I’m not quite sure about what makes children’s sermons such a universally bad practice in congregations. I suspect a lot of it has to do with two things: (1) a lack of understanding of the developmental characteristics of children, and (2) a lack of a clearly articulated theology of children in the church. A little effort in those two areas can go a long way in helping church leaders and members be more effective in the way they minister to, and with, the children in their congregation.
Here are the suggestions I share with pastors on how to deliver a children’s sermon. There are other concepts and points that can be made, but these address the more egregious sins committed in this regard:
1. Do not use objects in your children’s sermons. Using objects as props in an attempt to use the “object lesson” approach is misguided and inappropriate. Children are concrete thinkers and younger children are unable to conceptualize that “one thing is like another.” In their minds an object is what it is, it is not “like” something else. A tree is a tree, an egg is an egg, a key is a key, and a bell is a bell—they are not both an object and a metaphor for something else. Because children are concrete-operational thinkers, they cannot process symbols deeply, so a cross is a sign and not a symbol. Baptism is an act (behavior), and not a symbol (read Jung if this concept doesn’t make sense to you).
2. Never, ever, begin your children’s sermon with a question. Beginning your sermon by asking a question:
Leaves the child confused (like the time a pastor, wearing a robe for the first Sunday in Lent, started the children’s sermon by asking, “Who can tell my why I wore this robe today? Child’s answer: “How the heck should I know?”, or “Because you feel cold?”)
Insults the child’s intelligence (like the time a person held up a picture of a tree and asked, “Who can tell me what this is?” Child’s answer: “O.k., I’ll play along and help you out by answering the obvious: “It’s a tree!”)
Puts the child on the spot by requiring them to answer a question without context. There’s little worse for a child than to be put “on the spot” to come up with the “right” answer.
They’ve been dreading that in school all week, and now they have to fear that in church too? And, of course, they have learned by now that the “right answer” to anything is always, “Jesus” or “God,” a tragic habit which has taught them that faith is uncritical—you don’t really have to think about it, the answer is always, “Jesus.”
3. Don’t focus on concepts; rather, focus on feelings. A child’s faith world is a world of feelings: happy, hurt, sad, angry, scared, confused, uncertain, excited, feeling safe, loved, cared for. This is what a child “knows.” Children do not know, nor are concerned with, abstract concepts: redemption, salvation, justice, loyalty, courage, predestination, supralapsarianism, etc. When telling your children’s sermon, focus on feelings, identify them, acknowledge them, illustrate them, talk about them. Other feelings that help children grasp the experience of faith are wonder, awe, delight, anticipation, and thankfulness.
4. When giving a children’s sermon, just tell the STORY! Children need narrative, “the Story,” in order to make meaning of their experience and feelings. Your children’s sermon should primarily be a story. When telling the story, TELL THE STORY, do NOT interpret the story for the children! Do not end your children’s sermon by saying, “Now, this means that. . . . “ Children don’t need you to TELL them what something means—they just need the story. Stories let you focus on feelings and wonder (“I wonder how s/he felt when…!”). Do not be concerned about telling a Bible story over and over again. The more familiar the story, the more satisfying it is to children (this is why children beg parents to read that bedtime book for the 1000th time. They never get tired of it because they NEED the narrative to make meaning).
5. The pastor needs to deliver the children’s sermon. As with all sermons, the children’s sermon serves a function. One important function of the children’s sermon is to give the children in the church exclusive access to the primary god-figure in their faith communities. For most children in your church, those few minutes with the pastor will be the only time they have an exclusive time with and access to the pastor, their church’s spiritual leader. We tell children that they can pray and go to God any time they need, and yet we teach them that the pastor, the primary god-figure in the church, is not accessible to them. Which do you think they really come to believe? Comments like, “I’m not good at it; my staff member is better at it,” or, “I’m not comfortable around children,” or, “I need to focus on the main sermon” are often just “excuses.” The bottom line is that the pastor needs to do this because it is a pastoral FUNCTION.
This is not to say that no one else can ever be allowed to give the children’s sermon. On occasion there may be a good reason for a staff person or even a guest to deliver the children’s sermon. But there should be a good reason (purpose) for it and it should be the exception and not the rule.
6. The children’s sermon is for the children, not for the benefit of the adult audience. Do not “use” children for the entertainment of the adult congregation. You will only confuse the children, and they will sense that you are not really talking to them. In effect, they will know that you are ignoring them and using them rather than talking to them. Theologically and liturgically, using the children’s sermon as a way to communicate with the adults or as a way to entertain them turns them from being a “congregation” to an “audience.”
7. Sit with the children. Do not stand towering over them.
8. Use a conversational tone of voice, but don’t “talk down” to them. Take your cue from Mr. Rogers.
9. End your children’s sermon with prayer. Teach children the proper posture of reverence for prayer (“Let’s close our eyes, bow our heads, and fold our hands.”). Children learn religious practices through modeling and practice—you can offer both during a children’s sermon. Your prayer should be no more than three or four sentences long. Consider asking the children to “repeat after me” when you pray. It helps inculcate the language of prayer and helps ensure the children are paying attention and engaged during the prayer.
10. Don’t be droll or use sarcasm when talking to children. Young children cannot handle sarcasm. They don’t understand it and are confused by it. When an adult uses sarcasm or tries to be “clever” or “droll” with children it’s an indication that the adult is anxious and more focused on him or herself than on what the children need.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.