Preaching to Reach Children

By Melanie C. Gordon

Over the next few weeks, I am thrilled to share a transformational conversation that my colleague and friend, Dawn Chesser and I had on children in worship as it pertains to preaching. This conversation followed our interactive webinar, "The Importance of Preaching for Children" which can be heard in its entirety on the Discipleship Ministries website. The conversation comes out of experience, study, and observation, and we hope to offer stories that will help us all to think about the presence of children during sermons in a new light.

First, a little bit about us ...

Melanie GordonMelanie: In my role as Director of Ministry with Children for Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church, I lead workshops and teach classes on children and worship on a regular basis. My goal is to stretch leaders and parents to consider how Jesus might have intended children to learn about his love and ministry, equipping them to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Dawn ChesserDawn: I currently serve as the Director of Preaching Ministries at Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church. My work involves writing weekly preaching notes on the lectionary passages and writing and soliciting sermon resources for the website and other publications, keeping abreast of developments and trends in preaching, and developing programs that will continually improve preaching in the United Methodist Church. Working cooperatively with colleagues like Melanie has challenged me to think more intentionally about how preachers might more effectively reach and preach to persons of all ages and abilities.

Children in the community of worship

Melanie: It is difficult to discuss preaching without first exploring children in the worshiping community. It seems to me that the place to begin is in the Gospels — specifically, two particular passages. The first one, Mark 10, clearly illustrates our responsibility to allow children direct access to the Body of Christ. Families presented their children to receive a blessing from Jesus, but it was the disciples who created the “stumbling block” to sitting at the feet of Jesus. The families realized the importance of engaging with Jesus. Jesus makes it clear that the penalty for blocking access to "little ones," the vulnerable, and those new to faith is reprehensible, as we see with the punishment for hindering the way of young theologians comes in the form of a millstone around the neck.

The second text is one that we may pass over without realizing, especially since the story of the loaves and fishes is recounted in all of the Gospels. But in John 6:8-10, if we are not careful, we may miss it. Who brings the loaves and fishes for the feeding of the masses? A child. This provides us a small clue that children were indeed present when people gathered around Jesus, and an active part in the gathered community. How does this inform the presence of children in worship?

Dawn: I don’t think that prior to our conversations I have been very intentional about developing strategies for reaching children and differently-abled adults in worship. Children who wriggle and giggle during worship have never bothered me. I tend to think they bother the people around them more than they bother the person who is preaching or leading worship. However, I never thought much about how I might be intentional about getting their attention when I am preaching, or making sure to include stories about people of all ages in my sermon examples. No one in my preaching classes ever taught me to find ways to engage younger listeners that I can recall. I guess I really thought that preaching was geared for the adults.

A child's place?

Melanie: I polled a handful of senior pastors recently about why children are not a part of their worship services. With the exception of one pastor, they defended this by saying that children need to be in a place where they can understand. But, isn’t worship supposed to be that place? I followed up with a question about those with cognitive developmental delays. Where should adults with disabilities worship? The response was, “by default, they should be with the adults.” So, what is at the root of segregating children? Is it that they wiggle and giggle and they’re messy and loud? It seems to me that since we are imperfect human beings, the church is kind of messy.

Dawn: I agree with Melanie that children belong in worship. In recent years it seems like the trend has been to send children out of the sanctuary after the children’s sermon for either children’s church or Sunday School. This has been the pattern in many of the churches that I served. And while I sometimes challenged the church to reconsider that pattern, I never intentionally did anything to make worship itself more welcoming for children. I am excited to have this conversation and to begin to think together about ways we can make worship, and especially preaching, more accessible for not only our younger worshipers, but for people of all learning and attention abilities.

Melanie: Absolutely, Dawn. One of the many aspects I reflect on growing up in John Wesley United Methodist Church in Greenville, South Carolina is the way the congregation embraced Judy, a member with severe developmental delays. She was about ten years older than me, and I remember that she was engaged in choir, small groups, Sunday school, and especially worship. Everyone made sure that she felt loved and appreciated. She was one of our favorite ushers, and I believe a reminder that we are all worthy children of God.

Stay tuned for part two of our conversation ...

Resources to guide the conversation

You Can Preach to the Kids Too! Designing Sermons for Adults and Children by Carolyn C. Brown

If you can find a copy... Always in Rehearsal: The Practice of Worship and the Presence of Children by James H. Ritchie, Jr.

Preaching to a Multi-Generational Assembly by Andrew Carl Wisdom (for scholarly analysis on generational issues)

The Power of Sacraments in Children's Faith Formation with Taylor Burton-Edwards and Melanie C. Gordon (Webchat)

Engaging Children in Worship with Melanie C. Gordon (Webchat)