Preparing to preach effectively to children does not mean finding "something for the kids" to add to the sermon you prepare for the adults. Instead, it means doing your entire sermon preparation aware that some of your listeners will be children. It begins as you study the text for the day or mull over the chosen topic, exploring its significance for children as well as for adults. It challenges you to give the sermon an outline and format that children can follow and to consider how your points speak to children. Imagine the children of the congregation looking over your shoulder as you work asking, "What will you say to us?"
This is not as daunting as it sounds. It begins by asking three basic questions as you study the texts or explore the topic on which you will preach.
Question 1: What words does a child need to know in order to understand this text or topic?
Words are the basic building blocks of a sermon. Not knowing or misunderstanding a key word is a major barrier to following a sermon. Unfortunately, many of the biblical words and faith words that are uttered in preaching do create barriers for children.
The church universal chuckles over the original way children hear some of the words of our faith. There is the child who prayed the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father who art in heaven, Harold be thy name ..." while another prayed "Our Father who art in heaven, how'd ya know my name?" Funny? Yes, but these children could benefit from a little word study on that unfamiliar word, 'hallowed.'
Then there are the words whose current everyday usage is different from its biblical or faith usage. "Offense" is a good example. Most sports-conscious children define "offense" as the team with the ball. At church "offense" is another word for sin. So when we preach about forgiving offenses or forgiveness for our offenses, we need to explain just what constitutes an offense and why it needs forgiving. To identify the words that need attention, read the biblical text once looking specifically at the vocabulary. Read several translations looking for the words children will understand. If you are starting from a topic rather than a text, make a list of key words you expect to use readily in the course of the sermon. Which words might pose problems for children? What could you do to eliminate those problems?
One preacher public collects "big words for Christians." Frequently during a sermon she will devote a few minutes to defining a word to be added to her collection. At times she recalls a word that is already in the collection and adds a new dimension to its meaning. Both adults and children enjoy this process and learn from it. Adults occasionally suggest words that need to be added to the collection.
Another useful device for exploring the meaning of words in preaching is to identify "used to thinks." For example, one nine year-old reports that he "used to think" that God and Santa Claus were brothers, and that Santa lived at the North Pole and took requests for toys you needed at Christmas while God lived at the South Pole and took requests about what you needed during the rest of the year. Identifying the problems with this way of thinking and replacing it with new ideas about God does two things. First, it provides an opportunity to replace a rather childish understanding of how God responds to our requests. Second, it suggests that we keep growing in our understanding of God. Publicly identifying common "used to thinks" about a variety of faith concepts leads listeners to expect that over time some of their current understandings will also become "used to thinks."