Yes, you are right: it is hard not to aim for a laugh during the children’s sermon — or to enjoy it big time when it happens. As you note, it may be the inevitable result of asking children questions up front. You don’t know what they’ll say.
Though it is rarely publicly recommended as the goal for the children’s sermon, I’m convinced that many preachers make laughter their primary aim.
You’ll remember that I suggested you make your role model Mr. Rogers — who gently welcomed children and made them feel important.
Those who go for adult laughter also have their media role models: in the “Kids Say the Darndest Things” radio and television shows of past generations, Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby both had shows where they asked questions to get kids to make goofy responses.
Since the grown-ups were laughing at home and not in the kids’ faces, maybe it was okay. At least it wasn’t done in the name of teaching children what faith in Jesus is about.
What About Other Kinds of Questions?
So what about asking more sincere questions?
I think you need to be very discerning about asking questions in a children’s sermon.
There are good reasons to want to ask questions. Not least of these is that you, the pastor, want it to be a time of reciprocal engagement. It probably feels awkward, at least at first, if you DON’T make it a conversation.
But there are so many ways questioning kids in front of a crowd can go terribly wrong. Or even mildly wrong. But anyway, wrong.
As Elizabeth Barrett Browning said on another topic, “Let me count the ways…”
- As I’ve now said too many times, you might get the adults laughing, with the kids feeling like church is where they get laughed at.
- You may accidentally make your question too complicated, leading to baffled looks. (And speaking in understandable ways is a skill that has to be nurtured.)
- You may ask something so patently obvious that even the kids feel dumb answering it. (That’s the public version of a familiar bad Bible study guide: “What did Jesus do in verse 12?”)
- More likely you may get one or more of the kids slightly missing the point of the question and going off on a tangent. Then you are out of control and have to reel them in or throw in the towel — usually leading to grown-ups laughing (see #1).
- Even more likely you divide the group of kids into extroverts and introverts.
- The introverts are cringing inside, afraid you will make them talk in public — and they remember church as where that embarrassment happens.
- The extroverts jump right in and they talk, and talk, and talk — and again you’ve lost control, leading to laughter.
This Is Not a Test
My wife, who worked for years in special education contexts, pointed out a more serious consequence of children’t sermon questions than I would have come up with:
Think about what happens to the kids who really struggle in school. Five days a week they get asked questions, out loud and on paper, and they don’t know how to answer.
Then they come to church, where we want them to know that they are loved and accepted just as they are — and we quiz them about Bible and theology. In public. In front of their parents. In front of their friends.
Listen to the next half dozen children’s sermons you hear — maybe some of them are coming out of your own mouth. Listen to the kinds of questions that get asked.
- Do they include metaphorical elements?
- Do they ask kids to draw an ethical interpretation from a story?
- Do they assume kids have a working knowledge of some basic Christian teaching?
- Do they ask the kids to recall and recite something — whether something from a story you just read, or from previous knowledge?
Now imagine that you are somewhere in the 4 to 9 year old range. Imagine you are a kid who really struggles to read, to make sense of instructions, to succeed in school. All those kinds of questions are hard — for any kid, and especially for a kid who is struggling.
You might try to put them at ease, saying “This is not a test!”
Tell that to the people of Hawaii who got the text about a supposed missile attack on January 13.
Small comfort in the follow-up saying, essentially, “Oops.”
Sometimes “Not a test” is not helpful enough.
The Need for Discernment
So what you need to do is seriously ponder the kinds of questions you are asking. Hone your skills at kid-level communication.
Make sure you don’t turn a gracious welcome in Jesus’ name into something that reinforces the sense of panic and judgment many kids endure every single day of their educational life.
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