Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Children's sermons

At the Christian Century’s blog, William Willimon recently wrote about children’s sermons. As a pastor, I’m not a fan of children’s sermons for many of the same reasons that Willimon mentions—they’re not usually for children and they’re not usually sermons.

I love the idea of making worship meaningful for children. I often get annoyed when I hear people say, “children are the future of the Church.” That is totally not true; children are part of the church today. 21st century North American Christians don’t always do a good job demonstrating that sentiment. Too often, kids get ghettoized into children’s church or Sunday school during the worship time.

Though nearly twenty year later, I still remember attending a service where the preacher stopped his sermon to sternly invite a woman to stop her child from crying. Now as a pastor, I don't want to be like that guy.

At Amazing Grace, our bulletin usually includes the line: “We find the sight and sound of squirming children in worship to be a beautiful and welcome sign of God’s new life. For the convenience of families who prefer it, however, we do have a cry room near the back.”

I prefer that children worship with their families. That said, I know I don’t do the best job of making children welcome. We have a few second and third graders that regularly acolyte and hold the chalice during Communion. It’s great to have kids at worship (and in leadership roles), but I find children’s sermons to be a difficult task.

I think I’ve done about three children’s sermons since coming to Amazing Grace, and none in recent months. We barely have a quorum of kids. There are fewer things more awkward than giving a children’s sermon to one or two young people. It puts them on the spot, and is uncomfortable for the pastor, too. Far too often, children’s sermons become a chance for kids to become the center of attention when they say funny things to entertain the adults. That’s not a sermon. The purpose of Lutheran preaching is to proclaim Good News. It’s about what God does, not what we do. Moralistic fables that command us to be nice to people are not sermons.

With this in mind, I attempt to have “adult” sermons have some children’s sermon elements. For me, this means that I try to appeal to a variety of senses. This also recognizes that people of all ages learn in different ways. Last summer, when lots of bread imagery was in the lectionary, we had fresh bread baking in the sanctuary as people entered, so the aroma of bread would be a sign of welcome. In January, I stood in a kid’s swimming pool on Baptism of our Lord as I preached about living in God’s baptismal grace. I don’t do things like that every week, but often enough to keep me creative.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about how worship can be more welcoming to children.


  1. I have a love/hate relationship with the children's sermon. We do a "children's time"... usually I read a Bible story and we pray. But I tend to agree, children's sermons are at their worst when they are trite, moralizing messages...and they are developmentally inappropriate for the people we most want to hear the gospel in those five minutes.

  2. This summer I am telling the stories from Genesis 12-50 in place of a sermon. The children are invited to come forward for the story telling. In my experience, this does not make them "children's sermons", but I am attempting to tell the Biblical stories in a way that the children can understand them. With the children in the front this does signal that it is more "casual" than a "normal" sermon. I find that the adults listen more to the stories and I will add asides to the adults to remind them of similar stories in other parts of the Bible. (When Abraham tried to use the "Sarah is my sister." with Abimelech, I remarked that he had obviously not learned from the experience in Egypt.)
    There are occasions when a children's sermon is called for. But the audience can be children and adults. You can speak directly to the children during a sermon and use examples from their lives and faith. I spoke at a memorial service at W. W. White Elementary School years ago when a mother had killed her ex-husband and her daughter before committing suicide. I specifically addressed my remarks to the dead girls classmates. I have also spoken specifically to young grand children during a service at a funeral home as the adults also gathered around. The setting allows them to ask serious questions which can be answered in a liturgical context.
    Children and adults love our annual VBS worship service, where the children help with the sermon by dramatically re-enacting Biblical stories in an informal way as the story is told (no costumes and seldom any props).
    I have even substituted non-Biblical stories with or without a picture book in place of a sermon. These are the length of a normal sermon. The emphasis is on the participation of and focus on the children. The physical presence of the children in the front of the sanctuary seems to make the adults very receptive to the stories. On occasion I will give the adults a few questions to think about as the children return to their families.

  3. You are wise beyond your years my friend. Over my 21+ years of ministry I have had the same struggles with so-called "Children's Sermons" that you have. I have tried some similar approaches to yours (I love the idea of preaching while standing in a wading pool), with mixed results. As long as the adults insist on the practice and fail to find other more appropriate ways of inclusion for the young in worship I will continue to struggle. BTW, it has been my observation that those who most fervently declare that the "children are our future" (gag!), are the ones who are most opposed to finding creative alternatives for including them in the public life of the church. Keep fighting the good fight, my friend. Peace.