Philip E. Johnson. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1985, 120 pp., $7.95.
The popularity of children’s messages has fostered a whole genre of books written for pastors and others asked to demonstrate during worship that children are not second–class Christians.
More Celebrating the Seasons with Children by Philip E.Johnson appeared at first glance to be a cut above the rest. According to the introduction the book contains "stimulative ideas for inclusive conversations with children four to eight years old in the context of Christian Worship or other Christian educational settings." The term "conversation" is an improvement over "children’s message" or "children’s sermon" and intimates real appreciation and respect for children. Leaders of these conversations are referred to by Johnson as "storytellers," thus identifying them more clearly with the oral tradition by which our ancestors passed on their faith.
Themes for the conversations follow the Common Lec–tionary. And I applaud the author’s caution not to "put children on display" as well as his commitment to the use of inclusive language:
. . . the language we use about God must go beyond sex, race, status, or any other human limitation. For children growing up with inclusive language in the church, there will be an extraordinary expansion of their images of God and indeed of themselves created in the very image of the creator.
But then came disappointment. In content Johnson deviates little from the typical object lesson, and although he provides occasional examples of powerful storytelling and first–person narratives (still the model that I find best integrates with the flow of worship), the accent for most of the "stimulative ideas" is on stimulative. The story of Jesus calling the fishermen is told from an inflatable dinghy. There are fireworks and artificial smoke for Pentecost (if there are no ordinances); oversized sunglasses (a warning against greed); and dart guns aimed at life–size human targets that encourage children to "take aim and shoot prayers of love" (guns and love?). Probably most "stimulative" is the parable of the lost sheep. Ninety–nine life–size cutouts of sheep are set out one by one around the storyteller and children. After counting the ninety–ninth sheep, the storyteller exits and reenters carrying a live sheep on his shoulders.
Although creativity in worship is not to be discouraged, Johnson breaks the cardinal rule of storytelling: the storyteller must never overshadow the story. His "sideshow" model guarantees the children’s rapt attention, but what will they really remember— the shepherds’ love for the sheep or the image of someone struggling under the weight of a one–hundred–pound lamb? (not to mention other easily imaginable scenarios).
Johnson’s real concern for including children is obvious and not to be doubted, but his book points out once again the need for serious dialogue on appropriate ways of acknowledging the presence and importance of children in worship.