Monday, June 14, 2010

Let the Children Come

A couple of decades ago, in a sincere attempt to make our churches more accessible and welcoming to children, some of our churches adopted an innovation: the children’s sermon. Today the children’s sermon is, to my mind, a prime example of a noble effort but an unfortunate strategy. I’ve heard lots of children’s sermons. Tried a few myself. For what it’s worth, here is my assessment of children’s sermons.

I sometimes say that I’ve only got two objections to children’s sermons: they are not for children and are usually not sermons.

They are not for children. Any child younger than older elementary age (who usually avoid coming down for children’s sermons) cannot possibly comprehend the complicated analogies and object lessons of most children’s sermons. When an adult says to a preacher, “I get more out of your children’s sermons than your regular sermons,” this is not a compliment to children’s sermons but a criticism of our sermons! At their worst, children’s sermons put children on display, sometimes embarrassing them with a “Kids say the darnedest things” routine. At their best, they reach only a small proportion of children. Besides, if we really want to reach our children and to affirm them, the sermon strikes me as the least effective liturgical act to reach children.

They are not sermons. If a sermon is an attempt faithfully to proclaim the Christian faith, then the moralism and trite common sense of children’s sermons make them questionable. “Let’s all be good boys and girls next week,” is a long way from the truth of the gospel.

From what I observe the most effective children’s sermons are delivered by lay persons who are called and equipped by God to communicate with children. A stiff, uncomfortable, age inappropriate lecture by a pastor sends the wrong message to children and congregation. True, it is important for the congregation to see the pastor as relating well to children (our aging church desperately needs more young families and children) but there are numerous ways to do this more effectively than in exclusively verbal, abstract communication. For instance, every time the church celebrates a baptism, why not call all the children down front and have them gather about the font so they can see what’s going on? Try to explain one thing we believe about baptism to the children. They may have difficulty knowing what to make of “redemption” but they all know about water! Jesus communicates with us through ordinary, everyday experiences like eating and drinking, bathing and singing, all activities that are accessible, though at different levels, to children.

I fear that children’s sermons tend to backfire, saying to parents and children that which we do not intend to say. We wouldn’t interrupt the congregation’s worship with, “And now I would like all those of you who are over 65 to come down front while I say something sentimental and sappy to all of you old folks.” That would be ugly. So why do we single out the children saying in effect, “Boys and girls, I know that you are bored stiff by Christian worship, that you can’t get anything out of what we do when we praise God, so come down front and I’ll take a few minutes to try to make this interesting for you.”

Be suspicious when someone says, “My child doesn’t get anything out of worship.” Children can sing, pray, read, or simply enjoy being with others in praising God. Children can be asked to prepare and read the scripture on Sundays, or to usher. I have been in the habit of producing a “Children’s Bulletin” for our children each Sunday (Dale and Kelly Clem began this practice at Duke Chapel when I was there.) I was deeply moved when I visited an African American congregation in our Conference where the children all processed with the choir and the children’s choir sat in the choir loft for the service. “It’s our way of saying to them how proud we are that they are here with us,” explained the pastor.

United Methodism has a problem, as do a number of denominations, in retaining our young. I saw a study a few years ago that proved to me that those churches that remove their children from worship on Sunday (taking them off to ‘children’s church’) have a difficult time of retaining their children in their church as the children grow up. Those churches that lovingly find a way to keep their children with them on Sunday tend to keep their children as throughout their lives. We must not squander the most formative years of our children’s lives by removing them from the central, defining act of the Christian faith – the Sunday worship of the congregation.

I therefore hope that our churches will show their full commitment to the full inclusion of children in our Sunday worship, that we will not imply that they are not full and valued members of our fellowship. Our Lord has expressly given little children a place at the center of his Kingdom. We are not in any way to hinder or to forbid them. Let’s pray that God will give us the determination and the creativity truly to include our young in our church.

Will Willimon

10 comments:

Sally said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

stevepvc said...

As a minister with twin three-year olds, I've felt really conflicted with how churches handle kids in worship, both in regard to children my girls' age an in the years ahead for us. A lot of you say here really resonates with me, and I think it's also worth saying that part of what churches seem to be trying to accomplish is giving a nod to parents during what can be a really ton ugh time. But perhaps we would be much better served by actively helping parents survive, both during worship and day-to-day life, we just moved, and we're kind of aerial casebecausewveryone seems to want to help the new pastor, but the best thing for us has been loving people who have just jumped next to us in the pews and helped wrestle our kids during worship! I hope we can get to a place where everyone experiences that!

ray said...

The fruit of the spirit is love, joy,peace,longsuffering,gentleness,goodnees,faith,meekness,temperance:against such there is no law.Gal 5:22-23.Sounds like a little child to me until the world gets its hands around him.Man!you Methodist can over complicate things.How can a man be born again if cannot become a little child?

The Thief said...

Many of our churches are looking for a way to "engage" the children" without changing their style. So instead of changing the way they "do church" they put in a tiny nod toward the children.

And Ray, I wonder if you have children. Nobody has to teach them to be selfish, pushy, pouty, and grouchy.

Dr. Tony said...

As a lay speaker going to a variety of churches, I usually leave the challenge of the children's sermon to one of the congregation. I don't know the children or the normal routine. It usually works out well.

But we do need more attention to the differences between children and adults when it comes to such things. Simply including a time for children and young adults isn't always an inclusion but a nod to say, "Hey, we have kids in the church."

But I also think that it is important that, whenever and wherever possible, that all members of the worship team be involved in such efforts.

I know one particular senior pastor who never did a children's sermon or moment until one day a little child asked him what he did in church. She saw the associate pastor lead the congregation in the scripture readings; she saw the choir director lead the congregation in singing; and the children/youth minister gave the children's moment. But she never saw the senior pastor do anything and so one Sunday as she left for children's time, she paused by the pulpit and asked the pastor, "WHAT DO YOU DO?"

He gave the children's sermon the next week.

John8com said...

"If a sermon is an attempt faithfully to proclaim the Christian faith, then the moralism and trite common sense of children’s sermons make them questionable. “Let’s all be good boys and girls next week,” is a long way from the truth of the gospel."

Amen and well said. For what it's worth, this is a universal church issue.

jdp76 said...

I just read your comments and this morning and I have been thinking a lot about our children this week.

In the midst of dealing with tough issues in the church, I entered Children's Hospital on Tuesday afternoon to visit two sisters who had been injured in an automobile accident. I walked into the room of the older sister and she rolled over and looked at me and said, "Pastor John..." She had the sweetest little tone to her voice and I remembered- being a pastor is about speaking truth in to the lives of our congregations- and the simple word 'pastor' reminded me what an honor it is to be called- b/c so many times it becomes a burden- but thanks be to God to have a child remind me of the blessings of pastoral service!

Bob said...

IMO this article has a great many strawmen, that is, caveats and criticism of things not actually happening, at least so far as my experience and practice.

For one thing, a children's sermon and children's church are separate things and should be more clearly presented and considered as such.

When I have had the chance, I have made it a practice of having a time of "celebration of and for our children" during worship.

This takes several forms. Sometimes the children share something one or more have made or prepared.

Sometimes this is an opportunity to point out, using the very effective discovery method, how an item or phenomenon we encounter can remind us of our faith. For example, the change of seasons reminds us of God's promise in Genesis 8.

Or it might be why we have a window with a "birdie" flying downward on it. Or maybe what does IHS mean? Or the colors of paraments and stoles.

One of my favorites this year was inviting the children to discover the empty tomb on Easter morning. The "stone" had been rolled across the "tomb" of the space under the communion table on Good Friday where the "body" of Jesus was buried in the passion play. When we arrived at church the "stone" had been rolled away, and the body removed and the white "burial cloths" remained, but were out of sight. The children helped all of us enter into the empty tomb experience by searching underneath and finding nothing.

Many times I lead the children in praying in a "call and response/wedding vow" style. Recently an almost four year old young lady led her mother back into the worship space after her Sunday School class (which had come after worship) and took her to kneel at the rail, and led mom in what her mom described as "the same words" of the prayer we had said earlier during our celebration in worship.

Any part of worship can be ineffective, I suppose, and many caveats can be shared about every part ... and I often am amazed and delighted when I learn of customs and practices from various regions and cultures from which we can glean new perspective and practices for worship.

To imply that a children's bulletin should replace another practice is a little presumptive, IMO. Why not both, if appropriate? Or neither. Or meeting in an orchard one day ... or in the cemetery ... or preaching from a "back" corner ... or all praying our own words aloud at once ... or having a little discussion with pew-mates during the sermon. Let's get out of the box ... and in the box ... and worship!

Matt Kelley said...

I agree. Children's sermons are a joke and almost always serve to point them out as a separate group in need of a "dumbed-down" message rathern than full members of the community.

Mary Spradlin said...

At their (near) best, children's sermons serve to give the children a chance to have the pastor look at them, smile at them, and call them by name during worship; to welcome the new child or youth and learn something about them (easily done while the children are gathering, not over the microphone); to allow the children an opportunity to take up a special offering from the adults in the congregation for a mission project they are promoting; to give the youth an opportunity to provide leadership and build relationships; to encourage the children to look forward to something they will hear in the scripture reading or sermon; the list could go on and on.

I cringe when I experience children's sermons "at their worst," for all of the reasons named here. But I cannot agree that we are only faced with a choice between "lay persons who are called and equipped by God to communicate with children" or a stiff, uncomfortable pastor who sends the wrong message by giving an age inappropriate lecture. There seems to be an assumption here that pastors are, by definition, unable to communicate with children and that children's sermons are about being good boys and girls.

Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. If the children's moment in your worship service represents "the worst" of what can be, what can you change to make it a true moment of belonging and discipleship for children?