Family Celebration. That slogan enticed me to visit a nearby church to see what ideas it might have for reaching children. I was impressed. There was a magnificent children's story, and the sermon was family-centered. But then I noticed that my children, along with other children nearby, were taking little interest in the message preached. Actually, I could not blame them. The pastor's long words went way above their heads. While the sermon was about the family, it was not for the family.
My mind flashed back to my childhood years. Church services for me meant listening for peculiarities in the preacher's voice, or surreptitiously scribbling in the back of the hymnbook. Sermons were endured rather than enjoyed. I would time the pastoral prayer with a stopwatch. Eight and a half minutes was the record."
Making church both interesting and a learning experience for adults and children is quite a challenge one that is unmet and perhaps largely unrecognized. In the current debate on worship, children are left on the fringes. They have their five-minute storytime, and everything else is targeted toward adults.
Is it any wonder that many youth drop out of the church? Not primarily because they disagree with its beliefs, but rather because they are bored with its practice. This fatal boredom begins while sitting by mother's knee in church.
What is the solution? How can we make the church service interesting to the whole family, including the children, while still communicating the great themes of salvation and our distinctive Adventist message?
Christ's example in reaching children
Jesus succeeded in reaching both children and their parents. He spoke in simple terms and told stories. Those stories had a simple meaning for the children and a deeper meaning for the deeper minds.
In secular communication, one of the broadcasting principles used by the BBC is that all programming should be understandable to a 14-year-old, even the deepest documentary. How much more so for Christian sermons! Some preachers seem to relish exhibiting the prodigious eloquence of their extensive vocabulary. But in Christlike communication, a short word is better than a long one.
The use Jesus made of illustrations shows how they can clarify a message and drive it home, carrying the audience all along the way. Illustrations also provide a breather between two deep thoughts. Children along with many adults will remember your stories long after your sermon notes have turned yellow.
Another communication tool Jesus employed was humor. Can you imagine someone trying to take a plank out of his own eye? Or a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle? Can you imagine a father giving his son a stone to eat? Or that persistent widow continually banging on the judge's door, with the bleary-eyed judge, nightcap on and candle in hand, eventually promising justice? Jesus no doubt told these stories with a smile on His face. Appropriate humor remains an effective tool today, even with the important and serious messages we must preach.
Children's work sheet
One method I have found especially helpful in keeping the attention of children is to provide them with a work sheet for the sermon. I design it immediately upon finishing my sermon preparation while the ideas are still bubbling through my mind. It takes only a half hour and access to a photocopier, but the dividends are immense. The work sheet does not have to be a technological masterpiece or even particularly creative. Yet to my amazement, children use it to follow along with every word of the sermon.
Benefits realized far surpass the sermon itself. The children even relate to me as their pastor in a more positive way, realizing that I care enough about them to provide for their interest.
Preparing a work sheet
Here are some suggestions useful to me in preparing the work sheet and to others in using it:
1. It must directly relate to the sermon.
2. The flow of questions and ideas should follow the flow of the sermon. For example, the first question should find its answer somewhere in your introduction, and so on throughout the sermon.
3. If you have artists available, ask them to add some little drawings. I use a simple desktop publishing program with religious graphics, but before I had a computer the children were just as happy with my printing.
4. Make sure the children receive the work sheet. Some deacons may not be convinced of its importance, so ask the children to raise their hand if they need one. Have pencils available as well.
5. Encourage parents to help their children with the work sheet, perhaps going through it with them later in the day. This way both parents and children retain more of the sermon content.
6. Let the children know that this is not a test to prove themselves; it is all for fun and learning. You are not going to check their answers, though you will be delighted to see their work.
Content of the work sheet
Here are particular features I include in my work sheets:
1. Texts with words missing for the children to fill in.
2. A question about a passage or illustration in the sermon. For instance, while preaching about Christ's visit to Bethany in Luke 10, I asked them to listen for the names of the three characters in the story.
3. Multiple-choice questions based on the thoughts in the sermon. This is especially helpful when using long theological words that need explaining. Given three alternatives to choose from, a child may for the first time realize what "sanctification" means.
4. A box for marking the number of times they hear a particular word in the sermon. This is great for topical sermons, such as when preaching on the Holy Spirit or on baptism. Or you might have them write in the box how many times they hear a Bible text quoted.
5. Questions that cause them to think but that are not so difficult that they get bored.
6. A challenge at the end of the sheet. This should be related to the sermon, but may differ from the challenge you are giving their parents. If the sermon is a call to commitment, you may write out a short prayer, asking them that if they agree with the prayer, to sign their name at the bottom. If you are preaching about the family, ask them to make a secret commitment to do something special for mommy and daddy this afternoon. (Next week in the children's corner you can ask them what they did.) Sometimes I give them a task that they can do only with adult help. Thus the message of the sermon truly becomes a family affair.
Worth the effort
If you accept the challenge of providing the children with a work sheet for your sermons, I guarantee you will be impressed by the response. They will be sitting, pencils poised, ready to answer your next question. They will come up afterward to thank you or to show you their work. And you will find yourself becoming more aware of their needs and interests in the content of the sermon itself. The week you forget to do a work sheet, you will make a vow never to let it happen again.
Encouraging youth and child participation in the worship service takes time and effort, but the rewards and the satisfaction are immense. "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matt. 25:40).
* Years later as a theology student, I was surprised and delighted to find Ellen G. White's admonition that "one or two minutes is long enough for any ordinary prayer" (Testimonies for the Church, vol 2, p. 581).
Victor Hulbert was pastor in the South England Conference of Great Britain when he wrote this article.