"Why Are They Laughing?"

June 25th, 2012

The older children had been asked by the stewardship committee to speak to the congregation for one minute or so each on their favorite things about coming to church. Among the children was the daughter of the pastor, who after listing some of her favorite church activities added, “Oh, and the pastor, too, of course. I hear he’s pretty good.”

The pastor laughed right away, and so did the rest of us. With poise and wit, this nine-year-old had successfully made her first foray into contextual humor, and she was visibly gratified to hear our laughter. In this case, laughing at what a child said in church was appropriate.

Usually, however, the attention children receive in worship has little in common with what I described above. When children are laughed at in church, it may be because of intentional misbehavior—the child is trying to get a laugh in a way that is better not encouraged. Or, more often, children are laughed at because they misunderstand or are misunderstood—because they are different from adults. This last kind of laughter is baffling to children, even hurtful.

Here are a few practical ideas for handling inappropriate congregational laughter during a children’s sermon:

An Ounce of Prevention

Although the grown ups in your congregation would be pained to realize that they are antagonizing the children, it is hard to retrain adults to laugh at children less often, particularly during children’s sermons. After all, laughter stems from surprise, and the things children say in all seriousness can be quite surprising! Read about child development, and use what you learn as illustrations for your sermons from time to time; find relevant opportunities to reference children’s points of view and concerns in the prayers and announcements. The more the grown ups know about how and why children’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings are different, the less surprised they will be by what the children say—and the less intimidated the grown ups will be about engaging the children in conversation.

“I Wonder…”

This phrase, commonly used during the Montessori-inspired Godly Play, is useful in many other interactions with children as well. When the congregation laughs at something a child has said, it may be time to table the lesson you have prepared, and say, “I wonder why some of the grown ups laughed just then?” If a child responds, acknowledge that answer: “Ally doesn’t know why—she wonders too…” or “Fred thinks that the grown ups were just being silly.” This reflection might be enough before moving on to “I wonder if any of you have other thoughts about why the grown ups might have laughed?”

Other responses might call for a lengthier follow-up. For instance, suppose you reflect on a child’s statement: “Julie thinks some grown ups are mean. I wonder if others of you think that?” I’m sure you don’t want to leave things with the children thinking the grown ups were just being mean to them, and continue on with the children’s sermon! Instead, you might say, “I wonder if the grown ups were trying to be mean or if it was an accident?” or “I wonder if it is always mean to laugh when someone is not trying to be funny?” It is important to close the conversation with an assurance that “I know the grown ups here love all of you children very much, and try their very best to be kind…”

“What’s So Funny?”

Other times, it might be better to require the adults in the congregation to do the heavy lifting, and to simply model for the children that you are there for them when they need an advocate. This involves turning your attention from the children for the moment, and redirecting the adults, by inviting them to empathize with the children. “Sure, you are laughing now, but wait until I stand you in front of the church and ask you what Trinity means!” Then, turning back to the children, “I bet you all weren’t expecting a question like that this morning! Let’s see if we can think it through together…”

The important thing when interacting with the congregation in this way, however, is to keep it light and friendly. Say whatever you have to say with a smile on your face and charity in your heart. And remember that grown ups don’t like being singled out any more than children do. So always address the congregation as a whole.

Save It For Later

Sometimes the best thing to do is to ignore it and move on—when just one adult laughs, or when you feel like you have been fighting this battle every Sunday for the past month, or whatever the reason. You can touch base with the child later, if they are particularly sensitive or seemed particularly thrown by the laughter. You can touch base with the adult(s) later if it is a chronic problem. Or you can just let it go altogether. On a morning when we don’t have the energy to spontaneously discipline the congregation with grace, it is better to just stick to the script—and pray for a better opening next Sunday!

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