by Trevecca Okholm
During my 25 years as a children’s pastor, I was regularly assigned to give the children’s sermon in worship and, just being honest here, I had a love/hate relationship to the idea of inviting children to come sit in the front of the worship space and “learn” something from a
5-minute talk while all the adults in the room were watching and often laughing at the children’s comments. That was the part I hated. The part I loved was the challenge of creating a lesson that was not only for the children but also aimed at the adults in the room.
Only in the past 50 years or so have churches designated a time in congregational worship for inviting children to come to the front in worship and sit with one of the pastors for a mini-sermon directed specifically to them, although the idea of preaching to children is not new, as early as 1800s publishers found a market for collections of children’s sermons. (VanDyk, 1995).
However, this practice didn’t really become popular until mid-twentieth century when the church began to accommodate the culture by offering a one-hour-fits-all approach to Sunday morning—instead of one hour in Sunday School for all ages followed by one hour of intergenerational worship. It was a selling point to provide worship for adults while children and youth had their Christian formation classes. The idea of the children’s sermon was to create a meaningful way to draw the congregation’s attention to the importance of children in our midst while speaking the truth of the Christian faith to children on their level of understanding and helping them to realize that they are valued members of the church family. (VanDyk, 1995). The downside of giving children’s messages during congregational worship is always the temptation to use the children as entertainment for the adults by setting them up to make comments or give answers that amuse adults.
Preparing a children’s message demands thoughtful and prayerful preparation in order to bring God’s Word to the children as well as to the adults that will be overhearing the message. Object lessons started to become a popular model for the children’s message while again becoming more entertainment for adults than meaningful message for children and also created a new challenge of staying within a theological focus for the purpose of bringing the children into the presence of God while avoiding the temptation to moralize . . . not always an easy task!
When pastors and worship teams give thoughtful planning to the children’s presence in worship there is potential for creating more meaningful worship for everyone. For example, a blessing could be added before children are dismissed. This could take the form of a congregational response of blessing the children before they leave corporate worship and children repeating a blessing over the congregation. Another meaningful model is for the children to remain where they are seated and the children’s message directed at the children and their parents together. Of course, being honest with ourselves, we know that such thoughtful and careful planning seldom happens.
Frankly, because we in the church are now discovering a greater value for all generations to participate in corporate worship together, the minister and worship committee may want to be more intentional in their plans for children as active participants in worship and avoid pitfalls of allowing the congregation to become spectators who are being entertained by the children thus giving children the message that they are expected to entertain the adults thereby learning that church is a place to be embarrassed, to show off, or not to be taken seriously.
My advice? Don’t give up on children in the worshiping community and if you do offer a children’s message, be intentional, honest, and theologically creative with the children while resisting the temptation to entertain the adults.
Contributed by Trevecca Okholm, adjunct professor of Practical Theology at Azuza Pacific University and author of Kingdom Family: Re-Envisioning God’s Plan for Marriage and Family and The Grand-parenting Effect: Bridging Generations One Story at a Time (Summer, 2020)