Children’s sermons must be really hard to do, because 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, a developmental psychologist. Then he brought all of that to worship, and presented it in his signature style—gregarious, interactive, interested, dramatic.
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.
But for those who remain committed to the idea, consider the following best practices. 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.
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) Ask Why You Do Children's Sermons
“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 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 faith, 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. (I owe this insight to my mom, Dr. Clair Cosby. It is a great gift to have a developmental psychologist in the family!)
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. (Read a transcript of a children's sermon I preached with examples of how to respond to adult laughter.)
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 and 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 (e.g., 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: 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 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. There is a difference between being silly and being 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.
This article originally appeared in two posts on the author's blog, Jerusalem to Jericho.