Here is the final installment of my little series on the gong show that is children's time. My sincerest apologies for the repeated delays in the midst of the series. Moving and starting a new job are rather all encompassing tasks and I should likely have waited to engage this topic until I was resettled, but what's done is done. Or at least it will be today!
So on to the "what part".
What actually happens during children's time? Here again, I'm a big fan of Thomas Long (The Witness of Preaching), who reminds us that a children's sermon, like any other sermon, should be an actual authentic proclamation of the gospel message. It should be good news. It should draw children into the good news of Jesus' all embracing love. If we want to send our congregations out to be Jesus' hands and feet in the world, as people who have been invited to act justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with their God, then that is what we need to communicate through story and engagement with our children. Anything less is insufficient.
Perhaps you've encountered the children's time that focuses on imparting moral values. Values are great. I totally believe in values as in the Fruits of the Spirit. However, often we simply tell children what to do, and what not to do which fails to equip them to engage an ever-changing and complex world. Even when we tell stories, they are stories meant to encourage children to conform to social conventions. Often we work with our children in ways that really attempt to ease our burdens. We teach them to "be nice," and to "obey," and to "be quiet." Unfortunately being nice often means not rocking the boat, and obedience often means following adult orders, and being quiet means a silenced voice. Jesus does not call us to be nice, obedient (as in not questioning) and quiet. In the face of a bully, an abuser, and unjust systems, we are sometimes called to be prophetic, disruptive, and down-right LOUD!
So my general rule of thumb when planning a children's time is to ask myself whether or not the message I'm conveying is indeed part of God's message of good news for the world. If it isn't, I need to go back to the drawing board.
And finally two short closing comments of a more practical nature. One - object lessons often fail to do what we intend. Almost all object lessons require the ability to use abstract thinking. The vast majority of children who come up for children's time have not yet developed this ability. It's simply a part of cognitive development. They might remember that it was cool you squeezed toothpaste out of a tube and couldn't get it back in, but they won't really understand why you did it. As I've mentioned before, if you have a wide range of ages, the most effective way to handle the situation is to tell a story (by this I don't mean just read a book). When we tell stories everyone takes what they can cognitively comprehend and what the Spirit gifts for them. A simple story is accessible to almost everyone.
And lastly, let's please stop giving treats. If giving something to the children will truly help them to remember the story, to help the story to take root in them, and lead them to live out the call God has for them in the world, then have at it! Let's give them a seed to plant, or a piece of bread, or a special rock, or even a spoonful of honey (likely you've noticed that all of these would be integrally connected to biblical stories). But please, let's stop twisting stories and lessons in knots just so that we can hand out chocolate and oreos to children who mostly likely need to know about God's love and compassion far more than they need more sugar. Their parents will probably thank us and the church custodian definitely will! Our consumer culture already cultivates a sense of entitlement and encourages over-consumption on all levels, a message that is certainly not part of the good news. Handing out copious amounts of chocolate produced by child laborers overseas just might be sending a mixed message.
While I firmly believe that we need to continue to work at creating spaces in worship that are far more welcoming of the full multigenerational body of Christ, I truly believe that children's times are a stepping stone in that direction. Let us continue to nurture and respect the spiritual lives of the children in our care by making children's time fully representative of the good news.