about God’s love. The children are looking to you as an agent of God’s love. How you go about your children’s ministry will demonstrate for the congregation how God intends for children to be a part of the life of the church. There is a tremendous risk of false witness in this area – we do not want to suggest that children are a hassle to God, are not welcome by God, are less interesting to God, are interesting to God only as entertainment for adults, are interesting to God only as future adults, are endearingly wrong-headed about God (unlike adults, who are wise in the ways of God), etc.
So ask yourself – are children’s sermons the best fit for my pastoral gifts and the particular personality and needs of this congregation? Are they the best choice in this place and time as a vehicle for welcoming children, for teaching them about God’s love, and for teaching adults how to love children well?

3) Engage the children on their own terms / on their own level
There are a few universals here – engage children’s senses – not just the visual, but all of their senses. Use different types of lessons to reach children with different learning styles – use math, use storytelling, use participation, be whimsical, be practical – mix it up from week to week! Remember yourself as a child, and the questions you had about worship, and set out to answer those questions. Try to remember that very few of your children’s sermons should be rooted in a metaphor – generally the younger kids are not developmentally capable of understanding them, and a few of the older kids will not make the connection either.
But there are also some particulars. Get to know the kids – and what works well for them. Get to know their personalities and strengths, so that you can engage different ones of them in different ways. Pay attention to the age range, the number of children, the sibling relationships (if any), etc. If you are pastor to more than one congregation, your children’s sermons will end up being a little bit different at each congregation if you pay attention to the particular children you are serving.

4) Do not put the children on display
Begin by finding ways to position the children so that they are not “on stage” for the adults.  This time is about you and the children – by taking time out for them, you are demonstrating to the children that they are important to God – that God loves them, and wants them to understand what is going on in worship.  If this is for the adults in any measure, it is in order to model for them how to interact with the children in a life-giving way.  Which in the end is just another way of this time being for the children.  The grown-ups need to be made to understand that they are not the audience.
Nobody likes to be laughed at when they make a mistake. Most people clam up in front of a crowd of people, and children are no exception – especially if they are likely to be laughed at, or have been laughed at before. Many children will feel that they are being made fun of, and it will hurt their feelings, and perhaps even discourage them from sharing – or even coming forward for children’s time! – in the future.  Find ways to train the congregation to restrain themselves – the children are not on television – they are right there, and they can hear the adults laughing, and often they do not understand why.  Demonstrate to the children that you are their advocate with the congregation, and help interpret the laughter of the congregation for them (or, when appropriate, chide the congregation for treating the children as entertainment – but in a gentle way that will not embarrass the children, or confuse them.)
Rev. Taylor Mills, pastor of Trinity UMC in Durham, NC, has reminded me that there are other children who seek the laughter of the congregation, and that is also something that we need to account for / channel in proper directions. This is a different sort of problem that results from putting the children on display (the child who desires to be on display,)  that illustrates the general rule that we must avoid the actor/audience dynamic that often develops between the children and the congregation.
The conventional wisdom among educators has been to redirect that need for attention, giving the child opportunities to get attention for positive behavior (eg. – pre-emptively asking for their help with a task at the outset of the children’s sermon, or even enlisting them as a co-conspirator in advance of the children’s sermon.)  Of course, this will only work well if, at the same time, the congregation is no longer re-enforcing bad behavior (i.e. – laughing at the young comedian’s antics.)  And it is important to take care that the other children are also given opportunities to help / serve as volunteers – or else we are sending the message to the children that public misbehavior is the only way to receive the pastor’s attention – instead of the message we want the children to receive: no matter whether you can’t sit still or are silent and attentive, whether you intentionally cut-up in worship or always try to do the right thing, God loves you, and the church loves and needs you.

5) Be relevant
Be relevant to worship. If there is going to be a baptism, talk to the children about baptism. If there is something else special going on in worship, talk to them about that. Give them things to listen for / look for later in the service. This will not work, of course, if the practice is to usher them all out after the children’s sermon.
Be relevant to children. Think about their experiences, and what they are likely to understand. For instance, when talking about sin and forgiveness one time, I shared a story about having borrowed something of my sister’s WITHOUT ASKING. And then, even worse, drawing on it. Even the children without siblings knew how wrong that was, but the children with siblings were astounded – truly shocked that their pastor had ever done anything that wrong. One of them got the courage to ask if my sister had forgiven me for it, and I admitted that it took months before she did – and that I was still really sorry about it. But that God forgave me right away, even before I understood that what I did was so wrong. That story stuck with them, and gave them a sense of the immensity of God’s grace – taking something of a sibling’s without asking and then vandalizing it – that is the kind of sin a child understands.  It also showed them that nothing they could do was so wrong that God couldn’t change their hearts – that with God’s help, even such a sinner as myself had grown up to become a thoughtful and trustworthy pastor person.

6) Be authentic
Never pretend to be stupider than you are, or to not know the meanings of words – never ever lie to the children. You can be silly, but be silly in the sly way that a grown-up is silly. Less than a week ago, I heard Rabbi Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC ask the children of the preschool there if they thought the preschool director was in the suitcase on his lap. They all laughed and squealed and shouted out, “No!” They knew that the rabbi was just being silly. He never did suggest that he actually thought she was in there.  And he didn’t have to in order to get their attention or their laughter.  I have seen him be silly with the children, but I have never seen him be dishonest.
There are lots of books and websites and subscription services for children’s stories. It is okay to use these, but never pretend that the experience of another pastor is your own experience. Tailor the stories of others to your own experience / gifts / understanding of the scriptures. When you make it your own, you make it convincing – you make it true.

The bottom line is that the children are your parishioners. Use the same wisdom that I pray you use in the pulpit: prepare, and choose your words carefully. Speak out of the depth of your own faith and experience. Speak the truth in love. Remember that your role within the congregation is chiefly to proclaim the truth that God is Love, and that God’s Love is unending and unstoppable and for everyone. Proclaim it like you mean it, because you believe it – because your very being is rooted in it. And never be afraid to model repentance when you get it wrong.

I neglected to mention when first publishing this blog entry that I owe to my Mom, Dr. Clair Cosby, the insight about young children not being capable of understanding metaphors. It is a great gift to have a developmental psychologist in the family!

… make lemonade!

In the last post, I described a children’s sermon in which I made lemonade for the congregation.  But I didn’t include the recipe!  That’s because I never did write down the proportions that I used.  So instead, I am going to include the recipe that I developed together with my daughter a couple of weeks ago when we were getting ready for her first lemonade stand.

Unlike the lemonade in the children’s story, this lemonade is made with still (instead of sparkling) water – because my daughter can’t stand soda water.  And the lemonade I made at Newsoms was traditional yellow lemonade, but my daughter’s favorite is pink lemonade, so we made hers pink.  So here it is:

Squeeze 10 lemons. Add bottled lemon juice to equal 2 cups. [It turns out that you only need for about 1/2 of the juice to come from lemons in order to get the fresh squeezed taste. And my little one did not have the patience to squeeze 20 lemons!]

Mix in 2 cups of simple syrup. [I make simple syrup by filling a Ball jar about 3/4 or so full of granulated sugar, and then pouring boiling water over it – until the jar is about 90% full. Let the sugar dissolve in the water.]

Add 4 cups of water, and stir.

At this point, you have lemonade. To make it pink lemonade, add 1/4 c. of pure tart cherry juice.