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!

25 responses

  1. Regarding one of your points, Sarah: several years ago, I attended worship at a UMC in Chicago. When it came time for the children’s moment, the children were invited forward, and the “adults” were asked to fill out the attendance registers, while the organist played some music. The pastor had an object that the kids could see and touch, and he sat and talked with them. Later, he held the object when he preached his sermon for the “adults.” I haven’t had the nerve to try something like that yet, but I found the way they focused on children to be refreshing. It addressed so many of the issues you raised.

    • I love this strategy, Jay! Distract the grown-ups with boring grown-up business, and with music that makes it too difficult for them to hear what the pastor is up to! And it handles the matter in such a subtle way! If you do decide to try something like this yourself, I would be eager to hear how it goes!

  2. I love doing children’s sermons – or as I am calling it now A Time with the Children…talk about being silly – I now owe them a pizza party because they stumped me… at Broadway I interact with the children eveery week because of weekly communion, but in other churches that I have served, the children’s time is really the only time of interaction with the children. I remember as a kid we didn’t have children’s sermons, so I didn’t know the minister – until I was sick and he came to the hospital… that one action made Ben my pastor! All kids need one! I have read that doing children’s sermons the way I do (a variation of the brown bag where the kids bring items and I have to talk about them) is the lazy way out. I don’t agree. By the time I left St. Paul’s in Muncie the kids were telling me what they thought I was going to say…. it was teaching them to think theologically about their world.

    the idea wasn’t orginal with me – I got it from the old Brown Bag Sermons – I think… but I have adapted it – certainly added the fun aspect of if they stump me we get a party. And sometimes the rest of the congregation joins in the fun by slipping the kids items to bring… I have had a tire gauge, a thermonter, breath mints, a baby goat (yup) they hid that one in a blanket in the back row…erasers, flowers, games, books, combls, a pencil… can’t remember all of them!

    • This is an awesome way to do children’s sermons, Nancy! I love this idea of having them bring their own objects, because that helps you get to know them so much more quickly, through the objects that are interesting / important to them! And then they take them home, and the object now has this added significance of what you all talked about in worship together… wouldn’t it be cool if every time they use a tire gauge, or play a certain game they remember the theological lesson that went with it?
      And I agree about every child needing a pastor. Children have so many fears and thoughts and questions… We grown-ups do too! But children are much more vulnerable and less experienced – and they have brains that work quite differently from ours (which can make so much of life confusing and difficult when the world is constructed largely by and for adult-brained people.)
      Thank you, and thanks to all who are reading this who are committed to being pastors to children!

  3. The only argument I have with your essay is the title. “…if you must do children’s sermons…” If you cannot do children’s sermons you probably should not be preaching at all. The “adults” in the pew are much more likely to absorb lessons from the children’s sermon than from the “adult” sermon.

    • Perhaps adult sermons should be more like children’s sermons in that case! Calls for an end to the children’s sermon have been renewed of late, and while I myself am an advocate of children’s sermons, there are some good alternatives (such as making the entire service more kid friendly.)
      Though I am inclined to agree to the extent that not thoughtfully proclaiming God’s grace to children does not bode well for one’s interest in proclaiming God’s grace at all… at the same time I feel that there is an unconscious bias on the part of many pastors towards privileging their ministry to adults – which leads to lack of preparation for children’s sermons – and a children’s sermon that is not well executed would be better not done at all.

    • Great way to include them! Check out the book: You Can Preach to the Kids Too! by Carolyn Brown. It can work to simply say now and the, “You kids can understand this….” when you tell a story, or using situations from childhood – we’ve all been children – alerting the kids when you’re going to say something they will really recognize. Also need to realize they are listening, even when they are drawing or such.

  4. I disagree strongly with the unknown-to-me Norman Prather about getting out of preaching if you can’t do children’s sermons, but to each his or her own, I suppose.Yes, adults do obsorb the lessons of the children’s sermon, but I hope that I am capable enough to get across a message to them without having a strength in the other. Of course, I will admit with 2 kids under 5, I had better learn how to get a message across to them.

    I have never been a big fan of the children’s sermons, and in part the reason that it’s been talked about over here in Britain: it’s the children’s ‘special’ or ‘own time’ with the minister/preacher. This was always said in a way that indicated that the rest of the worship service was completely irrelevant to to them, so we threw them this little bone to make them feel like they have a part. Now, in British churches, the children’s sermon generally came before we packed them out to go to Sunday school (generally this takes places about 5-10 mintues into the service). So, while I agree with everything you write here, Sarah, and especially about making the children’s sermons show children their importance to God, I wouldn’t want it to show that this is all there is for them and the rest of the service is ‘for the grownups’.

    • This is one of the strongest arguments against children’s sermons, Will – that it is easy for it to become a message to children that the rest of worship is boring and irrelevant to them. It is important for children to connect with *all* of worship (or at least with all of it that they are there for) – so if the children’s sermon hinders rather than facilitates that, then it is in that case better ditched.

    • After my initial reply, I wanted to follow up with: if you did end up taking the route of doing away with the children’s sermon, what would you suggest as an alternate way for the pastor to get to know the children, and the children to get to know the pastor?

      • On one hand, in my context, I really don’t know how to answer. 1) I don’t have any churches that have any children. Well, there’s one at 1 of the 4 but I see her at the Toddler Group. 2) If there was a church with significant amount of children, then I would only be there at most once a month. Most of our churches see someone different everyone week and most of the time it is with a local preacher (a lay person) who most likely would be from another church and may or may not be back to the said church anywhere from 6 months to never. In any case, a children’s sermon isn’t going to do it. Hence, the understanding of the children’s sermon as little more than the children’s own special time with the preacher.

        But, in another case, is the 3-5 minute children’s sermon enough for the preacher to get to know kids? Maybe enough that they will see he’s interested in them. Honestly when I did have a church with more kids, I talked to them after the service.

      • Hey, Will – apparently, there is a limit to how many layers of nested comments WordPress will allow! So this is in response to your comment that begins “On one hand, in my context…”
        Something that you and I have talked about a great deal is the number of differences between ministry in the British Methodist Church and the Southeastern Jurisdiction (in the United States) of the United Methodist Church. One day in the near future, you and I need to blog in dialogue about this topic! In the meantime, I hope to be writing in the near future about the importance of rightly reading our context when doing ministry.
        I do think that it is possible to get to know the children initially through weekly children’s sermons – but being at community events where they are present, Working at their Vacation Bible School programs, and having time for prayer and conversation before the service with my acolyte for the week were some ways that I built on those relationships in my churches. But as you point out, the British Methodist context is quite different – both with regards to the number of children in many congregations, and with regards to rotating v. stationary worship leadership.

  5. I like Will Grady’s thoughts on “children’s sermons”. I dislike them for this very reason. All of worship should be relevant to children. Is some of it over their heads? Possibly…but we constantly underestimate what children are able to absorb and comprehend. The biggest struggle I have is to convince parents that their children should be in church with them for the entire time. Packing them off to Sunday School ten minutes into the service tells them that what the adults are doing is not for them. I much prefer to have everyone in worship for the entire service, and then an education hour for everyone as well. Will everyone participate in the second hour? Probably not, but as our current Sunday morning schedule is, there is no time for me to go to the Sunday School or to teach an adult study.

  6. Would you mind if I printed out a copy, giving you full credit to share with some of the people in the church I attend?

  7. Thank you for the article, I found it very helpful for my own congregation. We have a rotating group of church members who do Children’s Moment. We strive to meet many of your points, but, unfortunately, are missing the mark on many of them. Thankfully my minister posted your message and may be using the article as an aid to train the next group of volunteers.

    • Thanks, Mark! Children’s sermons are at the intersection of 3 things I think about the most: children, worship, and evangelism. So I am so pleased to have the opportunity to facilitate this online conversation about children’s sermons!

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