Friday, December 4, 2009

Children's Sermons

I do not like children’s sermons! And that’s an understatement of mammoth proportions.

They go under various aliases: “children’s moment,” “time for the children,” “children’s story,” “pastor’s time with the children,” and so forth.

By whatever name, I don’t like them. And it’s not just personal taste. It’s not that I don’t know how to do them. I’ve done them with some success, I think, but my heart was never in it. I don’t like them because I’m convinced the so-called “children’s sermon” is a big liturgical mistake.

First of all, children’s sermons are entertaining for the congregation. Actually, the children are doing the entertaining. For that reason, the children are exploited to sit up front and look darling. Entertainment is not worship. This approach is very condescending and it is simply not right to use children in that way.

Second, children’s sermons or their kin are interruptions to the flow of the service. Adults are invited to take time out while a side show goes on with the little ones. When that bit of business is taken care of, the rest of us can start our worship again.

Third, if you think it’s good education for the children, I beg to differ with you. Most often the “sermons” for children are moralistic object lessons, but they do not enlighten children about the scriptural message. They are a poor way to teach what the young Christian needs to learn. They’re definitely not a substitute for strong Christian education.

Fourth, having a “special” something for the children sets them apart from the rest of the worshipping community. Usually they are bid to depart immediately after so the rest of us can do real worship. Such liturgical segregation should be verboten.

Well, then, what do we do with children in worship? Should we abandon “children’s sermons”?
Yes, I’d say, but I concede it’s not a realistic possibility. The late David Ng, Presbyterian educator par excellence, used to say, “Children’s sermons are like crabgrass—once you’ve got them, it’s hard to get rid of them.”

Well, if we can’t lick them, then let’s join them. Marva Dawn, in her book Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, suggests using the time to teach the children (and everyone else in the room) about the historic liturgy of the church.

I’ve tried it this way: Invite the children to climb up into the pulpit (which is more fun if you have a pulpit to climb up into). Let them see what it looks like from the preacher’s point of view. If there’s a big open Bible on the pulpit or at the lectern, let them open it with the ribbons marking the texts for the day. Point out the different readings, Old Testament and Psalter, the Epistle and Gospel. Talk about why we read them all, and how the sermon comes from those texts.

The very best thing I think we can do for children in worship is let them stay for the whole experience. Children learn by doing, and doing with mom and dad is one of the best ways. When dad sings the hymn with his child, pointing out the notes and words as they go along, there is education. When mom helps her child find the text in the pew Bible, that’s education too. And when the children look around at all the other adults and see how important worship is to them, that’s the example that will leave the most lasting impression.

I still wish we could get the crabgrass of children’s sermons out of the liturgy. If not, then let’s see if we can make it nice looking, greener crabgrass. Maybe at least we can keep it better under control.

How do you handle children’s sermons in your church? Do you have any better ideas about how to involve children in worship?


  1. Check out "Teaching Children Worship in the Sanctuary" by two outstanding church educators from Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, NJ. This useful resource will help congregations teach children about worship while in the context of the worship service. Using fourteen elements of worship, this resource provides suggested children’s times, worship exploration lessons for younger children, and activity pages to be used by older children during worship.
    PDS 70-250-03-928 - $12.95

    Grace and Peace,
    Bruce Gillette

  2. We spend a few minutes downstairs, then we go upstairs for crafts and play, making macaroni pictures for God or wall hangings with drawings of Pilgrims. No wonder adults want shorter services. They learn from an early age tha worship is only 10 minutes long.

  3. Regarding children's sermons, my answer is, it depends. I know a church in Albany who stopped doing them because some children apparently take the laughter of adults to be laughing at them, rather than with them. I had never considered that. On the other hand, I know some children who seem genuinely to engage with the worshipping community during children's sermons. Maybe we should ask the kids?

    I don't seem to find them disruptive to the liturgy as you do, Don- especially when compared with other parts of the service like announcements and even some joys and concerns that seem more like announcements.

    I have done things like use the opportunity to explain Chrstian symbols in the sanctuary, like chi rho, alpha and omega, or to distribute Advent Calendars and talk about them...

    Some weeks, I could easily let them go, i suppose. i have to say the most compelling "children's sermon" I have experienced was when one of our kids- about 8 years old at the time, did "a time with the adults." I still remember her title- "My heart is not a junk drawer!"

  4. As a Sunday school teacher, we some times take the Children's story as a lead off to our Sunday school program. The "story" is still being talked about by the kids as we start our time so we just continue it. Many times whatever we had "planned" is scrapped to continue the talk from "downstairs". This is a great way to provoke discussion and many times it goes along with the lectionary, so behold we end up doing the same reading as the congregation and definatly having more discussion since I don't Preach to the kids right after reading the scripture. I will confess, as John pointed out, at times we do color and make crafts instead of study the bible but you would be amazed at how not forcing the issue and letting the conversation run, the kids end up talking about the church service or story or song they sang anyway.

    Joyce B

  5. Donna, you gave me a revelation! "Children's Time" should not be our time to talk AT the children, but rather to listen to them.

    I've long lamented that our services are not designed to be meaningful or accessible for our children, but rather something to be 'gotten through' (it's that way for us, a lot too!). Perhaps the way to engage the children is to let them teach us. Older children should read and speak on a regular basis (not just on Children's Sunday) and younger ones should be offered opportunities to serve from passing out programs, picking up pew pads, setting up for and cleaning up after service.

    I remember going through the pews after church picking up programs - I owned that as my job. Perhaps because I was the preachers kid, but I do believe it ingrained in me a sense of value of service to community. Why do we not include our children on the volunteer schedules? I can't think of a better way to teach them how to serve humbly and to understand the obligations of community membership.

  6. I am coming late to this party but someone just told me about this post so I thought I'd add my thoughts.
    I am in the pro Children's sermons camp. And I think,like anything, it has alot to do with a variety of gifts and one's calling. If people don't like doing children's messages, if they feel awkward and uncomfortable or feel that it interrupts the flow of worship then by all means don't do them. Kids have a real nose for inauthenticity- if it feels like an interruption, kids will know and it will probably do more harm then good. However, I like thinking about a childrens message- in a way it can be a kind of testimony-What do I want children to see about the impact of faith on my life this Sunday? Far from being an interruption, I have seen members of our congregation leaning forward straining to hear- Folks often joke about "getting more out of the childrens sermon than the adult sermon" but our churches are filled with people from all kinds of backgrounds and sometimes an object lesson hits home and is useful to someone of any age.
    I also don't think just a pastor should give children's messages- then it becomes "one more thing" Our congregation encourages anyone who would like to offer a children's message- and so we get people who enjoy doing them. If a message isn't so great some Sunday- we'll live- God is still in charge. pastors don't always preach bullseyes either and The Good News comes through somehow. While I think there is some danger in a congregation laughing at the cute children, if the convener takes the childrens message seriously , I find that the children do too and so does the congregation. A little levity never really did alot of damage and children's messages can also be a way of celebrating the gift of having children in worship with us and the shared responsibility we have to nurture them.

    So anyway, I do a fair amount of guest preaching around the Albany Presbytery and I am always happy to offer a children's message- or not- whatever the tradition of the church- But I don't think that they damage the liturgy if they come grow out of a genuine desire to share faith.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!