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!

Cultural Anthropology

As an undergraduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), I found myself taking Introduction to Cultural Anthropology from a young woman from Nigeria who had recently graduated from Wellesley (or Bryn Mawr or Smith or some other Seven Sisters college).  Apparently, a professor at one point had persuaded her that she would best serve “her people” by making herself an outsider to them, by learning to look at them and their ways critically, and so help them to become (I am not making this up) more sanitary.  I consider VCU’s hiring of this professor to be one of the great gifts of my undergraduate education, in that it took students who were curious about (perhaps even interested in) cultural anthropology, and ended up making them highly suspicious of the whole anthropological project.  We learned what it was like to be “them” – the ones studied by a person who stands outside the group in erudite amusement – the ones generalized and therefore misunderstood.

In the early to mid 1990s, in the hierarchy of Virginia Public Universities, VCU was the second cheapest, second easiest to get into school in the state.  Most students were transfers from other schools that either they couldn’t afford (me) or where they couldn’t “cut it” (also me) – or else they were returning students, getting their degree in the 30s or 40s or 50s, or they were students whose parents knew from the beginning they couldn’t afford to send their kid anywhere else.  What our professor, educated at an elite institution in New England, saw were simply American college students – which in her mind meant (again, I am not making this up, but actually reporting on the perceptions she spoke out loud to us in class) our parents lived in a Dynasty / Falcon Crest type reality, and we could order out pizza whenever we wanted.   Whereas (speaking for myself and the people I hung out with in my first years at the school) we were mostly, in reality, students who for one reason or another found eating out a simple cheese sub once a month to be a splurge, and who had located a couple of places in the city where we could get a bottomless cup of coffee for 50 cents, so that we could in the cheapest way possible find a place apart from our dorm room or student union or apartment to sit.  The year that I was informed that I lived in an opulent “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” fantasy world was the same year that machine gun fire broke out at 2am under my apartment window. Another afternoon that semester I witnessed a shooting while writing a paper for my social work class.  (The police were sufficiently overworked that year that they weren’t interested in my statement.  “Let’s wait and see if he dies,” they said.  Over the phone, because it didn’t really warrant a visit.)

So what do the natives do when confronted with an out of touch anthropologist?  First, they protest, “No, we can’t just buy a pizza whenever we want!!”  That did not so much work for us, though (and it so seldom does.)  She was the educated one, and so she knew us better than we did.  She shook her head patiently, and said that in fact we could.  I had seen my bank statement, but nevermind.

So the next step is to strike back, to make a fool of the anthropologist by feeding them the sort of data they will believe.  And so we gave her any number of wild tales about what our life, and the life of our city was like.  The one that I remember to this day is our invented etymology of “Powhite Parkway.”  It is locally pronounced (as a native of Richmond, VA will tell you) “Po – (h)ite” and is one of the many Native American derived names in the area.  But one day, when she asked why it was called the “Po’ White Parkway,”  we told her (okay, it was I – I told her – but I recall that my compatriots were delighted by my transgression) that the safest way to get south of the river, where we, the wealthy north of the river Richmonders, had ghettoized all the poor white people (colloquially known as “po’ white trash”), was to take the Po’ White Parkway.  And she nodded knowingly and smiled and moved on with our “lesson” – which none of us paid much attention to, having demonstrated how little she knew about our city and our culture, and thus casting suspicion on her knowledge of any culture not her own.  Actually, not even her own, which she saw as backwards and disease ridden, because of the practice of eating from a common dish.  (It made me wonder, later, if she had ever seen eucharist with a common cup, and if she had allowed herself to conclude that Episcopalians were likewise backwards and disease ridden.)

When I was in Divinity school, it became clear to me that much of undergraduate education is intended to sanitize us, in a sense – to set us apart from any culture – even our own culture, and view it with erudite amusement.  To be set apart is a definition of the word “holy” – and certainly graduates in the “liberal arts” are a sort of priesthood of rational materialism.

But lately I have been wondering if Divinity school might not do the same thing, sometimes.  Create an us and them between the ministry professionals and the laity.  And if that is so, how can we minister to people – how can we rightly love people – that we prejudge?  Certainly I have not been known to be a particularly patient person.  I understand how, arriving in a parish (or a non-profit organization, or a seminary, or…) it can be tempting to plow right on ahead and give the people what they “need to hear” – to give them the benefit of our wisdom, not least our analysis of their situation.

Ironic then, that I’m blogging.  Just sending this stuff out into the ether.  I have very little idea who you are, reader, and what you are looking for.  It is hard to do this without envisioning an audience – but I know that I must be envisioning you wrongly.  Please forgive me.

And I ask God to forgive me for misleading that professor regarding the Po’ White Parkway.  I didn’t see her as a person, but only as an enemy – and I never did pray for her.  Or for myself, that I might see her rightly.  I might then have recognized that she and I were alike in our refusal to see one another.

PastorX is now ex-pastor

Who is PastorX?

That would be me.  I went through a brief stint, early in my stay-at-home Mom career, of visiting places on the internet where atheists were hanging out (mainly columns on atheist subjects in webzines and online newspapers) and injecting myself into the conversational mix as the (often lone) reasonable, educated, patient Christian type.  I was starved for an intellectual and an evangelistic challenge, and engaging both young atheists and their angry fundamentalist detractors in dialogue (tri-alogue?) provided me with both – all conveniently available in the home I was confined to for 2 – 2+hour baby naps per day!

And when I went online for these purposes, I went by the handle “PastorX.”

Why?  I was looking for a handle that right away identified me as a professional interpreter of Christianity, so – Pastor.  In math, we use the letter X to refer to an unknown quantity.  And I wanted to remain unknown – especially as to gender.  Frankly, a lot of brainy young men seem to think that you have to be a man to be brainy.  (Let’s be clear – I am talking about chauvinist beliefs as lived in practice, not as espoused explicitly.)  And atheists actively arguing on the internet are disproportionately brainy young men.  I wanted to keep the focus on what I was saying, not what organs I was or was not born with.  So – PastorX was born.

But the X grew on me for many more reasons.  Again in math, X is meaningless, unknowable on its own.  X is known only in relationship to others.  X is the name of my generation – an at once jaded and hopeful generation that is liberal politically, but holds tightly to the value espoused by conservatives – personal responsibility – a generation that believes in community, in egalitarian relationships – a generation that still can’t quite believe that we really are the grownups now.

It also occurred to me that X might signify a rejection of a slave name.  Malcolm X changed his last name to X from Little to signify that his true name was unknown – that Little was not an African name, but a name inherited from white slaveholders.  Similarly, as a woman, changing a name in marriage recalls a transfer of property between two men – the true holders of the name.  To go by “X” could be a feminist assertion that my true name is unknown – I have only the surnames of men to chose from in recorded history.   But it could also be taking on the name of Christ, whose name begins in the Greek with the letter Chi, printed “X” – I am no longer a slave to sin and death, but have been given a name and a heritage.  Taking up my X could signify that I now in fact do know my true name – it is X – I am marked as a member of Christ’s family.

I gave the X a lot of thought, but I took the title “Pastor” for granted.

At the 2008 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, certain changes were made regarding the relationship between family leave and the ordination process.  And as a result, it became impossible to imagine that I could complete the ordination requirements in the new allotted time.  So this past June, my petition to be discontinued as a Probationary Elder was accepted by the Virginia Annual Conference.

This summer, I received a note from my District Superintendent.  As an ex-pastor, I was required to return not only my license for local ministry, but also the certificate I received when I was commissioned a probationary elder.  Turns out it is not so much like a diploma, and more like a license.

It was not until a few weeks ago that I was finally ready to climb the stairs to my work space, take the frame off the wall, pry open the back, and remove the certificates.  Today I will put them in the envelope and finally send them back to the District Office.

Now, I am pure X – the traditional mark made by an individual who does not know how to sign her or his own name.  I think that it is starting to grow on me.