December 13, 2017

The Evangelical Liturgy 10: The Children’s Sermon

childrens sermonFor beginners, read the Introduction to this series, then visit the categories menu and hit “Evangelical Liturgy” for all previous entries. In a sentence, I’m walking through all the parts of the traditional Protestant worship service and discussing the value of recovering our own liturgical tradition.

The children’s sermon is certainly the most innovative and optional part of the Protestant liturgy. I am not aware of its actual historical roots in evangelicalism, but it is now a common practice in many Protestant churches using the kind of liturgy I am describing here.

Certainly, no one is to be criticized for not having it, nor is it even possible at some churches for many valid reasons. (Like no kids!) It is completely a pastors call.

The value of the children’s sermon will be debated among those who have strong feelings about making any part of the worship service “child friendly” in much the same way “seeker friendly” innovations predictably raise ire and objection.

Objectors will point out that children should learn the liturgical practices of their church by sitting in the pew, observing, participating when possible and asking parents questions at home.

Supporters will point out that the children’s sermon…

a) is often a valuable way to include children in the liturgy, especially with skillful use of the Christian year, lectionary and various catechetical questions.

b) creates interest in the larger worship service that can translate into greater attention, participation and good behavior.

c) often provides a useful extension of the sermon to the adult congregation through an object lesson in the children’s sermon. (Anyone ever notice that quite a few stewardship sermons find their way into the children’s lesson?)

d) builds rapport between the minister and children, making him/her more accessible.

e) assists in children listening to and understanding the sermon.

f) provides a good transition point to a time when children leave the worship service for their own class or worship time. (In the Anglican church I sometimes attend, the children leave and then return at the closing hymn.)

g) helps us remember that all preaching need not be complex, long or overly “preachy.” A good object lesson in the context of scripture is very helpful to many adults, youth, etc. I know that all sorts of Christians say the children’s sermon is their favorite time in the service.

My wife has been writing children’s sermons/object lessons for many years and posting them at her web site. This is a bit odd since we haven’t been at a church that uses children’s sermons for many years. I regret not using them more when I was a pastor. I know of many people gifted in this area whose gifts are constantly overlooked or underused. That is a waste. Good children’s sermons are a great help to any church.

I also have to say that the moments of humanity and levity provided by the children themselves are often the best gift of the day. Jesus used children often as illustrations and examples. Seeing and observing children helps us to remember why he did this and what he was communicating.

Further, those “real” moments keep us from becoming so detached and pious that we cannot laugh and be ourselves: humans loved by God at every age and stage of life.

I’m a great advocate of the children’s sermon as part of the liturgy, either by the pastor or someone gifted in this area. I see use them.

I realize many churches will not use them and some will have critiques of the entire idea as being detrimental to serious worship. I have to disagree. Let the children come and show us the joy of multi-generational church.

I much prefer a children’s sermon in regular worship to a “children’s church” approach and some of the excesses associated with that.

Even Baptists and other non-covenantal types can enjoy a good children’s sermon 🙂

NOTE: Remember that one of the IM sponsors is Tony Kummer’s Ministry To Children Blog. Stop by and subscribe.

Comments

  1. Yes, a children’s sermon is much better than a children’s church approach. And it’s the only time you can count on all the adults listening. However, directly addressing the children present in a sermon can be very effective too, and is something I know that I need to do more often, if not every sermon.

    One common weakness is that the Children’s sermon is often moralistic, and needs to be rooted in the Gospel.

    • Very much agreed, though I would be one to be very cautious that we not drive children to Christ out of a fear of hell.

      • Imonk,

        i think I know what you mean by the comment, and having been a child who was naturally prone to worry and obsessing about things, I was very affected by some very hard preaching on Hell, and horrible preacher stories about folks feet on fire when the died etc. I’m sure you have heard them all,

        Now i agree with you, but, and even as one who has seen the excesses, is there any place for a “fear of Hell” type emphasis? at any age?

        I really don’t know, I know I don’t shy away from it when I preach if it fits in the sermon, but I also don’t go on for 15 minutes about it during the invitation like guys did in my youth

  2. I have to disagree with you on this one. I see so-called children’s sermons as little more that an attempt to be cute, to put children up front so that parents can almost literally coo over them in a nigh on idolatrous way, and, most of all, as a potential way to embarrass children with some sort of attempt at humor made more for adults. When adults laugh, I’m not sure that the children or some of them don’t feel that the adults are laughing at them. When I did children’s sermons and adults laughed, I saw too many hurt looks on the faces of children. I serve a church with a lot of children. When we dropped the children’s sermon, we didn’t hear any complaints, much to my surprise. I also have to say that I have seen very few people who don’t in some way talk down to children when trying a children’s sermon.

    • Well I hoped I was clear that I am not saying everyone should do one and that there were many reasons not to do them. It’s a matter of pastoral choice entirely.

      Do I need to rewrite to avoid confusion on this?

    • I’ve never heard the “laughter from adults was distressing to children” observation. Interesting.

      • My daughter was often the one who came out with the outrageous answers that often prompted laughter. (Her somewhat wry observations were also the death of many a visiting minister’s children’s sermon.) She stopped contributing for a while and when we asked why she said that she didn’t like people laughing at her. For her, her answers were perfectly serious. We were able to explain why the congregation would often laugh at her remarks so she wasn’t ‘traumatised’ by the whole experience.
        Not that it seemed to do any lasting damage anyway – even as a teenager sitting with her peer group you could see her arm twitching upwards desperate to answer the questions aimed at the younger ones.
        When I’m taking a children’s address I generally relay the answers to questions to the rest of the congregation (they often are hearing only one side of the conversation). I’ll try and be ‘serious’ about it and not ‘share the joke’ as it were so that the answers are reflected upon and not simply treated as cute or funny or trite. To be fair though, the most outrageous ones simply don’t get relayed unless there has been a reaction to it from those round about.

        • Or you have the other extreme of my son, who would deliberately come up with outrageous answers to the priest’s questions in order to get a laugh. A couple of times my husband had to restrain me from marching up the aisle to grab my “adorable little innocent” and drag him back to the pew for a little time of “reflection.”

    • Lots of child-related things in worship can end up the same way. How I hated being in the children’s choir when I was growing up. We weren’t very good, and having to face the adults in the congregation when we sang, while they gave us indulgent smiles and laughed at our “cuteness” (aka mistakes) was just awful. I always felt we were up there more for entertainment value than for what we brought to worship. 🙁

  3. IMonk, this is great. I didn’t grow up with liturgy at all and didn’t see a children’s sermon until I was in the Navy. It was a baptist church in fact, although the pastor didn’t use liturgy with the kids as he didn’t used liturgy with the adults. The pastor simply talked to them for a few minutes about the same subject he was using for adults. Since those days I haven’t seen it many times, probably because we baptists don’t generally use them overall.

    You know, I can definitely see how it could benefit children as they grow up in church to have this sort of thing though. Some of me wishes we had been blessed with this when I was a child.

    • Wow. The Navy had children’s sermons? The new recruits couldn’t follow the sermon with everyone else? 😉

      Seriously, I love a good children’s sermon. Our church rotates through a group of about 5 people who give the sermons (pastors, youth leaders, etc.), and they are pretty much always tied to the scripture lesson for the day. Most of the people do a good job of at least illustrating the story for the kids so that they can understand the reading clearly. Some get into a deeper meaning, sometimes it is just the story.

      But I know that I enjoy seeing a different approach to the lesson each week, and I know my daughter gets upset when we don’t have the children’s sermon (once a month on communion Sunday).

  4. Steve Newell says:

    A good children message should have “Law and Gospel” as its structure. The “Law’ is what we do that displeases God such as disobey our parents, lie, hurt our brothers/sisters, etc. The “Gospel” is what Christ has done for us on the cross. The scripture readings, time in the Church year, and other events can be incorporated into message.

    • I think the Bible presents a multidimensional view of the law based not only on Romans 3:20, but Romans 7:22, Matthew 5:17 against Ephesians 2:15, Psalm 1, Psalm 119, etc.

      The law seems to not only include rules that when broken “displease” God, but also when followed are expressions of love to God according to Deuteronomy 11, John 14:15, etc.

      How does such a lesson on the Law and the list of sins not collapse into moralism mentioned previously?

      • Steve Newell says:

        Fin,

        That’s why you must bring the Gospel when you bring the Law. Children, along with adults, need to hear that we are all sinners and that Christ’s blood covers our sins.

        If you just stop at the Law, you can easily end up with moralism as you correctly pointed out.

        • I’m not concluding this applies here, but I’ve noticed in my surfing of blogs that the phrase “The Law and the Gospel” is undergoing a subtle shift in meaning, and now often refers to a rather narrow (in the sense of ‘specific’) approach to evangelism. It’s as if this phrase is becoming the exclusive property of the Ray Comfort / Kirk Cameron approach to Christian witness, as in “We need to share The Law and The Gospel;” rather than, “We need to introduce people to Jesus.”

  5. Just adding a note to encourage those who have or are considering children’s sermons to check out Denise Spencer’s blog from Michael’s link above. She has some very good stuff there.

  6. Thanks for this post on including children in the worship gathering. I’ve done many children’s sermons. They make the kids feel welcome and involved in worship with their families. And many adults told me they learned more from the children’s sermon than they did the pastor’s sermon.
    Thanks for posting this information.

  7. To be honest, I’ve not been the biggest fan of the child’s sermon. But the older I get, the more I realize the kingdom is truly about becoming “childlike” (vs. childish), and that this part of the service can help us all stay in touch with this reality. It’s a time we can remember, honor, pray and bless our children as they are up there with the pastor as well. I also think they’re a bit messy and unpredictable which is probably a good spiritual practice for us.
    Tho I’ve never been a part of a congregation who has done this for many years, I was visiting a Lutheran service a few months ago. A retired pastor was “subbing” that day. He must have been near 80. But in full robes, he got down on the floor, spoke about the kingdom and embodied the spirit of Jesus in a way I have rarely experienced it. I wanted to go dow there and sit with him for a while.

  8. My pastor does a “kids corner” with an object lesson and scripture so the children can feel comfortable around him. He wants them to feel connected to him and we all roll with it. The church used to do a children’s church weekly and they would file out after the kids corner time to the back. I got involved in the program and have been able to cut it in half, they go out two Sundays a month rather than all of them.

    At first people asked me why, and when I tried to explain to them that the kids needed to “do church” with the adults it took them awhile to understand why. But I still like the ideas of children’s sermons, simple truths can have big impacts sometimes on children and adults.

  9. It also represents the minister at his/her most vulnerable moments. After encouraging the children that “you can tame any kind of animal, but you cannot tame the tongue;” one little boy informed the congregation, “You can’t tame a lobster.”

  10. When I never went to church, and then got dragged into Easter Services with my in-laws by my wife one year, I freaked out to see the children going forward for children’s time. It seemed like such overt brainwashing at the time. Now I like them (and realize that targeting kids is a key part of the Christian growth strategy 🙂

    As far as being embarrassed, no child should feel forced to come up. Especially if they’re visiting, I can see how it might be scary to be in front of a crowd of adults all watching and listening.

    I do think messages around “Jesus loves you unconditionally” are more helpful developmentally for kindergartners than “You are a totally depraved sinner but blood has been shed for you.”

    It also gives everyone a chance to see other people in the congregation work with the kids. I had no idea some of my pew-mates were so good with kids and the Word.

    • I totally agree. The “Passion of the Christ” approach to children’s ministry makes me angry.

    • Steve Newell says:

      It is important that a child knows both that they are a sinner and that Jesus loves them and died for their sins on a cross. “Jesus loves you unconditionally” without any reference to the cross does not properly convey the truth of Christ’s love for us sinners.

  11. I’ve listened to many a children’s sermon over the years and I remain disappointed with how (in my experience) children are “talked down to”. As if they can’t conceive anything more complicated than “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”. This is fine when you’re under 5 but older children have a much larger capacity for understanding deeper truths.

    Of course, I’m not sure how many adults are pushed to deeper understandings either…the reasons that run deeper than “for the Bible tells me so” are left for the pastors and professionals to seek. Keep it light for the sheep.

    As a result, both groups (kids 5-15 and thinking adults) are left bored while the greatest Story remains untold.

  12. Yes, stewardship is a frequent topic. Maybe because it’s easy to teach? ”

    “Here, I’ll give you each a quarter. What will you do with it?”

    It writes itself.

  13. We use a “Mystery bag” the children of all ages, are invited to put something into the bag with out my prior knowledge or consent . One of them, after a prayer for help for the poor pastor, pulls the item out, and i need to use whatever it is as a sermon illustration. Three minutes, tops, but the kids comment in the mike,in response to my questions. Art Linkletter style. [ If you are too young to get the reference, check out Kids say the Darnedest things] . I am often embarrassed, the church likes that. We then end with prayer. The theme is God created everything, everything reflects God. We have had little mermaids, rocks, empty boxes, you name it. Sometimes the kids are silly, sometimes profound.
    You would be surprised how often it fits in with the Sermon. The kids are into it, the adults like it. After that, since they are all up front, they head off to children’ s class while I bore their parents.

  14. Sherman the Tank says:

    What’s most important about giving children’s sermons is being certain you can do a good one. If I had a dollar for every bad object lesson and mawkish cutesification of the little moppets, well, I’d at least have a new iPhone. Being able to preach to adults is a completely different gift than ministering to children. Don’t assume you can do one just because you can do the other. In fact, assume you can’t until told by those who actually know good children’s ministry.

  15. Out of curiousity, does a children’s sermon necessarily include children going forward to sit at the front, or is it also done while children stay seated with their families?

    • I don’t think it’s necessary, but it does help to be more interactive. My home congregation has the Sunday school sitting down the front for the start of the service, so they’re there anyway. If I’m preaching elsewhere then it’s an invitation for those who want to come forward. I’m happy to work with however it ends up.

  16. As a child I loathed being called up to the front where the adults laughed at me. After this became the norm in that congregation I stopped attending.

    As an adult attending church for a while (I quit-long story omitted) I saw quiet children embarrassed and extroverted children acting to the crowd. The messages were ok, the location of the children sucked.

  17. I’ve had only one pastor who did children’s sermons. More often than not he spoke over the heads of the children to the adults in a roundabout way, almost using the children as a buffer to make some dig about attendance or giving or whatnot. I’ve never seen it done well, so I cringe when I see one coming.

    The one I remember best involved the visiting grandson of a prominent member who ran down the aisle late to the front. The pastor said to him “We’ve been waiting on you. Where have you been?” to which boy replied, “I had to pee!” I rather enjoyed that one.

    • I’ve never seen it done well either. In the last church I saw it used, the pastor acted more like Art Linkletter, talking briefly to the children, then egging them on to say ‘the darnest things’ for a few laughs.
      There’s a church nearby I would love to visit, but in each service there’s a children’s sermon. For that reason alone I hesitate to visit; I’m convinced that that sermon will make me cringe.

  18. It is actually very abusive to instill in children a fear of Hell. There are, literally, millions of adults today who had this happen to them when they were young, and even though they are rationally convinced God would never torture anyone for a second, much less for an eternity, they can’t get rid of the lingering doubt that maybe Hell does exist. So, they are constantly being taken advantage of by some Christian preachers, Evangelicals/Fundamentalists mostly.

    I’ve actually written an entire book on this topic–“Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell,” (for anyone interested, you can get a free Ecopy of my book at my website: http://www.ricklannoye.com), in which I elaborate more on this topic, but I also include some help for any who are still struggling with the fear of Hell, and practical suggestions on how to be rid of it once and for all.

  19. Scott Miller says:

    Although I think that it is difficult to do a children’s sermon without talking down to them or using them to preach giving to adults, I think that it is wonderful to include the kids. Too many churches today have the children attend worship then leave for children’s church. As they get older, teen church. Then they can’t reassimilate back into adult worship and leave the church when out on their own.

  20. I’ve seen the children’s liturgy, particularly at Christmas and the occassional Easter services and I can see both the merits and the inherent problems. As much as don’t like the idea of segregating children from their parents in church and sitting through a sermon is difficult for little kids (especially my little rugrats) but the format that I’ve seen still requires the children to sit through the rest of the “grown-up” sermon. As a near-vagrant child in a near-vagrant family I went to churches with and without children’s Sunday school and some that had a form of children’s liturgy. I always loved it when the pastor addressed the children in a sermon because it makes me feel like I belonged at there, like it was for everyone not just the adults. However, as a kid, I was usually better able to retain what I learned in Sunday school and the quasi-classroom setting than the self-discipline requiring sermon.

  21. I love the interactive “all age” talks at the Anglican church I attend. On Trinity Sunday the preacher gave 3 ways of understanding the Trinity. The kids loved his practical demonstrations (including ice, water and steam produced up front), but so many adults after the service told me that they’d never really been able to grasp the concept of Trinity so well until that day. I think a good “kid’s talk” often reaches the adults better than a “grown-up sermon”

    When we have “all-age services” at this church (not every week), the preacher does 3 child-friendly “slots” with lots of practical illustrations, but there is no separate “adult sermon” or “kids’ sermon”. The kids usually want to go up to the front to get in on the action, but “the action” often flows back towards the pews as well… it’s very informal (although there’s still liturgy), but the format avoids “talking down” to the kids, gives the adults plenty to chew on, and everyone is involved in the whole service. It does, however, hinge on one very talented preacher (a retired teacher).

    I have heard lots of cringe-worthy kids’ talks elsewhere, but have to say I prefer even this to the option of keeping kids entirely in Sunday school. I find it very spooky visiting churches where, once my kids are “signed in” to their respective rooms, there is no evidence of children in the service, bar the occasional flashing red number meant to communicate to a parent that their kid needs them. We certainly don’t come away feeling that we have worshipped together as a family, as each of us has had an “individualised” experience.

  22. A baptist church we sometimes attend has the “childrens’ talk” after the “worship” (songs) then the kids file out to Sunday school before the grown-up sermon takes place. The kids’ talks are given by may differnet people, and so are of varying standard, and sometimes very bland. However, I think it still functions to tell thekids that they are part of the church (instead of segregating them as a race apart), and it avoids bored kids acting up in a “boring” sermon. A reasonable compromise, I think.

  23. Half the time the only sermon I get and retain is the children’s one….. 😛

  24. Great post IMonk. I’ve done dozens and dozens of children’s object lessons, skits and puppet skits as part of the children’s segment of congregational worship and in the context of Sunday School, VBS and children’s Bible clubs. People remember what they see better than what they only hear.
    Prompted by your post and the many positive comments, I’ve decided to make much of my material available to other ministries to children. You can find it at http://speakingobjectively.blogspot.com/
    I hope it will encourage others to do the same.