Liturgical purists hate them, children’s sermons. I have a friend in New York who positively sneers whenever I mention that, yes, I do children’s sermons. He doesn’t like red barbecue sauce, either, which puts him in a special class of culinary philistines. His critique of children’s sermons is not without merit but, as with barbecue sauce, I have chosen to ignore him.
Besides, I think they do belong. Not the kind he describes, granted, or some that I’ve heard the Rev. Happy Pastor give to those cute innocent little sweeties: “Hey, boys and girls, can you tell me why Jesus is like a catcher’s mitt?” I don’t remember the answer. Who—even a kid—would want to? And whatever the message and whatever the object employed, sermons like that almost always conclude “Now, let’s all promise to try and do that this week for your Mommy and Daddy.” One may insert substitutes: your brother and sister, your teacher, your parole officer; whoever fits. Of course they’ll promise. At that point they’d promise most anything to shut the idiot up.
Object lessons seem to be the default setting for most children’s sermons. There are preacher’s websites devoted to object lessons for children. One I ran across involved real flowers and fake flowers for the object, point being some Christians are real and some aren’t. The pastor was to suggest examples of both. If the child returning to your pew gives you a hard appraising look, now you know why.
But object lessons are easy, too easy. They are almost always “law,” an important distinction from “gospel” for a Lutheran guy like me. They end with exhortations to be better, do better, practice hard and study well and keep their rooms clean, and get along with other people. Take this one from a real children’s sermon: “And I want you to remember not to fight with one another, not to be ugly, and to do as God asks.” Tell you what. Tell the adults first. Maybe if they get the hang of it, it’ll have a better chance of filtering down.
The beginning of a good children’s sermon is one that shuns objects and lessons, especially when combined with moralistic gotchas. Instead, like any good sermon, a children’s sermon should head straight for the heart, straight for gospel, and include the unerring declaration “God made you and, in Christ, God loves you without reservation.” That’s pretty much my consistent approach; that’s what I aim for, at any rate, even if I don’t always achieve it.
I figure, they already know how to behave, generally. I don’t think they need a Sunday dose of ego deflation, being told yet again—even by inference—that they aren’t like Jesus or the catcher’s mitt and that they must pledge to do better. After another week in school trying to figure out how they fit with their peers and more often learning how they do not, they probably have their failures, real and imagined, sorted out pretty well.
So I concentrate on preaching the gospel, the good news of what happens after they misbehave, of who and whose they really are when they think they don’t fit in, and when they’ve heard something cruel and momentarily cannot remember that their real worth is found in baptism. These are the themes, and others like them, I try to keep in mind talking with children, and if I get repetitive, so what? Some things bear repeating.
If a pastor isn’t good talking with kids, and some aren’t, don’t talk. Show them things in the church instead. These are the only objects fit for use. I invite children to come and watch every baptism and I’ll pick a kid to be my book stand. I explain what baptism is, what is happening and why, and show them how to make the sign of the cross so they can remember their baptism every morning and evening like Martin Luther said to do in his catechism.
I will tell them what the Paschal candle is for, what the spikes represent, and the seasons and times when it is lighted. I will explain the scenes depicted in the stained glass. I’ll call the first communion class forward for an impromptu examination of the Real Presence, maybe asking them to explain the difference between impanation and transubstantiation. Of course I haven’t covered it. I just like to watch the panic come over their faces; eventually I get to the point: The sacrament is “given and shed for you.” No ifs, ands, or buts, and I’ll remind them, like grandma said, you are what you eat.
I don’t ask open-ended questions hoping to get something cute the grown-ups can laugh at. It’s a sermon for kids, not entertainment for adults. (This reminds me, arrange the kids so you are talking to them, not through them to the grown-ups.) But I will ask dumb questions trying to provoke smart answers. “Easter is when Jesus comes out of his tomb and if he sees his shadow we have six more weeks of winter, right?” Typically dubious, they will undertake my instruction. Or one of my favorite gambits, I’ll state “The Lord’s prayer starts out, ‘Dear Ralph.’”? Kids are all over that one.
I was fortunate. I got over object lessons early, thanks to a kid. I once was trying to describe the Ten Commandments as an operator’s manual, directions for doing something right. My object was a small balsa wood airplane glider. I ripped it out of the package and told the kids I didn’t have time to read the directions. I was just going to stick it together the way I wanted and ignore any directions that came with it. The result was about as bizarre as I could make it. I told them I think this will fly. They disagreed. I tossed it and of course it didn’t fly. Then I told them their lives were like that airplane. The Ten Commandments tell us how to put it together. You gotta follow the directions God gives you if you expect life to work out for you.
Nice object, nice moralism, stupid pastor. One of the girls went back to her seat, I later learned, and when her dad asked if she’d learned anything replied “Not a thing. I already knew how to put an airplane together.”
Russell E. Saltzman is the mission development pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Gothenburg, Nebraska, and the author of The Pastor’s Page. His previous On the Square articles can be found s previous On the Square articles can be found revious On the Square articles can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.