Children’s sermons are an enigma for pastors. If we manage to get past the initial problem of whether they are worth our while in morning worship1 other questions arise. How do we relate to these little people? Should I let my hair down or retain my professional image? Should I employ objects or just tell them the Gospel story?
A minister friend and I were discussing the various problems concerning our areas of ministry. He told me about one children’s sermon he had recently heard. At this particular church a layperson was in charge of the sermon. He had the children come to the front of the sanctuary and then told them about good and bad Christians while using eggs as illustration.
My minister friend told me that he had a hard time following the story and he was sure the children could not tell the difference between the eggs and Christians. All in all, the children’s sermon had filled up some time in the service, it had entertained the adults — who had the mental capacity to follow its logic — and the guilt of the pastor in regard to his ministry to children had been alleviated for another week. The children had been “ministered to” again.
This story is indicative of the many problems surrounding the children’s sermon. It is usually poorly planned and stuck in the service early so that it will be over and more important things can be attended to. With this amount of emphasis it actually becomes a waste of the children’s time and the pastor’s energy. Still, more and more churches want their pastors to “preach” to the children. How can we solve the dilemma and minister correctly and efficiently to the children as well? The following tips may provide some guidance in the area of constructing the children’s sermon.
First, we must focus on the age of the “audience” we are trying to reach. Babies and children up to the age of two have no idea what is going on during a children’s sermon. Children from the ages of two up to twelve, however, have the ability to understand what we are talking about, provided we speak to them in their “language.”
Two stages of learning are represented in these children. Stage one learning, in ages two to six, focuses on episodes rather than the big picture. Children in this age group cannot make generalized connections from a sequence of events. They do, however, understand simple situations.
Also, these children are extremely imaginative and creative. Stories passionately told to children allow these traits to be used effectively. Action and imitation utilized in the children’s sermon draws out their creativity. Showing these boys and girls two eggs and then telling them that one is bad and the other is good makes no impact on them at all. They cannot make any connection between eggs and people. For children at this stage, an egg is an egg and a person is a person.
Stage two children are generally aged seven to twelve. These children need to develop a sense of accomplishment, to complete a task. They learn rules and requirements very well. These children are extremely literal at this stage (so watch what you say very carefully!) and they are developing an interest in “facts, personalities, and concrete examples of faith.”2
These children are also quite sensitive to the needs of others and they are developing a sense of community. These last two qualities demonstrate the need for them to be in our church services and not sequestered off in another part of the church during the morning worship. Children in this age bracket should be allowed to lead or perform in the children’s sermon. They also need to “do” the main point of the sermon.
With this background we can now approach the texts we are considering for our sermon. Keep in mind the variance in ages as you study. I have found that it is better to reflect upon the texts during the week and allow them to speak to you about what and how to relate them to the children rather than dive immediately into creating, or finding, a children’s sermon. This allows you to focus upon the central point of the text.3 After a few days your mind can begin to see how to creatively relate this idea to the children.
Once the main point is clear, appropriate ways to illustrate it can be utilized. I have found that it is best to approach the children’s sermon as a simple illustration of the overall sermon.
Two things must be remembered here. Spontaneity is the key. We all know that children are unpredictable. You may think that the children’s sermon needs to go in one direction but the children may have a totally different idea. Learn to go with their flow. They may be trying to tell you something about your sermon idea. Their spontaneity may even help you preach better!
Children are extremely perceptive and they might discover a point that had escaped you during your preparation time. These impromptu revelations from the children make excellent fillers in the sermon. I have had several instances where I used responses from children to further illustrate a point in my sermon. Rather than use the ones I had initially prepared, I incorporated the fresh ideas and words of the children into the sermon. The children were excited that I used what they said and their parents beamed in pride over their children. The end result was that all paid closer attention to the sermon because all had something invested in it.
The second item to remember goes along with the first. Be loose! Children do not need to see some stodgy-robed person looming over them. I sit down on the floor with the children. I ask them how their week was. I look for things like band-aids, new clothes, “loud” shoes, haircuts. Use these to inquire about the children. This helps them to feel relaxed and you learn more about them, which will inevitably help you prepare better sermons for them. Also, as you loosen up they will open up, and this will allow for more creative experiences with the children.4
If we put all of these ideas together we can begin to create a better, more spiritual children’s sermon. The following examples will illustrate how the above information can be utilized in the preparation of children’s sermons.
Dramatic Sermons
Matthew 15:21-28. This is a beautiful story but also a difficult passage to interpret, even for scholars. The initial problem is, how do we help the children to understand this complex story which is so difficult to comprehend?
Already we are approaching the task incorrectly. Children may not be able to understand the text completely, but they should be able to experience it completely.
Ask for volunteers from the group. For this story you will need dogs, a woman, Jesus, and some disciples. Tell the children that you will read them the story and they will act out or pantomime the characters. Give them some leeway as they act out their parts. Allow them to be imaginative and creative.
Those children who have dogs will catch on to the point of the story immediately. Others will have “been in the story” and thus they will have experienced it. Those who were not in the story saw it, and thus their imaginations were allowed to work with the story.
Psalm 47. One reading through this text should offer many possibilities for a children’s sermon. Clapping, singing, gathering — with a few props such as a trumpet, chair, and shield, the psalm can be illustrated perfectly.
Divide the children into groups: the princes, narrator and choir. As you read the psalm to them have the children repeat their appropriate lines and perform the required actions. Just by using these techniques the children have learned that this psalm can be (and probably was) acted out in worship. They have seen the various participants in worship, and they have physically worshipped. The adults, just by watching the children, have learned these lessons as well.
Abstract Sermons
These are difficult enough for adults, but for children you can actually have some fun and learn something at the same time. Let’s say you have had a request for a sermon which examines our perceptions of God. The major point of the sermon is that our personal perception of God may not accurately portray the God who lives in the Bible.
Ask the children to describe God for you. When I asked my children this question, the cumulative picture was a gray-bearded younger person with a robe, sash, and striped shoes (Nike’s, Reeboks?). I used this description later in the sermon to show that it does not fit the Bible’s depiction of God; indeed, the striped shoes and the youth of the character showed that our everyday apparel and social attitudes are often used in our pictures of God. This was a good launching pad for the rest of the sermon, and the children were allowed to pause and wonder about one of life’s more serious yet usually unexamined questions.5
As I write this article the particular passage I am focusing on for the week is Romans 12:1-13. The other lections for this week are Exodus 19:1-9 (a recapitulation of the exodus story and the beginning of a new narrative), Psalm 114, and Matthew 17:21-28 (difficult but ….).
My focus is on Romans 12:1, where Paul notes that we are to be a living sacrifice, an idea which is an oxymoron. How can a sacrifice be living? How does one get this difficult point across to adults, let alone children, who do not understand such concepts as “sacrifice” or even “death”?
Preaching this text to children without compromising its message or going over the children’s head is impossible. The concepts are simply too difficult. Here the pastor will be tempted to pull out one of those “brown bag” lessons which simply moralize or entertain the child in order to have at least some message for the children for the week. There is, however, a better way.
When faced with such a dilemma, take a step back and look for the simpler message. Because of the complexity of many biblical passages, finding a point which is simple for children may be impossible.
In moments like these go back to the simple Gospel message, which in this series of texts is found in the Matthean text. Yes, the story is difficult (a child cannot understand “deny yourself”), but it is the same story which the children will hear for years. By teaching them this story at an early age they can grow up into the message of the church, slowly assimilating the intricate pieces of the salvation story until they understand the full story of Christ. Keep in mind that many adults have heard these same stories and still have “light bulb” experiences all through their lives as more and more of the story makes sense to them.6
Another abstract idea for children is communion. One way to introduce this ritual is to allow them to come up and see the elements on the table. Show them the cups or chalice and let them hold the bread. Use these “props” while repeating to them the story from the Gospels or 1 Corinthians 11.
They will not be able to understand that the bread is Jesus’ body or why the “blood” tastes like wine or juice, but some of the mystery surrounding the trays and plates will have been taken away. Also, as the pastor teaches them about communion, many questions will arise which will lead to discussions between the children and teachers, parents and the ministers of the church.7
Doing the Sermon
Sometimes it is just better to “do” the main point of the sermon. For instance, I once preached a sermon about confession and forgiveness. For Children’s Time, I gathered the children around me and asked if any of them had done something wrong that week. I discovered that Jonathan had broken a window with a rock and he was very glad to tell me about this.
As he continued to relate his story to me, often times interrupting the other children, I realized that he was confessing. He knew he had done wrong but he had probably not been allowed to confess this “sin” properly.
I wondered then why we never allow children to confess their wrongs in church. At the close of the Children’s Time I had the children sit around me in a circle and together we prayed for forgiveness for each wrong the children had disclosed to me. They learned something about confession and forgiveness and at the same time they were able to pray, or, even better, have the minister pray for them, and they felt forgiven.
During each Thanksgiving season I always let the children tell me what they are thankful for. Some will say something seemingly silly like “turkey” and others will say earnestly “mom and dad.” I take all their answers seriously, however, because one never completely knows the reasons for such answers.
Maybe it was foolish and silly for Jason to say he was thankful for a turkey leg, but he comes from a family with seven children and until recently they had seen some really lean times. At this particular Thanksgiving his father’s business had done well during the year and they could celebrate the holiday in full, complete with turkey and trimmings. He was indeed very thankful for “turkey.” Always listen to what children say. They may be speaking about matters of intense pain in their “silly” responses.
In all of the examples above, various ways of incorporating the child’s natural inclinations toward movement, imagination, creativity and spontaneity have been employed in the children’s sermon.8 Complex ideas and moralistic lessons have been avoided in order to accommodate the deeper spiritual needs of children into the service.
The children’s sermon should be a part of the “regular” sermon. For this reason I have moved our Children’s Time to right before the sermon. The two halves form a complete whole when planned properly.
At the end of each sermon I do two things. First, I ask the children to look for something in the rest of the sermon. This may be a point, a character, an idea, or simply a deed performed by somebody in the biblical story. This gives the child a reason to listen to the rest of the sermon.
I have had many parents tell me that their child talked about such and such in the sermon on the way home from church. It’s nice to know that even the children are listening to the sermons on Sunday. Also, it keeps you, the pastor, aware during the sermon that you are not just preaching to adults. You are preaching to children as well and they are listening to you at this very moment. You had better not disappoint them! They will let you know if you did not cover what you asked them to look for in the sermon.
Finally, do something intimate with them before they go back to their seats. Hug them, pray with them, help them down from the pew. A pastoral touch does as much for a child as it does for an invalid or a hospital patient. Consider it another way to “shake the hand” of a parishioner. This one gesture may accomplish more than the whole sermon as far as expressing the love of God to the child. Remember, to the children you represent God, and, as one child told me during Children’s Time on a Sunday a few years ago, “You are God.”
Think of the implications of that statement. We may shake it off and try to convince them otherwise, but until they learn we are mere mortals, everything we do — including children’s sermons — is understood as coming from God.
Don’t disappoint the children. You may turn them off from church and God forever. Matthew 18:1-6 clearly states the consequences of treating children lightly. And quite frankly, Jesus very plainly says in this passage that children, not adults, are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They deserve our best every Sunday.
1. See David Ng and Virginia Thomas, Children in the Worshipping Community (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), ch. 2; W. Alan Smith, Children Belong in Worship: A Guide to the Children’s Sermon (St. Louis: CBP Press, 1984), ch. 1; and L. Philip Dan, “Taking Children Seriously,” in Christian Ministry, 16, no. 1 (1985), for discussions about the importance of involving children in worship and the implications for leaving them out.
2. Smith, p. 32. I have drawn from this work for the information about Stages 1 and 2 in childhood learning.
3. See Fred Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), ch. 6 for some excellent insights about letting the points of the text come to the reader.
4. See Ng and Thomas, ch. 9, for many more suggestions.
5. On the need for wonder in our worship services, see Jay C. Rochelle, “Wonder and Worship,” in Dialogue 21 (1982), pp. 45-49. Richard Simon Hanson, Worshipping With the Child (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), chs. 1-2, also discusses the natural wonder of children.
6. See Ng and Thomas, p. 82; Smith, p. 44.
7. Do not, however, substitute teaching for proclamation, as Richard J. Coleman warns in “Maximizing the Children’s Sermon,” in Leadership, 7, no. 1 (1986), pp. 81-82.
8. Hanson, chs. 1-2, has the best discussion concerning the “natural” language of the child that I have been able to find. See also Polly Dillard, “Children and Worship,” in Review and Expositor, 80, no. 2 (1983), pp. 267-268, and A. Roger and Gertrude G. Gobbel, “Children and Worship,” in Religious Education, 74, no. 6 (1979), pp. 575ff. for other ways of constructing the children’s sermon.

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