Will Willimon: Let the children come…

by Richard on June 17, 2010

…but let’s ditch the children’s sermon

A couple of decades ago, in a sincere attempt to make our churches more accessible and welcoming to children, some of our churches adopted an innovation: the children’s sermon. Today the children’s sermon is, to my mind, a prime example of a noble effort but an unfortunate strategy. I’ve heard lots of children’s sermons. Tried a few myself. For what it’s worth, here is my assessment of children’s sermons.

I sometimes say that I’ve only got two objections to children’s sermons: they are not for children and are usually not sermons.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 06.17.10 at 8:02 am

On the basis of this excerpt I was going to make a few comments - e.g. about the vomitous moralism of children’s addresses (as we call them in the UK), the contrivance of them, the inordinate interest that older folk have in them ( because it relieves them of the effort of actually thinking about the faith) - when I went and read the whole post. Willimon covers it all. And the bit about calling the over-65s down to the front and saying something “sentimental and sappy” to them really cracked me up. Will rarely puts a foot wrong, does he?


Tim Chesterton 06.17.10 at 8:36 am

This seems to me to be an argument against a bad ‘children’s time’, not against a ‘children’s time’ per se.

In our church the kids are with us for the first part of the service, until after the readings, then I do the ‘children’s time’. The kids then go out for twenty-five minute age-appropriate Christ Ed during the sermon and the intercessions, then come back in to join us for the Eucharist (in which they are full participants).

One of the problems is that I’m never absolutely sure what age group of kids we’ll get, week by week - so I always have a story of some sort ready, but I also have a song or some activity ‘in my back pocket’, so to speak, just in case. But I work hard at making the children’s time a positive experience for the kids, and I think they enjoy it.


Richard 06.17.10 at 9:02 am

I’m sure that it can be got right, Tim — and equally sure that you’re one of the people who can do it! :) But it is a very easy thing to get wrong and so easily descends into the trite moralism that Willimon talks about. The question that needs to be asked is “What is this for?” Too often it feels more like entertainment than worship, and not very good entertainment at that. But I’ve got my context in mind, not yours. And, truthfully, worship I’ve led.


Will 06.17.10 at 10:07 am

It’s also interesting in the rest of the article that he laments children leaving in the middle of the service. He’s not aiming at British Methodist Sunday School per se because I would imagine he’s unaware of it (Sunday School in the US is in the hour before the service). The Children’s Church he talks about would likely be for those children up to about 8-12 (it varies across churches, but usually it’s toward the younger end with some churches only providing crèche for children up to what we might call year 1 or 2). Willimon would likely be even more horrified that we send out kids up to 16-18 out of the service for Sunday School.

I am not yet brave enough to suggest we change the British Sunday School system - maybe one day! :)


Earl 06.17.10 at 1:28 pm

Children’s sermon… Childrens’ time… Children’s moment… whatever you call them I’ve been doing them … sometimes well and sometimes less well for 23 years. How one leads such a part of worship is no different than how the music is planned and presented, how the prayers are written and offered, etc. Done casually it is a slap in the face of God. Done condesendingly it merits no more attention by the audience than a assumptive commercial on T.V. offering the latest kitchen gadget. Done with thoughtful attention and reverence, it is an opportunity for children (and sometimes those who are yet children in heart) to listen and hear the Gospel. What is heard may be limited, but the one must consider ones audience. Jesus was known to used short little stories, I think they are called “parables,” to communicate eternal truth in a timely but timeless manner. On any given Sunday morning there are individuals who massacre a instrumental or vocal solo often largely due to failure to properly prepare or else failure to take the entire experience of worship seriously. On any given Sunday morning there are even times when for the same reasons the one proclaiming the Gospel fails miserably. In either case it is not because music has no place in worship or preaching is not blessed of God but because of a failure on the part of the worship leader. Some may consider the Children’s Moment an unwarranted intrusion in the experience of worship. The same is true of some who prefer more silence in worship… or more prayer… or more (dare I say it???) preaching. The challenge of worship leadership is to include even those who might for whatever good, bad or just plain ugly reason otherwise be marginalized … or even sent out for cookies and koolaid. If we must “suffer” to let the children come unto Jesus, then let us do so with a smile on our face and do our grumbling in prayer. After all, when the issue first came up, the disciples found that Jesus was not slow in letting them know exactly what he thought on the matter.


Kim 06.17.10 at 1:34 pm

After Will (not Willimon), to take this thread further, the problem isn’t just the children’s address, it’s the Sunday School (rebranded as the Junior/Young Church, or whatever) as such. (Of course it’s really the church itself as such.)

What actually happens during the time when the kids are “out” (and do they return)? Check out even the better “syllabuses”. Do we really prepare youngsters for (the cost of) discipleship - or inoculate them against it? I mean, why in the UK do most kids either develop a faith in “Jesus the friendly poltergeist” (Robert Jenson), coupled with the moralism of having “values” (and often the insipid moralism of “family” values), which they take with them right into the cribs called Christian Unions and beyond (unless they grow up and break up with their invisible boyfriend), or drop out of church altogether?

One point of departure for discussion might be - I put it to you - the utter lack of a robust theologia crucis in our churches as such - I mean one that takes us beyond the sentimental narcissism of “Jesus died for me” and the moralism of being nice, good people and loyal citizens/subjects.


John Meunier 06.17.10 at 2:05 pm

Sending young children out of the sanctuary is also very common in American churches. Some churches never let the little ones in the sanctuary in the first place, but “offer” parents child care options - the same way Don Corleone makes offers.


Earl 06.17.10 at 3:43 pm

It is not to much to say that the inadequacy of reaching, teaching, winning and development that characterized the Church of Wesley’s era is true of the Church of our era. Sarcasm aside, it is not enough to despise such failure. One must actually do something better. For instance, once upon a time pipe organs were a featured part of sanctuary design. Today there are those who cling to their pipes… but most everyone else has moved on. Again, once upon a time chanting was integral to the worship experience. Today it is only encountered occasionally. Again, once upon a time processions, robes, etc. were commonly parts of worship. Today as with pipe organs and chanting, most everyone has moved on. It may be that the Children’s Moment is destined for the attic… basement… barn… whatever. But before we box it up and put it out at a yard sale, let us remember that some things once thought passe, such as the class and society, have under the methodology of small groups turned out to be on the cutting edge of dynamic and effective ministry.


PamBG 06.18.10 at 12:10 am

The church I’m attending at the moment has someone different every week who does the children’s address. How many different ways can YOU say “The bible tells us how God wants us to behave”?

At this particular church - as per Will’s comment above - it is only children 4 and under who get to be dismissed from the service. And, actually, they can and do sit relatively still. Which proves my suspicion that the 11th British commandment that Children are utterly incapable of sitting through the Sunday service isn’t true.


Earl 06.18.10 at 5:19 pm

When it comes to children in the worship service, I think that the majority will in the norm respond to our expectations. Yes there will be instances when a child’s conduct is not appropriate. The same is true of adults. But as with adults, these exceptions will not be the norm.

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