If you’ve attended United Methodist churches long enough, you probably recognize this squirm-worthy scene: A pastor seated on the floor, trying to cue the kids to say the darnedest things. Or, it’s a well-intended layperson, slogging through a wordy message. Surrounding the speaker are wriggly children who aren’t paying much attention.
It’s the gone-awry version of the “children’s sermon” or “children’s moment”—the few minutes during Sunday morning worship when children gather, at the front of the sanctuary, for a few words of kid-friendly wisdom dispensed by a grownup.
Now, some United Methodists are asking whether children’s sermons need to go.
“A noble effort but an unfortunate strategy” is how Bishop Will Willimon (now retired) characterized the practice on his blog a few years ago, adding that he had two objections to children’s sermons: “They are not for children and are usually not sermons.”
Melanie C. Gordon, director of ministry with children for the General Board of Discipleship, isn’t high on the idea of children’s sermons either.
“Personally, I’m not a fan of them, and I’ve gotten a lot of flak for that,” she said. “I’ve seen some wonderful children’s moments, and I’ve seen some that are painful.”
No ancient tradition
Still, at many United Methodist churches, children’s sermons remain a treasured Sunday morning staple. While they’re not prescribed anywhere in the Order of Sunday Worship in the United Methodist Hymnal, Ms. Gordon estimates that about half of the United Methodist churches that she has contacted or visited in her travels around the U.S. offer some kind of “children’s moment” within worship.
Advocates say they add an important piece to the worship lineup.
“It’s a time when the pastor gets to spend a dedicated few minutes with the children,” said the Rev. Daynelle Ditmer, pastor of children and families at North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. “In some churches, it’s the only time when the pastor engages them directly.”
The idea of sermons aimed specifically at children likely originated with the Sunday school movement of the mid-19th century, according to L. Edward Phillips, associate professor of worship and liturgical theology at Candler School of Theology.
“Pastors would be invited to speak to the children, and they would adapt sermons specifically with illustrations accessible to children,” he said.
By the late 19th century, children’s sermons began to migrate to Sunday morning worship, Dr. Phillips said. Ironically, the earliest evidence he can cite are minutes of a Congregational church in 1880, when a layperson observed that the children’s sermons were the best part of the services on Sunday mornings.
But children’s sermons in Sunday worship seem to have really taken off in the 1970s, as mainline churches, taking cues from Vatican II, experimented with creative models of worship. In a quick survey of materials in GBOD’s archives, Ms. Gordon couldn’t find evidence of children’s sermons in worship until the late 1970s or early 1980s.
Now, churches are rethinking children’s sermons as part of a broader consideration of what creates vital worship and vital congregations. Dr. Phillips says that many of his students want to discontinue children’s sermons at the churches they serve, because children’s sermons interrupt the flow of traditional worship or seem too old school for contemporary worship.
Ms. Gordon, too, sees churches debating over whether to continue them.
“Children’s moments fall under that umbrella of a bigger conversation, about what it means for children to be present in worship,” Ms. Gordon said.
Foes of children’s sermons, like Bishop Willimon, point out that other demographic groups don’t get separate sermons.
“We wouldn’t interrupt the congregation’s worship with, ‘And now I would like all those of you who are over 65 to come down front while I say something sentimental and sappy to all of you old folks,” he wrote. “That would be ugly. So why do we single out the children?”
The Rev. Michelle Foster, pastor of congregational care at Covenant Church United Methodist in High Point, N.C., agrees with that point—in theory.
“Yes, we really need to do a better job of making sure that all ages of people have an opportunity to engage in worship,” she said, adding that typical, word-oriented United Methodist worship services don’t offer the “multi-sensory experience” that she believes would better engage people of all ages. “But until we move closer to that, we need to make sure that we specifically find ways to engage children . . . and children’s sermons are one way to do that.”
Ms. Gordon and Ms. Ditmer attended Duke Divinity School at the same time, about a decade ago. There both were taught, Ms. Ditmer says, that children’s sermons were “out.” Instead, professors held out the Catholic approach of piling the whole family into worship, babies included, with no nurseries or crying rooms, no setting aside time for a children’s sermon, and no dismissing the kids for children’s worship.
Still, Ms. Ditmer remained convinced of the value of children’s sermons. For the past three years, she has blogged weekly, lectionary-based children’s sermons on a site called Little People Big Word. (Right now, the blog, www.littlepeoplebigword.com, is on pause while she’s on maternity leave, but maintains an extensive, searchable archive of sermons.)
She does admit, however, that what sparked the blog were the kinds of problems that give children’s sermons a bad name. Ms. Ditmer led children’s sermons at previous appointments, and began blogging after she began receiving calls and emails—many from people she didn’t know—asking for help.
Children’s sermons were “a struggle for many other pastors,” Ms. Ditmer said. “The kids would go crazy. The pastors didn’t know how to engage them.” The need was greatest, she says, among solo pastors who didn’t have a children’s minister or other staff member to turn to for help.
Now they turn to her blog for help. She sees a significant spike in blog traffic on Saturday nights.
Ironically, the church Ms. Ditmer currently serves doesn’t have children’s sermons as part of Sunday morning worship, and never did. In preparing sermons, she keeps in mind her husband, the Rev. Josh Ditmer, who serves as associate pastor of Fishers UMC in Fishers, Ind.
“I think, ‘What would Josh need to know?’” she said. “I’m not thinking of a children’s pastor. I’m thinking of someone like my husband.”
Making it work
Scott Gilliland, elementary ministries director at Lovers Lane United Methodist in Dallas, doesn’t remember much from the children’s sermons he heard as a child.
“Often I had no clue what the pastor was talking about,” he said. “But I got a lollipop.” Sometimes the sermon felt like a ruse to get the kids to say ‘cute things’ to entertain the adults.
His advice to anyone preparing a sermon for children: Keep it simple.
“You have to decide, ‘What is that one main point that you want them to go home with?’” he said. “And trying to boil the sermon down to one point can take some time.”
Children’s sermons often falter, Dr. Phillips said, when well-meaning adults try to protect children from difficult aspects of Christian teaching.
“So we substitute easy moralisms – ‘Be good, share, hold hands, or, if somebody is mean to you, don’t be mean back to them,’” he said. All worthy lessons, but, in the telling, they can easily lapse into sentimentality, jokiness or cutesiness.
To keep children’s sermons real, don’t be afraid to tackle less-than-happy topics, says Karen Podschun, a layperson who often delivers the children’s sermons at First UMC in Winfield, Kan.
“A children’s sermon doesn’t always have to have a happy ending,” she said. “Children can relate to being scared or sad.”
Veteran presenters of children’s sermons say it also helps to understand how children learn.
“Children learn through play and experience,” Ms. Gordon said. “It works best if you talk to them, with a visual aid, with delight in your voice and something that catches their attention. . . . Otherwise, it won’t work.”
Also, they add, don’t throw together a children’s sermon at the last minute.
Compared to a “regular” sermon, “a children’s sermon is more challenging to prepare and deliver because you have less time, a much more active audience and a smaller vocabulary from which to choose,” Ms. Foster said.
“They’re hard to do well,” Dr. Phillips said. “Most pastors tell me this is a problem to be solved, perpetually.”
Question of questions
Ms. Gordon and Ms. Ditmer also offer this advice: Don’t ask questions during a children’s sermon.
“Often, children will begin telling stories, which the congregation may find amusing,” Ms. Gordon said. “Congregational laughter does not affirm a child who is sharing a significant life event, and takes away from the act of worship.”
But Ms. Podschun believes questions get kids engaged.
“Children can be insightful,” she said. “It’s true, they do come out of everywhere with the craziest answers, but to me, that’s part of the fun of it.”
She always has a goal in mind, but is careful not to patronize kids by asking a question with one “right” answer. Also, as an educator and mother of eight, Ms. Podschun is adept at improvising. If a child’s remark sparks laughter in the congregation, she’ll make sure the child understands.
“I’ll say, ‘They’re not laughing at you; their laughter is from a place of joy, because they love you so much and they’re hearing you say something that’s so wise,’” she said.
Do it right
Bottom line: For churches that do choose to offer children’s sermons, it’s important to put time, effort, preparation and prayer into getting them right.
“Never underestimate the importance of the children’s sermon,” Ms. Foster said. “What you say makes a spiritual impact on the lives of those gathered.”
And to Ms. Gordon, the test of excellence definitely applies.
“If you can’t do them well, don’t do them,” she said.