Children’s sermons – When? Why? How?

Children’s sermons must be really hard to do, because (since growing up and leaving my father’s church) I have mostly only seen them done poorly – too often they exploit children and pander to the grown ups in the congregation. They confuse the children at times, or embarrass them, or teach them bad theology. Many preachers dread them, or else devote almost no thought to them whatsoever. And few could give a good reason why we do them at all. This is why some churches have never adopted them, others are now abandoning them, and some church leaders are calling for an end to them altogether.

It does not help that children’s sermons are generally not covered whatsoever in seminary, so a pastor must find her direction elsewhere when figuring out how and why to do them. And in order to find, she must be inclined to seek.

My Dad did not always do children’s sermons, but when he was 45, he became a father for the first time, and he began to take an interest in how children fit into the worshipping community. He bought more than a dozen books of children’s sermons, read them and made notes, and mixed in what he read with what he had learned from child development classes, together with what he observed in the children he had worked with over the years, and what he was learning from being a dad, and from discussions with my Mom. Then he brought all of that to worship, and presented it in his signature style – gregarious, interactive, interested, dramatic.

He was brilliant. I only remember one time when he made a spectacle of a child (me, as it turned out), and he apologized for it – profusely, and more than once. He realized in retrospect that he could have made the same point for the other children and the rest of the congregation more effectively by enlisting me in advance as a confederate, rather than springing the surprise (a trick candle that would not blow out) on me in front of the congregation.

It would not be accurate to say, “Everything I learned about children’s sermons I learned from my Dad.” But he certainly gave me a strong foundation on which to build my own style.

So I am not unilaterally opposed to children’s sermons. But I do think that there are certain parameters within which children’s sermons function, and outside of which they are perhaps even detrimental. If a pastor does not have the inclination to thoughtfully and prayerfully prepare for this type of ministry to children, then he would do better to follow the example of churches who have found ways to minister to children without children’s sermons.

For example, St. Luke’s Episcopal, in Durham, NC, invites children aged about 4-9 participate in Godly Play at the beginning of the worship service, and then to join their parents in the sanctuary for the choir anthem, the offering, the Eucharist, the final hymn, and the benediction. In Godly Play, they engage the scripture deeply in a developmentally appropriate, Montessori-inspired way. Younger children may play in the nursery during worship.

But for those who remain committed to the idea, I will be examining how best to incorporate children’s sermons into weekly worship. But first, I will be offering an example of a children’s sermon I presented about six years ago, in which I involved the children in making fresh squeezed lemonade for the congregation during the worship service!

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