Bishop Will Willimon: Let the Children Come

A couple of decades ago, in a sincere attempt to make our churches more accessible and welcoming to children, some of our churches adopted an innovation: the children's sermon. Today the children's sermon is, to my mind, a prime example of a noble effort but an unfortunate strategy. I've heard lots of children's sermons. Tried a few myself. For what it's worth, here is my assessment of children's sermons.

I sometimes say that I've only got two objections to children's sermons: they are not for children and are usually not sermons.

They are not for children. Any child younger than older elementary age (who usually avoid coming down for children's sermons) cannot possibly comprehend the complicated analogies and object lessons of most children's sermons. When an adult says to a preacher, "I get more out of your children's sermons than your regular sermons," this is not a compliment to children's sermons but a criticism of our sermons! At their worst, children's sermons put children on display, sometimes embarrassing them with a "Kids say the darnedest things" routine. At their best, they reach only a small proportion of children. Besides, if we really want to reach our children and to affirm them, the sermon strikes me as the least effective liturgical act to reach children.

They are not sermons. If a sermon is an attempt faithfully to proclaim the Christian faith, then the moralism and trite common sense of children's sermons make them questionable. "Let's all be good boys and girls next week," is a long way from the truth of the gospel.

From what I observe the most effective children's sermons are delivered by lay persons who are called and equipped by God to communicate with children. A stiff, uncomfortable, age inappropriate lecture by a pastor sends the wrong message to children and congregation. True, it is important for the congregation to see the pastor as relating well to children (our aging church desperately needs more young families and children) but there are numerous ways to do this more effectively than in exclusively verbal, abstract communication. For instance, every time the church celebrates a baptism, why not call all the children down front and have them gather about the font so they can see what's going on? Try to explain one thing we believe about baptism to the children. They may have difficulty knowing what to make of "redemption" but they all know about water! Jesus communicates with us through ordinary, everyday experiences like eating and drinking, bathing and singing, all activities that are accessible, though at different levels, to children.

I fear that children's sermons tend to backfire, saying to parents and children that which we do not intend to say. We wouldn't interrupt the congregation's worship with, "And now I would like all those of you who are over 65 to come down front while I say something sentimental and sappy to all of you old folks." That would be ugly. So why do we single out the children saying in effect, "Boys and girls, I know that you are bored stiff by Christian worship, that you can't get anything out of what we do when we praise God, so come down front and I'll take a few minutes to try to make this interesting for you."

Be suspicious when someone says, "My child doesn't get anything out of worship." Children can sing, pray, read, or simply enjoy being with others in praising God. Children can be asked to prepare and read the scripture on Sundays, or to usher. I have been in the habit of producing a "Children's Bulletin" for our children each Sunday (Dale and Kelly Clem began this practice at Duke Chapel when I was there.) I was deeply moved when I visited an African American congregation in our Conference where the children all processed with the choir and the children's choir sat in the choir loft for the service. "It's our way of saying to them how proud we are that they are here with us," explained the pastor.

United Methodism has a problem, as do a number of denominations, in retaining our young. I saw a study a few years ago that proved to me that those churches that remove their children from worship on Sunday (taking them off to ‘children's church') have a difficult time of retaining their children in their church as the children grow up. Those churches that lovingly find a way to keep their children with them on Sunday tend to keep their children as throughout their lives. We must not squander the most formative years of our children's lives by removing them from the central, defining act of the Christian faith - the Sunday worship of the congregation.

I therefore hope that our churches will show their full commitment to the full inclusion of children in our Sunday worship, that we will not imply that they are not full and valued members of our fellowship. Our Lord has expressly given little children a place at the center of his Kingdom. We are not in any way to hinder or to forbid them. Let's pray that God will give us the determination and the creativity truly to include our young in our church.

Will Willimon

[Taken with permission from "A Message from Bishop Will Willimon," June 14, 2010. North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.]