Karen Holford writes from England.

Making our church services appealing to children is basic evangelism

Jesus has just entered Jerusalem on a wave of triumph and rejoicing. Little children and their parents run down the roads, carpeting them with olive branches. Praises rend the air! As the procession nears the Temple, a sense of expectation, of hushed excitement, marks the moment of joy. Will He declare Himself king now? What's going to happen?

Later Jesus enters the Temple. Here they are again: the money changers, the peddlers, the businessmen. Will they ever learn? Will they ever understand? One look from Jesus and they beat a hasty retreat. The atmosphere of peace takes over from the din of commerce. Shattered bodies and broken hearts surround Jesus, expecting healing. But the children come without any fear or hesitation, but with a lot of excitement.

Now they have Jesus for themselves. They love Him. They love His stories, the way He listens to their secrets and their sadness, the way He touches their hair and the bumps on their knees. He tells them things in ways they can understand, with pictures painted in words that fire their imagination and their desire to discover things for themselves. Their joy overflows and they sing as they have never sung before. "Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna! Hosanna! Then the chief priests and the doctors of the law turn to see what's going on. Horrified at the carefree tumult, they turn to Jesus indignantly. "Do you hear what these children are saying?" "Yes," replies Jesus, "have you never read, 'From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise?' " (Matt. 21:16, NIV). That was long ago. Consider today. What about the children in your church? Are they to be "seen and not heard?" Do we discourage them from getting close to Jesus? Do we have well meaning but short sighted people shooing them away from a Savior who is longing to have them pull on His clothes, rumple His hair, whisper in His ear, and offer Him handfuls of wilted weeds? Are the children welcome as much in church as in Sabbat school? Can they worship as easily in the sanctuary the Jesus they have learned to love in cradle roll?

A strange dichotomy 

Observe here a strange dichotomy. On the one hand the Adventist Church preaches strong family values. We believe that teaching a child to love God starts in the nursery. We have a thorough and excellent system of instilling them with biblical knowledge. On the other hand, when it comes to divine service children are hushed into corners, and forced to be quiet through more than an hour of proceedings that may be as understandable to them as Latin is to the rest of us! If they are really lucky, they might have a special story. "Suffer the little children" takes on a new meaning when we consider just how much they have to suffer us!

There is a grave danger here. Children quickly learn that there is nothing for them in the second service. It's not even worth making the effort to listen because they feel that they can't understand. There is nothing interesting to look at. They probably don't know the hymns. The prayers seem to last an eternity. And there is no part in the service for child participation, except for a well-defined story slot that usually requires only the passive involvement of the child. And with ValueGenesis ringing loudly in our ears, we need to ask ourselves where all this is going to lead our children a few years down the line.

I don't know if these struggles are exclusive with Adventists. Many churches around us have found creative ways of involving children in their special family services. Last Christmas morning at our local twelfth-century Anglican parish church, children were found on their hands and knees under the pews looking for red parcels tied with green bows. They opened these presents with great excitement and found the figures for the Nativity scene, which they then helped to complete. As each figure emerged from the ripped paper, the vicar told of the importance of that character in the First Advent story.

Every family service centers on the fact that children will be there. The songs and hymns are ones the children will know or will enjoy learning quickly. Children can help collect the offerings. The prayers are simple and short. The sermon is brief— never more than 20 minutes—and full of illustrations, visual aids, drama, experiments, and active child involvement, pressing home a simple point with clarity, leaving the parents as richly blessed as twice as many words told in a less creative manner.

Questions of concern

Before you think about all the ways your church could welcome children with more open arms, you need to ask yourself a few basic questions.

Does your church take so much pride in it's perfectly choreographed, polished and professional divine services that the involvement of children could prove calamitous? Children are, after all, prone to mishaps, stage fright, and mumbled words, and are capable of creating utter chaos out of thin air. If you are afraid that children might ruin your image, maybe your image needs a little rumpling!

Second, do you need to change the church's attitude toward children? Do children really feel welcome in your church, or are they always having to worry about Mrs. Soandso offering a free weekly lecture on reverence to any child who gets within an earshot? Maybe some of the adults will need educating in the whys and hows of welcoming a child into the church. Maybe some of them will need a gentle hint to be silent and to smile rather than glare and shake long fingers.

Third, think about the church environment. Is your church parent-friendly and child-safe? Has care been taken to provide thoughtful design features? Is there a comfortable, well-equipped parent's room for those who need it? Is there privacy for nursing mothers (and no, a washroom cubicle is not a wonderful place to nurse a fretful baby for a half hour—it is uncomfortable and you would not like to eat your dinner there either! Are floor coverings comfortable and safe? In one cradle roll room the carpet grazed the children's knees whenever they knelt to pray! Do you have child-height toilets in the washrooms, and sinks at an appropriate level with easy-to-manage taps? Can a child reach the towels or hand dryer?

It is amazing how designers of public places seem to neglect these finer points of ergonomics! Check to see that children cannot fall over the sides of stairs and over unprotected precipices. Is your heating system safe for children? Are all fires well guarded? Even hot pipes can give a child a severe burn. Are the church grounds checked before each Sabbath for broken glass and cleared of animal droppings? If you hold regular potlucks, do you have low tables and chairs for children and high chairs for babies?

Fourth, are you willing to spend a little extra time planning for children in your services? There are a lot of simple ways to help retain their interest in almost any service without making any radical changes. Even planning a family style service once a month or once a quarter could help families and children feel more comfortable about coming along. You could sing at least one child's hymn chorus. If the words aren't in your songbook, write them out for an overhead projector or on a large poster board so everyone can join in. Let any children who know the song come up to the front to help teach it to others, and let children bring their musical instrument from Sabbath school. It will certainly be "a joyful noise unto the Lord!"

Family involvement

Perhaps we need to plan deliberately to include children and family in many areas of divine service. Have children help in collecting the offerings, and rotate the children to give everyone an opportunity. Even if you can't do this every Sabbath, try it for the family service week.

Ask a family to take the morning prayer. Give them plenty of notice so that parents may help children compose parts of the prayer. Parents themselves may open and close the prayer. Older children may want to write a prayer of their own.

As a pastor, you can do a lot to hold the children's interest. Tell a child's story as an illustration in the middle of your sermon. That will break the monotony for the younger listeners. Ask children to count the number of times you use a key word in your sermon. Your pockets can hold special surprises for the kids who participate. Accuracy is not important—and you are unlikely to know exactly how many times you used the word anyway.

If you find that children like to draw during the sermon, ask them to draw you a picture about something in your message that they find interesting. Or you could be more specific: if your sermon is on the parable of the great banquet, ask the children to design an invitation to heaven. Some churches have developed work sheets based on Bible topics that provide creative ideas for keeping children involved during family services. 1

Preaching with children

Better, explore different preaching methods that allow active child involvement. You don't need to involve every child: as long as one child is involved, the others will prick up their ears and watch what you will do next. Be sure to allow the children to take turns in helping you so that over a period of time no one is left out. Children can be placed in a tableau, even dressed for the parts, to help you tell a story. Coach them through the movements and talk about the roles of the different characters. The children will never forget such involvement. And the adults too will get a fresh insight.

Children can help you perform scientific experiments that illustrate your sermon. Or you could adapt a simple game. One pastor hid objects around the church that were symbolic of the importance of the Bible in our lives: a candle or flashlight (light for our way), a jar of honey (sweet, leaving us longing for more), milk (food to help us grow), etc. During the sermon he read out rhyming clues to help the children locate the items, from which he then drew lessons.

Using visual aids is a good idea. Most of us will remember a sermon better if there is something relevant to look at. Try using your overhead projector creatively with overlays and pictures during the sermons. In one sermon I will never forget, a pastor opened his suitcase and showed his audience the things in there that helped him on his travels, and drew spiritual lessons from them. He had a map, flashlight, passport, ticket, mirror, sponge bag (a container for a bath sponge and toiletry articles), money, food, and outreach cards.

Perhaps you could ask the children to create a visual collage for you that illustrates your sermon, or make a large banner to be displayed in the family services that illustrates the importance of children in corporate worship.

To stimulate your thinking along these creative lines, visit your local Christian bookstore. For All the Family, compiled by Michael Botting, 2 an excellent starting point. Even if you choose not to use the suggestions there, you'll find yourself thinking up new approaches to present the Word of God that will appeal to far more of your congregation than just the children. Exploring different Bible characters and the parables will provide you with a wealth of ideas that can be made visual and interesting for wriggling young minds. Keep the services short and varied with a change of activity or a new, vibrant illustration every so often.

If you have a large church, you probably have a pastoral team. Allocate the responsibility of family services and ministering to children to a member of your team. If you feel that a family service wouldn't be appropriate because of the church's size or the layout of the sanctuary, or because your services are broadcast, consider running family services in a separate room or building that is more suitable.

Beyond the service

Does your responsibility cease with the divine service? Have you ever gone to a home purely to visit a child? Maybe you should start a child visitation program. Have a plan to visit the children on their birthday. Take a small gift or a A card, and be sure to pray with ^1B% them. Take time to build the trust and friendship of the children. Listen to what they have to say and what they think about your preaching in divine service!

Does your church have a lending library of Sabbath videos, audio cassettes, and Sabbath games for families to borrow? You could have a group that shares ideas on or plans for special family events on Sabbath afternoons, such as walks along nature trails, or per haps you can organize a series < activities celebrating the days of Creation. The first week the children could explore air by blowing bubbles, letting off balloons with Bible texts or outreach cards tied to them, etc. The second week they could go to a lake or waterfall or explore different uses and properties of water, etc. These families-centered Sabbath activities will also help parents provide appropriate enjoyment for their young children, and can help stimulate ideas for creative Sabbaths between new members and their families who will not have had previous experience of how joyful and a meaningful Sabbath can be with children.

When children visit your home, are they sent to play in another room while the adults talk? Could you plan a special activity for them? Write a rhyming treasure trail around your home on which a letter of each of the clues will eventually make up a Bible name or text, with a small gift at the end. Write the clues on study cards and you can retrieve them atthe end for future use. At the table provide Sabbathplace mats to color. While adults are chatting, children can have crayons to complete a picture.

s all this just a gimmick? Is it bringing show business into the church? Does it sound ridiculous? Making our church services appealing to children is a much more serious matter than that: It is basic evangelism. Untold hundreds, maybe thousands ofyoung people leave the church because they feel that it has nothing to say to them, that it doesn't meet their needs, and that it is boring. The attitudes and feelings develop in children from a toddler hood! By the time they are teenagers they feel so alienated from the church that it is hard to keep them interested.

What would Jesus do in our day? Jesus, who turned out the grown-ups with their self-centered, legalistic, and greedy attitudes toward the church, and filled the Temple courts with happy, singing children? Jesus, who welcomed the little ones even when He was exhausted, and gladly spent time building relationship with them and finding ways to explain His loving truths to them so that their developing minds could comprehend? If He came to your church this Sabbath, would He preach an intellectual sermon to thrill the theologians? Would He rave about relatively insignificant points? Or would He, as He always did, tell stories, employ strong visual images, and use the familiar word to explain spiritual truths and maintain the interest of every child, teen, and adult in the entire congregation?

Karen Holford writes from England.

1 Instant Art for Bible Worksheets (Rattlesden, Bury St. Edmunds, U.K.: Palm Tree Press, 1989-1990), books 1-3.
2 Michael Botting, ed., For All the Family (Eastbourne, U.K.: Kingsway Publications, 1984).

Karen Holford writes from England.

2003 First Quarter

Download PDF
Ministry Cover