What do children love to do? Just think about it for a minute. What activities or situations naturally attract children? One of the first things I think of is water.
Whether the water is gathered in a puddle in the street, shooting through a park fountain, or filled with bubbles in the bathtub, children love to play in water. How about ice cream? We do not have to teach children how to eat ice cream. They are born knowing how to squish it and shove it in their mouths. What about running? Put children at the end of a long hallway and off they go. Children love to run. Children love play-doh and paint and glue. Children love music and dancing. They love to jump and climb and wrestle, especially boys. They love using their imaginations. They love to watch themselves in the mirror. They love to talk and ask questions. They love to play with toys.
Several years ago, there was a commercial on television that illustrated how a child responds to something he loves. The scene opens in the parents’ bedroom. The parents are fast asleep. He climbs onto the bed and starts shaking his parents by the shoulders as he tells them, “Wake up, wake up! You said you would take me to McDonald’s today.” The sleepy parents reach for the clock beside the bed to check the time. The father yawns and says, “Go back to bed, son. It’s 3:00 in the morning.” Now that is a child who loves McDonald’s. He is up early. He dresses himself. He is ready to go.
It would be great if children responded to church this way. It would be great if children rose early on Sunday morning, jumped into their clothes, and woke their parents with the same enthusiasm as that boy in the McDonald’s commercial: “Wake up, wake up! You said you would take me to church today.” Just a dream? Maybe. But I want to make this point: There should be something about church that children love. I’m not just talking about Sunday school or the meals that we share after church. I’m talking about something children anticipate in “big church”.
Let’s return to the McDonald’s commercial for a moment. What is it about McDonald’s that children love so much? Frankly, it is the children’s menu: a child-sized burger or chicken nuggets, fries, a drink, and a toy. Fast-food restaurants have learned that children love something special just for them. Some fast food restaurants have also started adding healthier options, to make to parents happy too. Churches need to have something special just for kids in the context of worship. For us, that is what the children’s sermon is all about. It is a specialized children’s message that is incorporated into the overall worship service.
Children’s sermons are a tangible way to show that children hold an important place in the kingdom of God. Many churches say that children and families are important to their congregation, but they exclude or separate children from participating in the major activities of church life. Worship is one place where this happens. In general, worship services are planned by adults, for adults. Music selection, biblical text, and length of the sermon are all geared toward the adult heart, mind and attention span. While a church would never advertise itself as “For Adults only,” that is how many worship services feel to children and their parents.
Today we know much more about how children grow and develop than we did before. This knowledge has fueled a transformation in parenting, education, entertainment, and merchandising for children. Our society is full of child-sensitive environments and products. Children grow up in childproofed homes and travel from place to place in car seats or secured with seat belts. Toys are made for each stage of development to stimulate a child’s brain while protecting the child from choking on small parts. Entertainment parks specialize in creating the world at a child’s eye level. Some hair salons feature carousel horses or pretend airplanes for children to sit in while getting their hair cut. Malls have indoor playgrounds. Grocery stores offer car-shaped shopping carts. More and more places creatively answer the question parents ask: “What do you offer that my children will like?”
It is time for the church to jump onto the child-friendly band wagon, not only because modern society demands it but because Jesus modeled it. In the Bible we read the story of a group of parents who worked their way through the crowd of people to bring their children to meet Jesus face-to-face (Mark 10:13-16). They wanted Jesus to lay his hands on their children and bless them. Jesus was in the middle of a heated discussion about divorce with a suspicious group of Pharisees when the parents arrived. It was a tense situation. The subject matter certainly was not appropriate for young ears. As the parents pushed through the adults, getting the children closer and closer to Jesus, the disciples stopped them. They told the parents not to bother Jesus. He was busy. But Jesus overheard the disciples’ reprimand and immediately shifted his focus from the Pharisees to the children and their parents. He bent down to scoop the children onto his lap. Then he proceeded to give the disciples, the Pharisees, and the crowd a mini-sermon of his own. He said: “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these”. Scripture says that Jesus put his hands on the heads of the children and prayed for them.
In this story, Jesus demonstrates how important children are in the kingdom of God. It is a theme echoed throughout scripture. It is interesting to note that the Bible records the childhood experiences of great men of faith such as Joseph, Moses, Samuel, and David. When these men were young, God was working in their lives to bring about his purposes. Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me….See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:5, 10). Paul wrote to Timothy when he was a young adult, probably a few years younger than I am right now, He said: “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you teach, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). From the biblical perspective, childhood is not merely a phase to pass through on the way to adulthood. Childhood is a time of divine purpose and meaning.
With children in worship, and specifically as a part of the Children’s sermon, we give children an opportunity to teach adults. Adults benefit from worshiping with children because children possess a kind of faith that is pleasing to God. They are quick to trust and believe. They are spontaneous. They are brutally honest. They are expressive. They are dependant. God enjoys the nature and personality of children. The Scriptures specifically identify attributes such as sincerity, humility, naiveté, vulnerability and simplicity as qualities found in children, and God treasures these characteristics. When children are in worship and are given an opportunity to express themselves, adults have the opportunity to learn from them and emulate their faith.
Here is an important goal to remember: Pleasing God is the aim of worship. And the love and worship of children is pleasing to God. So often, organized worship becomes more about what we need than what God deserves from us. We go to a worship service to be inspired, to recharge our batteries for the week ahead, and to find refuge from a world that is less and less tolerant of our beliefs and morals. With this distorted focus in worship, many adults feel that children detract and distract from the mood of worship. They talk at inappropriate moments. They squirm. They scribble noisily on the bulletin. Parents are often the ones who clamor the loudest for a child-free environment. I will admit that I fall into this category myself sometimes. There are many a Sunday morning when I am filled with a sense of relief when I see Anna, and I know that she will be watching over my youngest while I worship.
But worship is not about us and what we want. Worship is about God. God desires the praises of his people—including children. It was God’s plan that little babies and children would praise him. Psalm 8:2 says, “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise.” If the involvement of children in worship is important to God, it should be important to us too.
Finally, when children participate in worship through things like the Children’s sermon, it provides a meaningful way to intentionally include children in the corporate worship experience. Many churches offer alternative worship experiences just for children where the children never actually enter the sanctuary. “Children’s Church” can be popular with parents and children. But even with the most worshipful “children’s church,” there is still a hidden danger. If children never worship with adults during their formative years, how will they learn that “big church” is important and desirable? Ivy Beckwith is a biblical scholar who also holds a PhD in education, she asks: “If children are never included in our community worship rituals and practices, how will they ever learn to value them?” She goes on to point out, “Worship is not only the time when the content of faith is delivered, but also the time when churches communicate the feelings, subtle nuances, and transcendent meanings of faith.” If children are isolated in their own worship experience, they will miss out on the community experience of their church family. Including children in worship through the Children’s sermon, provides a way to address the needs of children in an adult worship setting, thus preparing them for meaningful worship as adults.
In the book Spiritual Milestones, the authors note that there are three general areas of child development. From birth to age seven, children are in the “imprint stage.” At this time, children absorb everything we present to them. “What they believe about God during this time is mostly a reflection of what we believe.” From age seven to fifteen, children are in the “impression stage: they have the greatest receptivity to our values and beliefs, with the potential of taking up these beliefs as their own…Children begin to seek their spiritual identity during this time, and we need to seize the opportunity when it exists.” After age fifteen, teens are in the “coach stage” and are much less receptive to our Christian values and beliefs about worship. They are more likely to test and challenge the things they have been taught. These insights teach us that we need to incorporate children into “big church” when they are young enough to still be receptive to our values and beliefs about worship. If we wait until children enter adolescence, we may have missed a crucial opportunity to teach them that worship is important.
When I was a little girl sitting in the pew on Sunday mornings, one quiet game I played was counting how many people around me had white hair. Then I would count the gray-headed people. Finally, I would add up how many people wore glasses. I perfected my technique enough to hold my head still and just move my eyes from side to side, up and down the rows of people. It was a way to keep myself occupied during the worship service. In the long run, this simple game taught me more than that. It taught me that the presence of older adults is crucial for a healthy congregation. Older adults bring maturity of faith, a depth of experience, and an abiding sense of history that is pivotal to a church’s sense of being.
Now, with the position I hold here at Stow and being the mother of four young children, when I look up and down the pews on Sunday mornings, I am looking for the blonde curls and the brown cowlicks of children interspersed between the white and gray haired adults. The presence of children is also crucial for a healthy congregation. Children bring a freshness of faith, and excitement about life, and a glimpse into the future that invigorates an entire church family. As you look around the sanctuary today, I want you to ask yourself: What can I do to make them feel like they belong? What part can I take in their faith journey?