In the last several years I've visited a number of different churches and heard a variety of children's sermons. Some of them were really good, even outstanding. But, unfortunately most were not. In fact, many of them failed miserably.
A number of factors contributed to this almost universal failure. In some children's sermons I heard, the person giving it talked down to the children. In others, the pastor used concepts that were far beyond the children's age level. Some children's sermons were filled with moralizing platitudes no self-respecting kid would ever sit still for. (Most didn't.) Other messages dealt with adult concerns, quite removed from the experience of children. Still others were little more than occasions for showing off the kids or the minister's sense of humor.
Clearly if my experience is any indicator, the preaching of children's sermons has fallen into a sorry state among us. In spite of the large number of readily available resources, both on children in worship and on the makings of a successful children's message, most of these sermons still fail.
Why? Probably because most pastors simply don't know where to begin or what's appropriate for the tone and content of children's sermons. If that sounds familiar, you may find some help in the following guidelines and strategies.
Still searching for ways to make worship more alive and vital for children, to truly include them in the worshiping community? If so, you're not alone. More and more congregations are recognizing the need to address and include these youngest members of our church families. On these pages you will find guidelines, strategies, and lists that may give you some new ideas about the wide number of ways in which adults can include children and teach them about worship.
Guidelines for Good Children's Sermons
Gear childrens sermons to the experience and interests of children.
When preparing children's sermons, try to remember what it was like to be a child. Talk to the children. Get to know them. Begin where the children are— with their concerns, instead of the concerns of adults in the congregation.
Gear childrens sermons to the abilities and thought processes of children.
Refrain from object lessons in particular. They often require reasoning that is more abstract than most children, especially younger ones, can follow. If you use an object, use it as an illustration, not as a metaphor (the way Jesus used the flowers of the field to illustrate God's care, for instance).
Make use of stories.
Retell a Bible story, and let it go at that. (If the story is from the lesson for the day that's even better.) Don't feel obliged to give an interpretation. Most of the Bible stories you are likely to choose are quite capable of standing on their own. If all else fails, read a well-written children's story that exemplifies appropriate Christian values. Better yet, tell the story in your own words.
Call on the resources available to you in the congregation.
If your congregation has a professional church educator, use his or her knowledge and expertise. Consult with members who are school teachers and make use of their talent and experience too. And ask advice of members you know who are particularly effective parents. They can also be of great help. Encourage such persons to take their own turn giving the children's sermon too.
Strategies for Worshiping with Children
Paradoxically some of the most helpful strategies for improving children's sermons don't directly involve the children's sermon at all. These strategies have to do with the total worship service and the place of children in it. Such strategies are important because they undergird and support the children's sermon. They also help put the children's sermon in proper perspective by setting a positive tone for how children will be received in the whole service and not just at those moments that are particularly theirs.
Prepare children for participation in worship.
Use church school time to teach children music they will later recognize in worship—the Doxology or the Gloria Pa-tri, for example. Teach children other frequently used prayers and worship responses too. Older children especially should be encouraged to learn about worship and to understand why we do what we do in our services.
Try to make the whole worship service more "children friendly."
Expect children to regularly participate in worship and plan accordingly. Incorporate more movement, symbol, and color. Restore the old Reformed practice of ceremonially bringing in the pulpit Bible at the beginning of worship, for instance. Encourage choir processionals. Introduce the use of banners or other appropriate liturgical art, particularly art that the children of the congregation have helped to create. Also, become less dependent on the written word and use simple, repetitive congregational responses that are easy for children (and others) to learn and take part in. These ideas will help make more of the worship service inviting and interesting for children.
Most importantly, increase the participation of children in worship.
Instead of focusing all attention on children's sermons, find ways to include children throughout the entire worship hour. Ask them to hand out bulletins, light candles, share their musical talents, and make banners. Ask them to help clean up after church by picking up used bulletins for recycling, gathering up communion glasses, or taking articles that have accidentally been left to the lost and found box.
Particularly when paired with an understanding adult who will not take over, children can be very effective greeters. Older children also could be asked to take appropriate leadership roles: leading prayers, reading Scripture, or taking up the collection. The possibiUties are limited only by the imaginations of worship leaders.
WELCOME TO WORSHIP
Your church may wish to develop a resource like the one presented here. This material was printed in a folder designed to aid parents and members of the congregation in making room for children in worship. The concepts and ideas for this folder were adapted by Christ Memorial Church in Holland, Michigan, from a brochure developed by the Childrens Committee of Central Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Reprinted by permission.) These folders were initially placed inside the hymnals with just the top part visible, so that parents would take notice and take them home. They now sit in the pew racks by themselves as a reference tool and an offering to visitors.
Welcome to Worship
Children at Christ Memorial Church are very much a part of our worshiping community. Their presence here is based on the biblical tradition and Reformed conviction that children are members of the covenant community.
Worship is one of the basic ways people learn what it means to be Christian. Children learn to worship by worshiping with the congregation Sunday after Sunday.
Children gain the following from worshiping with the community of faith:
- They learn that they belong to Christ and are welcome to Christ's church.
- They come to know, through repetition, the Lord's Prayer, the Doxology, the Gloria Patri, and other frequently used responses.
- They build memories of shared experiences of Christian community.
- They are enriched by the beauty of music and art as creative expressions of human praise to God.
- They hear stories from the Bible read and interpreted, and begin to experience worship as one place where God may speak to them.
- They witness the drama of baptism and the Lord's Supper—both visible signs of God's grace.
- They discover that they are valued as persons by God and by God's people.
The Preschool Child
Parents may wonder at the wisdom of including preschool children in worship. They can be restless and distracting to those around them. Their behavior can sometimes be embarrassing to their parents.
The preschool child comes to worship with a rather limited attention span, seemingly endless energy and a growing curiosity about everything. While these ingredients can combine to test a parent's patience, there are several things parents can do to make the preschooler's worship experience (and their own) more relaxed and enjoyable:
- Sit near the front where children can have a clear view.
- Prepare children for the various parts of the worship service, explaining special events ahead of time and answering questions that need an answer "right now" in a quiet whisper.
- Allow children to place your offering in the plate or let them bring their own coins.
- Encourage children to use the children's worship activity bulletin (available from the ushers), inviting them to draw or color in these bulletins.
- Allow children to bring a favorite stuffed animal, colored pencils, or crayons along, or help them check out a book from the church library before the service.
- Encourage children to bring their own Bible storybooks.
- A sensitivity to the preschooler's abilities and needs can help make worship a pleasant experience for everyone.
The Primary Child
The school-age child brings some new abilities to worship: a greater capacity for attentive listening, an increasing ability to read, and the ability to organize and memorize information.
Parents can help the primary child toward greater participation in worship as these capacities develop by using the following suggestions:
- Help children memorize the Lord's Prayer, Gloria Patri, and the Doxology.
- Review the bulletin with children to identify new or difficult words, previewing together those parts where the congregation responds by reading and speaking.
- Encourage children to put their own offering in the plate.
- Invite children to follow the reading of the Scripture lesson in the Bible; encourage children to bring their own Bibles.
- Encourage children to locate hymns in the hymnal, and go over the words; place book marks at each hymn in advance.
- Encourage children to listen to the sermon for stories, answers to questions, or important thoughts.
- Talk about the sermon after church and ask the children what they remembered best about the sermon
- For this age group, some parts of the regular worship bulletins will be meaningful.
ABC's for Parents and Friends of Children
Arrive in time to find a good place to sit.
Sitting near the front will provide younger children with a better view of the chancel.
Bring colored pencils or crayons.
These tools can be used for coloring the children's worship activity bulletins. The ushers will be happy to provide your children with one as you are seated.
Clue in children to what wUl happen next in worship.
Children who can read will want to go over the printed Prayer of Confession and find hymns in the hymnal. They like to be prepared.
Discuss worship at home.
This will give children time to ask questions and receive answers concerning worship. It will also help prepare them for any special events or services of worship (i.e., the Lord's Supper, baptism, or special commissionings).
Express your joy in having children in worship.
During the Greeting be sure to welcome the children near you. Include them in your conversations before and after worship to let them know they belong.
Free yourself from worry about childrens behavior.
Be open to receiving their ministry to you.
Children Worshiping in Other Ways at Christ Memorial Church
We make room for children in worship by providing these other options:
- quality child care and Sunday school during worship for infants and for toddlers through age two
- an opportunity for toddlers to "walk-out" to the Care Center during the second hymn
- children's worship for ages three through second grade; these children leave with "walk-out" during the second hymn (summer walkout is for three-year-olds through kindergartners only)
- opportunities for children to participate in holiday celebrations and sacraments
- three children's choirs (Cherub Choir: kindergarten through second grade; Carol Choir: third through fifth grade; and Praise Choir: sixth and seventh grade)
- worship-activity bulletins for children, available from our ushers
- Mission in the Marketplace—a summer Bible school experience for preschoolers through fifth grade
- Sunday School for three-year-olds through senior high