How Not to Preach a Children’s Sermon

The Senior Pastor believes Ethan is thinking, “It is so great to have our own special time in worship with the pastor. He knows how to talk to children. He understands that six-year-olds love metaphors. I wonder what object he has today. Maybe we’ll get Skittles and learn how God helps us taste the rainbow. I can’t wait.”

Ethan is actually thinking, “I hate my shoes. Why can’t I wear flip flops like Aiden? Sophia’s mom brings Laffy Taffy. My mom brings raisins. How fair is that? I need a break from mom and it’s children’s time—our time to shine. I hope Isabella says something that makes everyone laughs. Why does the preacher always bring something? It never makes sense, but Starburst day was pretty good. Why doesn’t he tell a story? I like stories. If I scoot a little I can touch that candle. Mom’s probably watching, but she can’t get me from there. I’m going to take off my shoes.”

Children’s sermons must be hard, because most of us have heard more bad ones than good. Eager preachers hope the children will say funny things so the grownups will think the preacher is clever. Desperate preachers use party hats, horns, leis, popsicles, and cats. Preschool comedians see this as a chance to start their career. Church members secretly hope some child decides to practice rolling.

Have you ever heard, “The red on this candy cane is the blood Jesus shed,” and thought, “That should keep the children from eating candy canes”? Maybe you have heard, “This sucker is sweet just like God is sweet to us,” and thought “Not really.” If the minister is holding a pair of scissors, do you pray the subject is anything other than circumcision? Have the children in your church been told more about Calvinism than first graders need to know? Perhaps you have heard children’s sermons on biblical texts that are not the best choices—Song of Solomon, David and Bathsheba, almost anything in Leviticus, the slaughter of the innocents, or Elisha calling on two bears to maul a group of children who called him “Baldy.”

Children’s sermons would be better if ministers stopped using confusing props. Object lessons are popular with those who never talk with children. Six-year-olds do not make the intellectual leap from seeds in Dixie cups to how the Kingdom grows. Children do not think in object lesson logic. No children’s sermon should begin:

“Here’s a bent spoon. Let’s imagine the woman with a crooked back.”

“I brought two slices of bread, peanut butter, and a knife, because today we’re talking about sanctification.”

“Look at this picture of a zebra because our Bible lesson is about who goes to heaven.”

“Here’s a walnut. Picture the Gospel in a nutshell.”

“I brought a T-shirt with the Nike logo. Let’s just do it.”

“Here’s a cell phone that reminds us of five things you need to know about prayer. Text messages, for instance.”

“I brought my favorite Transformer, Devastator, because he reminds me of St. Paul.”

“Here’s a key ring. It’s mine. Who has the key to your heart?”

“I brought a bag of fortune cookies because we’re starting a sermon series on the prophets.”

“This is a camera. Let’s focus on justification.”

“I brought a snake, but it’s a rubber snake, or is it?”

Ministers should not use children as props. Children’s sermons are often filled with questions that are thinly veiled attempts to entertain the congregation. The preacher should not be going for laughs from the adults. No one should ask these questions during the children’s time:

“How is God like this rock?”

“What does your Sunday school teacher teach you?”

“Who is the oldest person in the church?”

“What’s the worst thing about church?”

“What does your mother call your father?”

“Could you say some funny things?”

The phrase “children’s sermon” is not found in any concordance. If we continue the practice, we should do better. Speakers should prepare thoughtfully and prayerfully. Pay attention to children at times other than the children’s sermon. Remember that the purpose is to talk about God’s love. Engage the children on a child’s level. Do not offer abstract thinking that is developmentally inappropriate for concrete-thinking children. Resist the temptation to put children on display. If you ask questions, ask real ones and listen to their answers. Tell the truth that will matter to a child. Children deserve better than a dumbed-down, cutesy version of the morning message with an attention grabbing prop—though everyone loves M&Ms.

Skeptical people might ask, “If the children’s sermon is for the children, then why doesn’t the preacher meet with the children when the adults aren’t around?” The skeptics might have a point.

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Confessions of a Seminary Professor

A seminary faculty posted a photo on Facebook with the caption, “Our faculty and all of the books they have written.” The faculty is made up of superb scholars who have authored a huge stack of books, but you wonder if a sarcastic person might suggest a different caption:

Jesus addressed his disciples, “The religion scholars are fine teachers. Follow their teachings, but be careful about following them. They enjoy talking about their faculty positions and hearing the flattery of students. They love being called ‘Doctor.’” (This is a loose paraphrase of Matthew 23 by someone whose knowledge of Greek would not qualify him for a faculty position.)

I confess that I like having my picture taken with the books I have written. I love the diplomas on my wall. I love processing in my robe and stole. I even love the tam that makes me look like a pastry chef in the French Navy.

Followers of Christ are to become uninterested in position, prestige, or publicity—even if they are seminary professors.

I need to confess when I try to impress the educated rather than care for the underprivileged.

I need to confess when I act as if I should be measured by how many know my name rather than by Christ’s priorities.

I need to confess when I would rather add a line to my resume than spend time helping a church.

I need to confess when I do anything meant to make me look good rather than contribute to Christ’s Kingdom.

Seminary professors warn students that the institution of the church is only the means to the end of serving God. Those same professors are in danger of treating the academy as the end rather than the means to serve. We sin when we do not hear Jesus ask Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand?”

We can do better. The academy can serve the church, but not when we serve the academy. Rather than focusing on impressing other scholars, professors should give more to God.

Student evaluations and make professors feel more like competitors than teachers, but professors can be mentors. Most seminary graduates forget the kings of Judah, the dates of the Great Awakenings, and how to translate the periphrastic perfect passive participle, but we cling to the memory of a teacher who loved God and taught us to love God, too.

Seminary professors should do their jobs in a way that makes no sense if we do not believe in Christ. We understand that it is hard to quantify the best moments of what we do. The more important something is the harder it is to measure.

I should stop just telling students to follow Jesus and try to show them how.

I should make it clear that the purpose of theological education is not knowing more information than others know, but becoming more like Christ.

I should stop trying to give young ministers the tools to climb the ecclesiological ladder and give them instead the perspective to wonder what the ladder is leaning against and leading to.

Seminary professors need to keep their doors open to talk about things that matter. Professors need to ask students, “What is God doing in your life? What are you up against? What feels like a gift? What are your hopes for the church? Can I pray with you?”

Seminary professors need to invite students into their homes because Christians do that. We need to make it clear that a student’s GPA matters less than experiencing God’s grace. We need to work beyond the syllabus to encourage students to ask big questions.

Seminary professors need to be patient with students who come only for the degree and celebrate the ones who come because they adore Jesus. We need to help students understand that seminary should be less about preparing for a career than becoming a servant of Christ.

Karl Barth said, “Nowhere is the grace of God more evident than in the fact that some preachers will be saved”—even ones who like being called “Doctor.” Seminary professors need to love God and their neighbor. Sometimes that will mean writing a book about it.

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