A friend recently asked what I might recommend on children's sermons from a theological perspective and how to engage children in worship more as opposed to the three minute stint up front.
I responded: First of all, I'm glad you are asking and not just making assumptions that: l) Of course we should have children’s sermons; 2) The goal is to have "our" cute kids in front of the church; or even 3) It's the only way to keep kids interested in going to church.
I would begin by asking about the nature of the worshipping community. And I would also ask, as I do in the book, The Ministry of Children's Education, "Who is the child?" and "Whose is the child?" The first question would move you to a conversation about God and the body of Christ and how all members, small and large, are active participants and not mere spectator or audience. (As you know, many adults "enjoy" the children's sermon because they like the amusement factor when a child answers an abstract question in a concrete way.)
Thinking positively, beginning with the nature of the worshipping community opens the doors wide to creatively thinking about the ways people of all ages and abilities can be involved in praying, praising, hearing and speaking the Word of God, and serving and being empowered for ministry in daily life. I have seen congregations--maybe your own--do that. Like the young girls who play chimes beautifully at Bethel Lutheran Church in Aurora, CO, here having fun on the sanctuary steps before the service. I have seen children and adults serving as ushers together. I heard the most clear and moving proclamation of the Word when a 12-year-old, with good preparation, read the lessons. I have worshipped from folders with colorful covers individually designed by the young children. I have seen a child in a wheel chair bring forth the bread for communion. I have been fed by my own sons at the altar on their confirmation day years ago.
And, coming from the other direction, I would love to talk with an education committee about how the pastor(s) can be engaged with children around the Bible at other times than on the altar steps on Sunday morning. I know, I know, they are busy. But, too busy to teach the children the Bible? "Let the little children come to me" and I'm too busy? Recently, on my way home from Colorado, I was with Pastor Randy Fett in Grand Island, Nebraska. He serves a 2000 member ELCA congregation. It was midweek and he spent the morning engaged with the texts for the upcoming Sunday, first with children from the day care center and pre-school.
He used not just the story from the Gospel, but also the Psalm. No story line there. But he and the children with their whole bodies lived out the praise of the Psalm. Later he and I met with some of the oldest members of the congregation and engaged the same texts. Or, more clearly, the texts engaged us. We carry the Word and the Word carries us. Here was the wisdom of the ages, the pain and joy, and the still unanswered questions, from the same text in the same church on the same morning. We are called to engage and be engaged by the scriptures by all the people all week along. That is the joyful challenge to which we as a congregation and its councils and committees are called.
Having broadened the question from both directions, I then come back to the more narrow subject. It's not that I was avoiding your question. I answer by not taking the beloved practice of children's sermons away from people, but by helping them experience that as only a small part of the potential of children's ministry, all ministry, in the church. Yes, I have seen children gathered around the pastor sharing the text for the day while the congregation listened on. It's not that I don't like children's sermons. I just don't like children's sermons done badly.
Here's where I come back to the "Who is the Child?" and "Whose is the Child?" questions and some rubrics I have for children's sermons.
1. They need to be grounded in the Word of God, not just lightly connected through some cute story. Here's where I find books on children's sermons can be counter-productive. I think it is difficult to prepare a children's sermon. One should spend a great deal of work on it. Too often it's just an afterthought. There are, of course, pastors who deeply care and carefully prepare.
2. Those who give children's sermons need to be and become theologically educated. That means pastors need ongoing growth theologically. And it certainly means that theologically trained leaders, pastors, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, associates in ministry, need to be working with any lay people who are preparing children's sermons. I believe this about ongoing theological education for and with those with teaching ministries in the congregation as well, of course.
3. The name: “Children's sermon” implies children don't listen to the "real" sermon. And there are those adults who proudly say "I got the most out of the children's sermon." "Children's time" assumes that's the only time the pastor or caring adults spend with children, or that being in front is the only place of worship. So, name? Maybe the problem with the name reveals the problem with the concept.
4. All of the above has been speaking to "Whose is the child?" Certainly the child is a person created by God, beloved by Christ and filled with the Spirit. The child does not belong to the parent. The child, all children, are children of the whole congregation. And seeing children as special enough to be seen and heard in church is very important. I do not mean to diminish that. Likewise the caring congregation needs always to be reaching out to children from the neighborhood and beyond. How does our comprehensive ministry of the Word do that? And how does the place of the child in Sunday worship do that?
5. "Who is the child" asks the very, very important developmental question. The fact that I have come to that last means it is not of least but of utmost importance. I think it would be great for those who work with education and worship to take time to learn more about child development, particularly about concrete reasoning and abstract concept. And, while you are at it, talk about the problems with asking, "Guess what I'm thinking" questions. This kind of adult education would be helpful for the whole range of ministry among children.