I admit that I’ve never cared much for children’s sermons. I further admit that the main reason for my dislike is I’ve never been very good at them. Children, especially en masse, frightened me, and fear is never a strong foundation for effective ministry. I am less afraid today—having one’s own children helps—but I am still not very good at children’s sermons. When one dislikes something, and would rather not do it, it’s easy to come up with compelling reasons why one should not do it. In spite of my excuses in the past, however, I’ve come to believe the children’s sermon can be an important part of worship.
Aside from personal neuroses, there are good reasons not to do children’s sermons. The children’s sermon is an innovation, after all. It was nonexistent until roughly a century ago and only popularized in the 1970s. We should be wary; the Faith was passed on far more successfully during the many centuries without children’s sermons than it has been during the past few decades with them. Moreover, Bishop William Willimon’s trenchant critique hits close to home: They’re not for children, and they’re not sermons. Many children’s sermons are based on complicated analogies too advanced for kids who haven’t developed abstract thinking (there’s a reason algebra isn’t taught to third graders). Many more reduce the gospel to trite moralism. Some are bad on both counts, heretically comparing the Trinity to eggs and ice cubes. Well-intentioned modalism is still modalism.
The existence of bad children’s sermons, however, does not deny the genre’s potential for good. Years ago, I was ordering worship for the coming Sunday and had to fit in a children’s sermon. If a worship service is a rhythm of revelation and response, of God’s self-disclosure and our answering praise and petition, where should the children’s sermon go? I decided that, like the “adult” sermon, it was a moment of revelation. What kind of revelation? What is happening in this moment in the service? What should I call it? I wrote down, “Jesus Welcomes Children.” In the here and now, as the Lord is present with those gathered in his name, this is the action he performs at this point in the service: Jesus welcomes children.
Our worship services are an icon of heaven. (Similarly, says an Orthodox friend of mine, the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles is an icon of hell.) Our rhythm of revelation and response enacts the eternal drama of a God who became what we are that we might become what God is. What we do on a Sunday morning is a participation in the eternal, unseen realm. We stand on heaven’s threshold and enact this drama for all to see. So how can we not reenact that moment of sacred history when our Lord and Savior took babes in his arms and blessed them? How can we not enflesh that reality, week after week, by explicitly calling our children forward and welcoming them and speaking God’s Word to them and praying for them? The kingdom of heaven belongs to them—not to us! “Big church” can only find its identity in “children’s church.”
I don’t deny that the children’s sermon has its problems, nor do I claim any proficiency in them—I am very grateful for a lay volunteer who usually leads them in our services! In practice, we may do better to simply use these moments to teach Bible stories, rather than drawing quick applications or superficial analogies. My best children’s sermon, I think, was delivered over a decade ago when I invited the kids into a retelling of the Transfiguration. I had them act it out with me, letting them use their imaginations as I retold the story—climbing the mountain, growing sleepy, drawing back in fear, responding to the words “This is my Beloved Son; listen to him!” Recalling this, I regret my more recent attempts at making the Faith practical—starting with silly questions (“Do you know what holiday’s coming up?” “Have you ever felt jealous?”), or object lessons, or forcing a quick closing prayer. Even as children, our lives already loom too large in our line of sight. We needn’t cater to our natural idolatries, applying Scripture to our lives when we could be submitting our lives to Scripture.
So, in spite of the difficulties, I see two very good reasons for having children’s sermons: First, because in that moment of inviting children to come forward, our worship forms a window into heaven; we embrace children the way our Lord embraced them. And second, because in this age of increasing biblical illiteracy we have an easy opportunity to teach the stories of Scripture.