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!

Facing our Fears

“Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;

from our sins and fears release us, let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;

dear desire of every nation, joy of every trembling heart.”

– Charles Wesley

Like other United Methodists, I have been thinking a lot about guaranteed appointments in the past 48 hours. Perhaps I seem a bit late to the table on this one, as attention has turned to the latest votes and statements. But I wanted to give this one the thought it is due, especially as among the many interested clergy persons continuing to make online statements for or against the new policy, I count personal friends on “both sides.” It has struck me that, in the midst of drawing our lines, too few have noticed that everyone is a little bit right:

  • It is surprising that such a significant piece of legislation was handled on a consent calendar, with many delegates not really knowing what was going on… and just because it was handled this way does not mean that there was any particular agenda or conspiracy behind it.
  • It is true that many UM clergy have been empowered to be prophetic by knowing that, even if they are moved from a particular congregation, they will still be able to feed and house their families… just as it is true that many UM clergy (sometimes the same UM clergy) have passed on opportunities to be prophetic even with such guarantees.
  • It is true that there are many pastors in other denominations without guaranteed appointments who have been prophetic without this guarantee… and that there are many others who have chosen a path of security for their families after seeing colleagues lose appointments over their prophetic stands.
  • It is true that the laity generally do not have jobs with such guarantees… but it is also true that their job descriptions do not usually include telling those who pay and evaluate them things that they might be uncomfortable hearing.
  • It is true that there are ineffective pastors… and it is true that there were already mechanisms in place for removing them.
  • Some of us are concerned that this policy might be abused… others of us point out that the appointment system itself was abused… and others among us point out that there are at least monitoring safeguards in this new system…

… and others say, “Isn’t it too bad that we don’t trust each other?” Yes it is. It is too bad that we don’t trust each other. But I hope that saying so is not being used as an attempt to shame others into not sharing their mistrust.

Some have gone further, suggesting that airing this mistrust so openly is a poor witness, but I am not so sure. I do not think that anyone outside of the church is likely to be surprised that there are untrustworthy people in the church. That may be part of why they are not interested in joining themselves (or why they have left.) It isn’t really proclaiming the good news to lie and say, “No no – we are all trustworthy here, and we all trust one another!” Every church – every group of people contains untrustworthy people. No, let’s state it more strongly – no one of us is trustworthy at all times. To draw people in with the dishonest assertion that at least they can trust us, the good folk in the United Methodist Church – well, there is no more sure formula for ultimately breaking their trust.

There are many of us who have been hurt by people we thought we could trust in the church – and many others of us who were asked to trust people we knew would be poor stewards of that trust. And there are others who have not been hurt – but that does not make them more righteous or better witnesses (nor does it make them less experienced, more naïve, or better connected) – it just means that they have a different story and a different relationship with sometimes different (and sometimes the same) people within the same institution. I refuse to concede that anyone who trusts in their cabinet has their [by implication, unloving, dysfunctional, or privileged] head in the sand. But neither will I allow that those who have been hurt sharing their pain are thereby offering a poor witness. Instead, they are witnessing to the reality that we will (I hope) all recognize – that we in the Church (yes, even our own beloved United Methodist church) are not ourselves the full expression of the love of God, and as such, do not merit the same level of trust that we can rightly place in Godself only.

Not that I have not seen some poor witnessing! I have seen a good bit of it around this issue (and others, but lets not digress any further.) I would propose that fear is a poor witness. Or, at least, acting as if our fear is justified is a poor witness. Perfect love casts out fear, John reminds us – or (if you prefer Gandhi) where there is fear, there is no religion. Having been hurt before – knowing that others will be hurt again – we cannot create a policy that will avoid that. We can create policies that will mitigate injury, or policies that will exacerbate them (which results this policy change will have remains to be seen) – but we cannot guarantee that we can protect anyone from being injured by another – even by another within the church – even by a bishop or a cabinet or a SPRC committee. But here’s what we can do: Fear not! Jesus is with us!

Do we believe this? Do we believe that God will make it right in the end? Do we believe that any suffering or indignity is nothing compared to the glory of the age to come? Do we love those who injure us enough that our greater concern is for their souls – for their right relationship with God – than for our ability to keep our family in a single family home?

Perhaps some of us do not believe this. Perhaps, for some, faith has become a fragile and a fearful thing. If so, let us not point the finger of blame at the one who has lost a fearless faith because she has been hurt one too many times by individuals who invoked God even as they failed to act in Christian love – let us not blame the one who has lost faith in this God that was invoked as he was bent over someone’s knee with the switch upraised in their dominant hand.

Instead, let us face our fears – beginning with collectively taking loving ownership of the fears of those who feel most fearful. Perhaps what some individuals need most is time off to recover – not cut off from the safety net of their community, but supported (financially and spiritually) through a sabbatical time of healing, when they can rediscover that Perfect Love that casts out all fear. Perhaps others will find that place of recovery in a supportive and nurturing parish, or in covenant with sisters and brothers in Christ who honor their pain and see in it the grain around which luminous layers might slowly form, until it becomes a precious pearl, a kingdom sign. Others may find their recovery in a sincere apology, simply given through that miracle of being suddenly seen in a new light by the one who once failed to see – that miracle when one who injured unknowingly (and with great self-righteousness, perhaps) experiences an epiphany – an expansion of their empathic imagination. Yet others might find their recovery in the assurance that they can still offer their service to God – still answer God’s call on their life, and yet need never again subject themselves to a system that has broken them one too many times.

Offering these threshold spaces of healing for those who have given of themselves, in order that they might find their way back to the love and the light of the only One who can deliver us from slavery to fear – that might be one of the best witnesses we could give.

God of Glory, Lord of Love, grant that we may seek not so much to be consoled as to console – but free us from the ever-present temptation to offer false consolation. Amen.

Pilgrimage

I remember the question being asked by the teacher in my upper elementary Sunday school class – “What is godliness?”  Godliness? I hadn’t heard that one before.  Was it a good thing – like being holy?  Or was it a bad thing – being holier-than-thou?  I guessed it was probably a good thing.  But it seemed like a sort of careless word…

But before my nine-year-old brain could even fully grasp the question, one girl answered, “It is like when you close the door when you are going to the bathroom, even though there is no one else in the house.”  Whatever godliness meant, that couldn’t be it, I thought.  That was ridiculous.  But the teacher said, “Exactly!”  Then she went on to say, “Some people have said that cleanliness is next to godliness.”  And we spent the next 40 minutes or so talking about personal hygiene and keeping our “private parts” private.

This was a lesson that could only go over with children who had not actually read the gospels, which I had.  I didn’t speak up to contradict the teacher that day – but it may have been the last day on which I held my tongue.  The curtain was pulled away, and it was revealed that you did not have to be a wizard to teach Sunday school, you just had to be willing to show up.  (Disclaimer: my daughter’s Sunday school teachers are indeed wizards, for which I am deeply grateful.)  Looking around the table at the eager and attentive faces of my fellow students that day, I felt very lonely.

Lonely in the church.  It is a way that I have felt very often in the years that have followed – and I am realizing now that this is because there are no special qualifications for church attendance.  Anyone can do it.  We don’t question people at the door, make sure that they are kind, or believe in Jesus, or read the Bible.   This is something that gets missed when people ask “how could someone who goes to church [do/believe] [some outrageously unloving thing]?”  How could anyone?  If you can answer that one, then you have your answer, because anyone is welcome at church.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Church should be a place where anyone can come and ask any question and get a Christian answer, given Christianly – with warmth and generosity.  The trouble is: if you can find any kind of person at church, even people without [m]any answers, then how does an inquirer know who to ask?

My Dad had a children’s sermon that he loved to do (it wasn’t his idea – he got it from a book, but it was years ago, so I don’t know which one.)  He would invite the children up to see his beautiful new bird.  He would whip the sheet off the birdcage in a “ta-da!” sort of motion, and inside would be… a kitten.  After a good deal of banter back and forth, the point would be made that just as you can’t put any animal in a birdcage and call it a bird, you can’t put any person in a church and call them a Christian.  There are any number of cats in our collective birdcage.  Which leaves us… where, exactly?  Well, lonely in church, sometimes, if you are looking for a community of gospel-delvers.

So over the years, I have found myself making pilgrimages to the holy sites of my faith.  Which, as a believer in the Body of Christ – Christ embodied through a Christian community – has meant the places where professing Christians travel to gather and celebrate God together:  District Clergy meetings, Annual conference, retreats and continuing ed events… seminary.  While I have found Christ embodied sporadically in the local church, I have found Christ reliably in these places.  It is not for nothing, I am realizing, that the annual gathering for teenagers from all over the NC Conference of the UMC is called “Pilgrimage.” Any teenager who will take a weekend to travel to sing about Jesus with other teenagers they won’t see again until maybe next year is making a clear statement about her/his priorities.

There’s a catch, though:  even travel and time commitments do not serve as some kind of perfect filter.  Even the burdens of seminary: the financial commitment, the loss of free time – do not guarantee that even clergy (or seminary professors) know what is what.  The scriptures have warned us that not many should teach.  Which warning comes with a clear undertone:  some who shouldn’t, do.  (Witness this egregious use of pastoral power to exclude an interracial couple.  Not in the 1950s, but in 2011.)  Nevertheless, the commitments required in such environments means that there is a critical mass of people who (with integrity and love and thoughtfulness) are trying to figure out what it means to live a God-haunted life.  I may have been disheartened by a handful of my fellow travelers from time to time, but I have never been lonely on pilgrimage.

So if you are someone who (like me, I must admit) has been quick to judge “church people,” consider that many people find their way to church because so many churches are slow to judge.  This is how I ended up in the congregation I am in, incidentally – I was impressed by the welcome received by EVERYONE who comes in the door.  I hope that, if you are a church skeptic, you will come visit Trinity UMC in Durham, because you are welcome, just like everyone else – the Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, and Independents, those in second hand coats from the community coat closet together with the fur-coat wearers, the ex-convicts and those who somehow sincerely believe they have never done anything wrong in their lives, the seminary professors and the high school drop-outs, the pacifists, the veterans, and the pacifist veterans…  Radically welcoming is something Trinity does well, praise God.  Not that it has been easy for me – most human beings have people that we struggle to include.  I am trying to do better, not least by remembering that for some of my sisters and brothers, I am an equally difficult person to include.

On the other hand, if you are someone who is going to church and nonetheless feels lonely – if you are someone who wonders how many other God-haunted people there are out there under their “Sunday best” exteriors, it may be that you just need to engage more in the small group ministries of your local church.  But it may be that you have tried that and are still coming up empty.  Do you try a different congregation?  Maybe.  On the other hand, this could mean that it is time for you to go on pilgrimage.  Godspeed!