Will All the Children Please Come Forward?': Uses and abuses of the children's sermon
Preaching to children is nothing new. It's been | happening—in one form or another—as long as children have been part of the church. Even some of the older sermons in print include occasional invitations to the "boys and girls" to listen carefully because this is "especially for you." And as early as the 1800s publishers found a market for collections of children's sermons.
During the last couple of decades, however, the children's sermon has become more visible than it used to be. It's become a familiar feature in many worship services, especially in churches without a formal liturgical tradition.
Normally the children's sermon, placed in the first half of the worship service, is addressed to boys and girls under the age of twelve. The pastor or worship leader invites these children to come forward, then talks to them for three to five minutes, often using some sort of object or visual as the basis for the "sermon."
Churches who decide on a children's sermon usually select it as one way—in addition to the use of children's bulletins, children's prayers, and children's songs—we can speak the truth of the Christian faith to children on their level of understanding. Yet many worship leaders and congregations seem a bit unsure about exactly what a children's sermon is or should be.
Sometimes they are called "children's messages," or "moments with children," or "children's chats." But publications, orders of worship, and worship leaders normally refer to them as children's sermons.
A sermon, says Webster, is "a religious discourse delivered in public usually by a clergyman as a part of a worship service." The tradition of Reformed worship insists that a sermon is a disclosure of the Word, will, and work of God. There is something essentially vertical about a sermon. God speaks to us, and we respond to him. Both John Calvin and Martin Luther agreed that when a minister preaches a sermon that exposes Scripture, the preacher's lips and tongue become, as it were, the lips and tongue of God, A sermon, in so far as it is faithful to God's revelation in Scripture, is God's Word to the assembled congregation.
The children's sermon should be no less so. The one who preaches it—whether that be the pastor or another worship leader—is accountable to all the criteria of responsible sermon work.
That means quality preparation time. The off-the-cuff, out-of-the-bag children's sermon is inexcusable. For a minister to begin the children's sermon by asking the nearest child to reach into a brown bag, or lunch box, or plastic bucket and randomly select an object that then becomes the occasion for the sermon is as irresponsible and thoughtless as a minister beginning the adult sermon by asking the nearest congregant to pick a text on which he then proceeds to preach. If the children's sermon is to take its place in public worship, it demands quality preparation.
In that time of preparation, the preacher will put into the children's sermon all the ingredients that normally go into the regular sermon: a carefully selected theme, a specific goal, good language and illustration, and relevant application. The message must be designed to bring God's Word to the children and to the congregation that is overhearing the children's sermon. The point of the "object lesson" must be a lesson from God and must bring the children into God's presence. The children's sermon must be presented with language and concepts that are accessible to the children and in a manner that is personable and engaging. The preacher must internalize the message and rehearse it so that it can be delivered without notes or manuscript.
A Meaningful Part of the Liturgy
In recent years worship committees, liturgists, and ministers have worked hard to provide public worship experiences that stimulate thoughtful participation and response. Our inclusion of children's sermons in public worship should not be any different. Yet in many instances the children's sermon itself threatens to become formalized into a new ritual that happens without much thought.
In some churches children are conditioned at an early age to make their weekly march to the front. Why? Because "we always do it that way." If the preacher has something to show the children up close, or wishes to engage them in physical activity or meaningful dialogue, expecting them to come to the front is entirely appropriate. But why the automatic assumption that this is the only, or the best way to do it? Some children's sermons may be most effective if the children stay where they are, especially if the children's sermon can be framed to involve the children and their parents together.
So we must be careful to keep the meaning of this part of the liturgy clearly in mind. A "cute" parade of children is no excuse for thoughtlessly repeating what can become a meaningless weekly ritual.
The church must attend to the spiritual nurture of its children. A congregation that neglects to "feed the lambs" fails in a critical responsibility that Christ has laid on his church. This failure is not only an abuse to the children, but to the very character of the church, with its wide range of age and experience.
Worship leaders and preachers who decide to incorporate children's sermons into the diet with which the church feeds its lambs must be aware of at least three potential abuses.
Children's sermons can abuse the congregation.
If the gathered people of God are effectively ignored in that part of the worship service, they become spectators to something that the preacher and the children are doing up front. This is especially true if the minister's back is to the congregation during the sermon or if the object that stimulates the children's sermon is shared between minister and children, but the rest of the congregation is left in the dark, wondering, "What are they looking at?"
David Ng, professor of Christian education at San Francisco Theological Seminary, says it this way in the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, soon to be published by Westminster/John Knox Press: "In children's sermons a basic principle is that the activity enable the entire congregation to worship God" (p.68). Preachers of children's sermons must remember that this event is part of the worship of the assembled congregation. The congregation must not be excluded. To do so is to abuse them.
Children's sermons can abuse the children.
Who has not been part of a worship service in which a boy or girl answers a question with childlike simplicity that borders on foolishness? The congregation laughs. The child blushes because he or she meant the answer sincerely. Or think of the show-off child who tries to be cute so that the people will laugh. What expectations are we building in children, who quickly learn that church is the place either to be embarrassed or to show off?
Preachers of children's sermons surely may enter into dialogue with children, but that style of communication demands as much care and forethought as if the same style of communication were to occur in the regular "adult" sermon.
Children's sennons can abuse the worship service.
Worship leaders must must try to plan services with thematic integrity. Children's sermons that contribute to that thematic integrity can be a wonderful blessing for children and adults alike. But preachers of children's sermons who do not attend to the thematic integrity of the worship service invite liturgical fragmentation.
Worship committees and preachers of children's sermons must be as sensitive to the theme and goal of the children's sermons as they are to the selection of song numbers that will fit the theme of the worship service.
In most churches where children's sermons have become a regular part of the public worship of the congregation, the practice is relatively young, perhaps ten, maybe twenty years. We are still learning the best way to do it.
But however we decide to present this message, we need to make sure that it embodies the best principles of sermon work, worship, congregational life, and sensitivity to the patterns of child development. To return to David Ng, "Children's sermons, if they are done at all, must enable children and the entire congregation to worship God and to respond to God's Word in gratitude and commitment." ■