A long time ago, in my first stop as a parish pastor, I did children's sermons. We had about five or so children, my son being the oldest -- he was eight when we moved to Santa Barbara. The people wanted us to have the sermons "for the" children. The argument for having children's moments or children's sermons is that it lets the children know that their welcome. I did them for several years, though I can't say I did them well. I am by training and inclination, more geared to talking to college students and adults. Trying to get the message into a form that has a useful take away for the kids has always been difficult. Finally, after consulting with the children, including my own son, we abandoned the idea. They didn't enjoy being paraded up to the front so that they could talk to the pastor, or rather so the pastor could try to talk to them (with all the adults looking on). I've not done these things at the last two churches, in part because we've not had children of the requisite age. Of course, in my first church there were some older folks that said they missed the children sermons. I think they liked the brevity of those "sermons."
Having opened with this confession of past sins, I want to bring into the conversation none other than Will Willimon. It so happens that Will is in agreement. From his experience (he tried them a few times, rather unsuccessfully), he's not sure that children's sermons are either for the children or are sermons. For the most part they end up being little more than morality plays, reminding the boys and girls to be good and mind their parents.
Willimon writes in a Theolog posting:
From what I observe the most effective children’s sermons are delivered by laypersons 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 believe that children should be included and that pastors should engage the children. I try my very best to connect with the children in the churches I pastor, I just don't think a 2 minute "children's moment" is the best way to do this.
Willimon points out that we would never invite all the over 65 members to come down front for a special message from the pastor, so why should we expect that children would find this any more attractive. So how do we include and engage children? Well, find ways of incorporating them in worship in ways that are age appropriate, from reading scripture to lighting candles. I grew up in the Episcopal Church and from an early age served as an acolyte. I lit the candles, carried the cross, and later served at the altar. Now less liturgical churches, like my current tradition, have fewer such options, but children can read scripture, the call to worship, take up the offering -- the kinds of things the adults participate in.
I will admit that I've reluctantly agreed to/with the decision at my current church to have children's church during the worship hour. I'd rather they experience the fullness of worship, but I understand that many of the young ones find it difficult to stay tuned for 60 minutes. My only concern is about the future.
I remember back when I was teaching at a bible college, a goodly number of my students had rarely darkened the door of the main worship service. From an early age they'd been shunted off to children's church and then youth services. They'd rarely heard the senior pastor preach -- having had contact only with the youth minister. I'm not sure that this is healthy. But I'm open to hearing from others. As for me, I think Willimon is spot on!