Sorry I haven’t written for a while. I launched a new class, and that took my attention from most other things. But it sounds like in your field education position you are getting to continue your thinking about children’s sermons.
As you wrote,
My supervisor has a unique way of doing his children’s sermon. He comes out each week with a bag of objects. He doesn’t know what’s inside. Members of the congregation have fun putting things in there for him. His challenge is to reach in, bring out an object, and make it the center of his children’s sermon. The congregation loves it!
Ah yes. The random Metaphor Generator.
Actually, your supervisor’s approach is not unique. I’ve seen it done and heard of many who do it.
Personally I don’t recommend it.
And when I say
I don’t recommend it
what I really mean is
Please, never do this, ever.
Why do I object so strongly to what your field ed congregation adores? Several reasons.
I tremble to take on this topic, though, since a bunch of pastors whom I like and respect do the random grab bag children’s sermon at least from time to time. (I don’t want to offend them, so be sure you don’t share this letter with them, okay?)
I’ll take the most important one first, just in case you are tempted to let your eyes glaze over as I rant.
1. The grab bag sermon will almost always completely fail to communicate with children.
Here’s the thing: Every “object lesson,” especially when it comes from a grab bag, is about a metaphor. And little kids can’t actually grasp metaphors — they can’t do it reliably till they are maybe 8 or 9. (I say “reliably” because sometimes one will get through earlier.)
If you pull something random out of the bag (maybe a wrench?), no matter how clever you are in building a metaphor from it about the Christian life (“God uses other people to help us grow like we use tools to tighten nuts and bolts”) the kids can’t make the leap.
Once a pastor I dearly love brought a bunch of peppercorns out for the children’s sermon and talked about how hot they were if you bit down on them. There was a hearty gospel point of some kind being made of course, but after church we asked the kids,
So what do you think the children’s sermon was about today?
They offered a theory:
Don’t eat pepper?
And we grown ups use a TON of metaphors even when we aren’t doing object lessons. (Did you spot the metaphor in that sentence? It’s a weighty one.)
Anyway, if you use language in your children’s sermon that 7 year olds can’t grasp, then you’ve missed your target.
2. The grab bag sermon will almost never do what every sermon is supposed to do.
If you are aiming for that time with the kids up front to be a children’s sermon, you need to remember what every sermon needs to do: It needs to help people understand and live in light of the message of Scripture. In particular it needs to help people into the passage of Scripture read in worship that morning.
And the grab bag? It’s about making something spiritual or gospel-ish out of some random item. I think the odds of it helping the kids understand that morning’s text are minimal.
3. The grab bag sermon’s primary benefit is the entertainment of the grown-ups.
Parents love the grab bag sermon. It’s like going to an improv club and shouting out some random thing that the actors have to incorporate in a scene.
We enjoy sweating with the pastor who has to convey a Christian message from a plastic spider. Or a tea cozy. Or whatever.
And then we feel satisfaction when he or she pulls it off. It’s entertaining.
But the point is not to entertain the adults. The point is to communicate the Christian faith to the children.
4. The grab bag sermon’s secondary benefit is helping the pastor feel like a champ.
Pastors probably love the grab bag children’s sermon even more than the grown ups. Pastors often love to perform, to ham it up a bit. We love approval and admiration.
Even if the congregation doesn’t approve of applause, we love to congratulate ourselves when we really do come up with a gospel meaning based on an empty balloon, or an old light bulb.
Woo hoo! Yes! (Inner fist pumps the air in triumph.)
But that’s not the point, right? The children’s sermon, like the grown-up’s sermon, is part of worship. It isn’t intended to make the pastor feel good — nor is it, in fact, to make the people feel good.
The point of everything in worship is to draw us toward God.
Take another page from Mr. Rogers’ playbook.
If you want a good exercise in improving your children’s sermon, try this: Find a colleague from another church, and each of you write our your children’s sermon verbatim. If the service is taped, just transcribe it word for word. Then trade children’s sermons with your friend and see if you can circle every single metaphor.
Then, when you see your marked up copy, go through it and see if you can rephrase every sentence to make it completely metaphor free.
That kind of seriousness about simple, child-level language is one of the things to learn from Mr. Rogers. He wrote and edited his scripts to make sure he was speaking plainly and honestly. When he fed the fish, it wasn’t a metaphor. It was one of the things he did in his TV house.
Next time you do a children’s sermon give it a try. Let me know how it goes!
My Letters to a Young Pastor are an ongoing semi-regular series here on my blog. I’d love to send them to you so you never miss a single one. Just scroll down to the black box with the orange button to sign up for my weekly(ish) newsletter and they’ll come straight to your inbox.