Victor Hulbert

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 story time, 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 Christ-like 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.

Maintaining interest during the sermon

  • Use visual aids: When I preached on forgiveness I had a stone with the word "FIRST" painted on it. I asked the congregation what it meant and it was the children who got the answer first. (If you are still wondering, check John 8:7).
  • Use overheads. The eye remembers more than the ear. The two together are most effective.
  • Use children. Involve children as part of the sermon. For example, a week in advance you might hand those who wish to participate a numbered Bible text. Then during next week's sermon, each participating child can stand and read out loud the text at the appropriate moment. Another idea is to have children help with holding up a chart or conducting some "experiment."
  • Listen to them. When did you last visit the cradle roll or kindergarten Sabbath school? Sit with children on your knee. Listen to their wisdom. They may give you the topic for your next sermon! At the least they will appreciate your interest in them.
  • Make the children's corner interactive. Ask the children how their week has been. Involve them in the story. Ask if a boy or girl would like to pray for the congregation before the children return to their seats.
  • Divide your sermon with special music or by using different speakers. My wife and I sometimes preach together. The change of flow, the different style, and the different voice add interest and variety.

*Years later as a theology student, I was surprised and delighted to find Ellen White's admonition that "one or two minutes is long enough for any ordinary prayer" (Ellen G. White, Testimonies, Vol. 2, p. 581.)