Thanks for asking me to clarify. I said something about how children’s sermons often reveal a preacher’s real theology, for good or for ill.
I suspect it is because pastors do not think of the children’s sermon as a sermon. They think of it more as a conversation.
If they have a warm, welcoming, fun and affirming time with the kids then there is gospel in that. That’s the Mr. Rogers Moment I first wrote to you about.
But generally pastors try to put some theological content in the words they speak. They know this is their chance to nurture the faith in children.
Is it Gospel?
The second key question to test to a good children’s sermon by is this: “Is it gospel?”
If you had to define Christian faith by what you hear in children’s sermons, what would you say it all boils down to?
- Be kind.
- Be nice.
- Be obedient.
Parents are often pretty happy with that message. I mean who couldn’t use a little help with crowd control…er… behavior management … er … “raising them up the way that they should go,” and all that.
Isn’t this an application of the second great commandment — to love your neighbor?
Yes. But it is not the whole of the gospel. It is not even the heart of the gospel. It is actually what we call
Telling Kids about the Grace of God
One time, when preaching some text of Paul or other, I worked the same text into my children’s sermon. I asked them a question:
How many of you think God loves you when you are doing what your parents say to do?
I expanded it a bit with a key example:
For instance, does God love you when you are being kind to your little sister or brother?
Of course all the hands went up.
Then I asked,
How many of you believe God loves you even when you are being MEAN to your sister? Does God love you when you are NOT doing what your parents say to do?
Then I told them the gospel:
God loves you, even when you are being mean to your kid sister, and even when you are disobeying your parents. God loves you all the time. That’s what we know because of Jesus. He came to show us God’s love when we were all doing all he wrong things.
The parents were giving me Those Looks. I seriously wondered if I’d be out of a job at the next meeting of the Elders.
But you know what? Kids need to hear the actual gospel. It is where salvation comes from.
When we sit down with the kids on Sunday morning, we tend to forget that “the way that they should go” is actually Jesus. They need to hear the good news of God’s grace in Christ and they need, over time, to learn to trust in him.
Our False Gospel
There are at least three dangers of preaching the false gospel of behavior management to children.
1. At the very least we are mixing up Jesus with our culture’s Santa Claus — you know, the guy who is lurking about in secret, who sees you when you’re sleeping, keeping a list of who’s naughty and who’s nice. We convince the kids that they won’t get anything good if they are on the wrong list.
2. More theologically, we are teaching kids what the New Testament says is specifically NOT the gospel — that our behavior, our “works,” are what makes us righteous and brings us to salvation.
3. In some cases (and pray to God that the numbers are few) we are telling kids who secretly suffer abuse that they still need to obey their abuser, that they must put on a nice face no matter how terrifying their existence.
I’m all for teaching kids to be kind. Learning to love and serve those around us is a very good thing. But that message is not, in fact, the gospel.
Tell kids the real good news about the real Jesus. It’s the only way they are likely to know real forgiveness, real healing, and real faith.
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