Editor’s note: Here begins a short series on education, children, and the Church. Come back over the next four days to read more on our education page.
By Dane Boston
Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.
How do we proclaim the gospel to children? The most important place for forming young Christians is, of course, the home. That will never change. But what can we do for that oh-so-short time each Sunday when we welcome kids to church? When the whole body is gathered for public worship, how do we speak to Christ’s littlest members? How do we engage them, instruct them, inspire them, and help them to grow in their faith? Considering our Lord’s words on the subject, how can we avoid being fitted for a millstone necktie?
In the parish I serve, we changed our approach to children’s formation a little over a year ago. Our old practice consigned kids to the basement of the Parish House for Sunday school classes held concurrently with the liturgy of the Word. Students and teachers would sneak back in at the Peace, in time for Holy Communion. This time-honored pattern had the unintended effect of reducing kids’ presence and participation in the congregation to the point of invisibility: apart from acolytes, children were neither seen nor heard. What’s worse, it seemed to imply that the space of the church wasn’t really for them — like grandma’s front parlor, or a courtroom, or some disturbing combination of the two.
So we made a change. The kids still go out for age-appropriate formation for a portion of the service. But now everyone starts out together in the church. Little kids get to see their older siblings and friends lighting the candles and carrying the cross in procession. Families sing the first hymn together. Children hear the subtle seasonal shift in the liturgy from “Glory to God in the highest” to “Lord, have mercy” and back again. And every week, just before the kids head off to children’s chapel — held in a wonderful chapel that was built for the use of the Sunday school back in the 1860s — they come forward to the crossing to hear a message intended just for them.
Now it’s time for the children’s sermon can make laypeople groan and clergy cringe, and for good reason. A gaggle of children makes a very intimidating congregation for any preacher. They have a tendency to call out their thoughts and reactions rather more often and more vehemently than is typical for the average parishioner. They have famously short attention spans. They ask lots of questions, not always on topic. And never mind that the Bible isn’t always a child-friendly book. Pitching the right message at the right level in a way that will keep them riveted week after week — it’s a tall order to reach some short people.
As a result, children’s sermons are often in turns gimmicky, stiff, silly, awkward, vapid, or just plain weird. They can be too heavy, frightening kids and unsettling parents by coming on strong with a story or doctrine that might be handled more delicately. Or they can be light to the point of nonexistence — a series of vague good wishes muttered by a slightly embarrassed priest half-smiling at his shoes. Or, most dreadful of all, instead of saying nothing about God they can sometimes say untrue things about God, actively undermining the important work of children’s formation.
Having been at this glorious, galling task intermittently for the last seven years and consistently for the last year, here is my advice for preaching to children. I ask that the reader consider this an act of confession as much as an advice column. I am the culprit who has committed every error and blunder, and countless others besides. What follows is nothing more or less than a list of the things I think about as I prepare for the extraordinary privilege of preaching to our children. The list will grow as I continue to make mistakes.
- Say something, not nothing. Kids are sophisticated. Introducing a children’s sermon to your parish might be an acknowledgement that they aren’t getting much out of the typical Sunday message. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of receiving a message of substance. Children’s preachers ought always to resist the temptation to vamp or fill time with fluff. Kids will listen when you have something to say. Say something!
- Offer theology, not moralism. Exhortations to good behavior are about as useful for children as they are for adults — not at all. Yet we often think that it is somehow beneficial or even necessary to spend time in a children’s sermon moralizing their little minds numb. Moral and ethical instruction matters, of course. But it should only be ancillary to the theological thrust of a real children’s message. Don’t tell them what to do. Tell them who they are, by the grace of God in Christ.
- Teach the Bible. Depending on where you choose to place a children’s sermon within the liturgy, Scripture may or may not already have been read. This opens up possibilities for the preacher. If your children’s message comes after all the readings and before the sermon, you have a chance to lay some groundwork for what you will say to the rest of the congregation later. If your children’s message comes early in the service, you can feel free to key it to a larger topic or theme that the kids are learning about in Sunday school or children’s chapel. This, in turn, increases opportunities for basic catechizing and biblical instruction for the whole congregation — never a bad thing.
- Ask questions. A good preacher knows that the judicious use of rhetorical questions can pique the interest and draw the congregation into the sermon. What’s good for the goose is good for the goslings. Ask kids questions. It shows you are interested in them, and that you want to hear what they have to say. This, in turn, makes them more receptive to what you have to say to them. Asking questions has the added advantage of almost surely introducing a little levity into the sermon, as some child or other will probably have a silly response. Don’t lean so heavily on this that it becomes a gimmick, but don’t eschew it entirely, either. Ask questions, and listen to their answers.
- Talk to the kids. Perhaps this item should be number one. Far too many children’s preachers speak over the kids in front of them to address the adults in the room. For some preachers, this tendency may be born out of a sense of nervous self-consciousness. For others, it might spring from a fear of losing the attention of the adults. For others, it comes from a general anxiety about being not good with kids. Whatever the source of this bad habit, quash it! What could be more destructive to a sincere effort to include children in worship and honor their place in the body of Christ than ignoring them when they’re sitting right in front of you, in a time meant for them? Talk directly to the kids and you will find that the grown-ups get more out of your children’s sermons, not less.
- Be a fool for Christ. As St. Paul said,“I have become all things to all people in order that I might win some.” Silliness goes a long way with children. Playing dumb, asking painfully obvious questions, using self-deprecating humor — all these can be profoundly disarming. They show that you are approachable and playful. What’s more, they show that worship is a joyful act, as well as a solemn one. Silliness need not mean irreverence. Holy fools have won many to serious faith.
- Keep it short. Children’s sermons do not lend themselves to manuscripts. The need for eye contact, spontaneity, and the accommodation of interjections and interruptions all demand extemporaneous delivery (after careful forethought, planning, and preparation, of course). What many preachers find — especially those accustomed to preaching from full manuscripts — is that time slips by devilishly quickly when there isn’t a script in front of you. Be mindful of this fact, and be brief. No child has ever complained that a sermon was too short. Stay focused, keep it moving, and sit down soon.
- Consistency counts. Don’t give up and don’t grow discouraged. All preaching is an act of faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit will be active in the hearts and minds of the hearers, making up for the countless deficiencies of the preacher and the sermon. The effect of preaching in a parish is not usually immediate — the Spirit’s sudden and powerful movement notwithstanding — but cumulative. To be sure, some sermons will be better than others. But, by the grace of God, the steady, faithful effort week after week will yield its fruit in due season. This is as true for little ones as it for those of riper years. Keep trying! Keep improving! The two kids you preach for this week will make you better for the 20 you might preach to at Christmas and Easter. The kids are worth it. “For of such is the kingdom of heaven.”