Monday, September 22, 2008

Children's Sermon Reflections

Desmond Tutu's children's sermonNot all churches have them, but a good number of congregations I've worshiped with over the years participate in the tradition of the "Children's Sermon." In my experience, what usually happens is the pastor (or an another adult worship leader) asks kids to come to the front of the sanctuary, and he or she spends some time talking to the kids about some Christian ideal. As often as not, the Children's Sermon is a simplified form of the same message that the main sermon will be about later in the service. I'd be interested to know if any of you have churches that have such times in your worship gatherings specifically for kids, but handle them differently.

Yesterday's worship service had an intriguing example of this phenomenon. The pastor was preaching on Matthew 20:1-16 (like many churches, our church follows the Revised Common Lectionary. I shared a brief thought on the passage on Saturday, in preparation for this very service). This passage details Jesus' parable of workers hired at various points in the day, yet who are all paid the same wages. It's a well-known story, even (I expect) among many of the kids present.

The pastor conveyed the point of this story to the kids by dividing them into three groups. To the first group, he asked them to imagine that they were being hired to dust the sanctuary, and offered to "pay" them (this was pretend, remember!) $50 for the "day's" work. He handed out towels, and sent them to "dust" the pulpit. That group of kids scattered to begin their "work." Informing everyone that they were imagining that a couple of hours had passed, he then "hired" the second group, and they got to "dust" the communion table. Then, finally, after a few more pretend "hours," he "hired" the third group, who "dusted" the baptismal font.

He then got the group back together, and asked the first group how much, if they were to be paid $50, the third group, who had "worked" so much less, deserved. A few answers were shouted out (one even suggested a higher number!), and the pastor then asked them how they'd feel if the third group was also paid $50. At least one kid shouted "No fair!" and the point of the Children's Sermon was made.

I often feel like having gone to seminary--coupled with my sometimes rather exacting personality--has "spoiled" me for actual worship. I'm always thinking through how a pastor or leader might have done something better. I do not recommend this practice, and say this in the form of a confession as much as anything else. But I noticed, for example, that the kids were difficult to bring back together for the conclusion of the Children's Sermon, having been dispersed to do their "work." I wondered if it might have worked better if the pastor had gotten an adult volunteer to join each of the three groups in their "work," who would then assist in bringing them all back together again at the end.

I'll never know, of course. And it's probably not important. Even with the mild chaos present, the pastor was able to convey the point of his message--not just to the kids present (indeed, probably not to all of them, although I'm confident that quite a lot of them got it), but also to the adults watching all this happen. I've heard it said that Children's Sermons are as much for the adults as for the kids. And let's be honest, it's not like all adults are paying attention to the "adult" sermon, either!

A number of years ago, I had a part-time job as a Youth Director. As I've said before, I don't consider that job to be one of the successful highlights of my career. But one of my responsibilities there was to give the weekly Children's Sermon, something I did faithfully each week while I was there. I know very well how difficult it is to keep the attention of such a group of young people, even for such a short time. On my last Sunday at the church, as I left that position having felt like I'd failed the church and the youth I was intended to serve, one of the adults came forward to tell me that she considered herself to have come to know Jesus through something I said in one of my Children's Sermons. I have no idea what I said that she found so meaningful. I certainly consider this more the action of God than of my own abilities, which I was especially unsure of in that context. But it definitely taught me the value of even such apparently mundane or less than "professional-looking" aspects of a worship service. God can, and does, use them. I certainly pray that this was the case in yesterday's Children's Sermon.

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