Preaching with children

One day, I’m going to create a blog around preaching with children and post my sermons there. I take them very seriously — it’s not a light thing we do. If you are reading this because you’re drawn to the Godly Play theme of this blog, you already know that!

To begin, I’m going to post here some “how-to’s” — purely subjective (especially my aversion to puppets) and mostly derived from my Godly Play experience.

As a chaplain serving a lower school (grades Jr. K to 5) for the past 6 years, and as a parish priest, Sunday School volunteer, and parent over the years, I believe I can offer some guidance.

The following originated as a message to a seminarian who asked my advice:

Ah, the children’s sermon . . . Everyone has to do it, and no one teaches you how!! one of these days I will teach a course, since no homiletics professor I know considers it a subject worthy of their time.

I am no expert, but I do preach with children every week at school, and about once a month at church.

Notice that I saw “preach with,” because I just don’t like the sound of “preach to.” I use the same language about adult sermons. It is a two-way conversation, a dialogue, even if only one person is speaking out loud.

So . . . a few do’s and don’ts:
DO preach short (I print mine on one side of a single sheet, in two columns, landscape style, single spaced — this creates a sheet you can fold in half and tuck into a prayerbook.)
DO preach with as few notes as you can. As noted above, I do prepare a manuscript. It’s a necessary part of the process for me. When possible, I preach without text. But when using the manuscript, I know it well enough that it’s really a prop and most of the time, my eyes are on the congregation. If you are a Godly Play practitioner, you are well prepared for speaking from the heart. MORE IMPORTANT than whether you use notes or not is whether you love what you’re saying and convey it in a way that shows you love the children, and that God loves us all.
DO strive for something that is accessible to the children BUT also contains food for the adults. This is critical and helps prevent talking down to the children. (Sometimes the children’s sermon is the only sermon at a particular service. Sometimes a preacher will finish talking with the children and then preach the “real” sermon. Needless to say, I hate that approach.)
DO smile 🙂 not that I have to tell you that.
DO your usual exegesis! Many people believe they can find a children’s sermon in a book because a) they are out of ideas, 2) they are afraid of children or 3) they do not think that study is worth their time for “just a children’s sermon.” I know this because I worked at a seminary library, and every Saturday some student would come in asking for a book they could use for a children’s sermon *the next day.* 😦 Just as in an adult sermon, you will not “show your work” in your sermon, but you will have something to say if you engage the text in a serious way.
DO tell stories! Either from your own experience or from a book or movie the children know.
DO use an object(s) if they help you make a point. Do not feel that you MUST have something to show (a la the “brown bag” sermon schtick) — but children are fascinated by something as simple as pouring water from a pitcher into a bowl, or using a cornucopia filled with familiar and strange fruits/vegetables to talk about God’s generosity.

DON’T

ask the children questions in front of the congregation. I know, I know, this is what many people expect. It puts children on the spot. It encourages them to be entertaining, to get a laugh; or it embarrasses them and discourages them from sharing their thoughts. Either way is IMHO disrespectful. Resist the people who want the children to say “cute” things for the benefit of the adults. No one expects adults to share their responses to the gospel out loud in front of their peers. Also, It can also be hard to regain control once the competition to answer begins.
(An exception is to ask a question that everybody knows the answer to and can say together, like “what happened in Haiti last year?” or “what holiday is coming?”
DON’T tower above them if they are sitting up front in the chancel. Sit with them. If the adults can’t see you, that’s OK. (Personally I prefer to have the children stay with their parents — it discourages the kind of “performance” mentality described above.
DON’T call them “kids” or “kiddies.” Not that you would. I have a personal distaste for “boys and girls” which I can’t quite explain.
DON’T necessarily end with a moral. One of the homiletics gurus who dismissed my request that he cover children’s sermons replied that all children need is a moral. NOOOOOO – they need stories with which they can make their own meaning. This doesn’t mean that you don’t interpret the lesson for them. But pat answers and platitudes are not what children need.
DON’T use puppets if you can help it. Again, just a personal bias 🙂 Puppets creep me out.

You can tell I’ve heard a lot of bad, and good, children’s sermons. I am sure I’ve preached my share of bad ones, but I always strive to do better.

Jeez, I thought I didn’t have much to say. In summary avoid the canned crap and treat the children and the text with the same respect you would give their parents and grandparents. If you love God, the scripture, and the children, they will know it. YOU WILL DO GREAT!!

About threegreatdays

The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales is a Godly Play Trainer in the U.S.; an Episcopal Priest; Chaplain at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia; a Godly Play Practitioner since 1996; and a mother and grandmother. Every day I get to be with 400 children at school and on weekends when I'm lucky, with my four terrific grandsons and three lively granddaughters. As a Godly Play practitioner, I want to spread the word about this life-giving, Montessori-based way of nurturing children in the Christian story and life. Godly Play, the creation of the Rev. Dr. Jerome Berryman and his wife Thea, is used in many denominations and in many countries, and has been translated into at least seven languages. This blog is not an official publication of the Godly Play Foundation (see www.godlyplayfoundation.org) but seeks to be a clearinghouse for ideas and experiences of teachers, trainers, and parents. Join the conversation!

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