Children are members of the church. They may not pay tithe, and they might have temper tantrums just when you are making the altar call. But children are the church's future. They are unique, and they need the Savior and His love. Jesus had a soft spot for children in His ministry. He risked confrontation to let it be known that His ministry was also for children. When the disciples tried to prevent the children from coming to Him, Jesus said," 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them' " (Matt. 19:14, NIV). Children were comfortable around Jesus, and He seems to have found in them comfort and inspiration. Once "He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: 'I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven' " (Matt. 18:2,3, NIV).
A good point of contact between the pastor and the children is the sermon time. However, children generally view sermon time as adult time. We need to help children feel that it is also their time or run the risk of their growing into adolescence and retaining the idea that sermon time is exclusively for adults and time for them to laugh with their peers in the church foyer.
Some churches have tried to involve the children through a special children's story time during worship service. While the church must be lauded for this, the children's time may actually serve to reinforce the idea that the sermon which follows is a strictly adult affair. If your church has a story time, perhaps you should tell the story yourself as often as possible, rather than inviting someone else to tell it. Coming down from the pulpit to sit with the children on the floor as you tell the story is a good way of telling the kids that they are important to you. They may forget the story, but in years to come they won't forget that "Pastor Thomas always came and sat with us and told us a story."
While one would not wish to water down the message of the Word, it maybe a good idea to prepare your sermons with a younger audience in mind. The very best university professors are often ex-schoolteachers. They seem to have brought with them the ability to speak simply in cliche-free language. Rephrasing theological language and ecclesiastical dialect with plain English will breathe new life into your preaching and make it easy for both children and adults.
Many of Jesus' sermons began with simple stories. Jesus spoke about seeds and yeast and pearls and pigs and losing things. People listened to Him. No one can resist listening to well-placed, well-told illustrations. If our sermons are too dry and dusty to keep the ten-to twelve-year-olds' attention, chances are much of the rest of the congregation has also been lost.
Listening is an art that needs developing. In the fast pace of modern communications, kids are bombarded with light, action, and color and don't have too much practice in listening skills. Here are some ideas to help children learn to listen to the sermon while also entertaining them and keeping them quiet during the sermon time.
The picture method. Just before beginning the sermon, announce that the children will be asked to be involved in the sermon. Have deacons distribute sheets of paper and pencils to each child. Then ask the children to draw the key Bible text, or their favorite illustration from the sermon. Announce that all drawings will be collected at the door and will be on display in the church foyer the following week. Children, parents, and others will be eager to see the art display the following week. If a particular picture is good and impressive, it may be worth mentioning up front.
Tracking Bible verses. This method is particularly good in a Bible study type sermon. Ask the children to keep track of all Bible verses mentioned in the sermon. Parents and older siblings may help. At the end of the sermon, collect the papers. Next worship service, thank the children who participated, and give each one of them a bookmark or some small token of appreciation.
Probably one of the most important ways to gain the younger audience's attention is to involve them in the service itself. Some churches have a special children's offering. Children collect the offerings in their hands and bring them to the front. This lets the children know that they are an important part of the church family.
In some churches a child or young person could also be asked to lead out in the Scripture reading or song service. In these situations make sure the child is prepared to do this and knows that he or she is doing it as part of the experience of worship leadership. Such opportunities assigned during the week or even earlier develop in children a sense of responsibility toward both the church and themselves. They will grow into trustworthy teenagers and adults in the congregation.
Contact with the children should not be confined to church service time alone. Giving the children small attentions forms lasting impressions: like shaking each child's hand as he or she leaves the sanctuary, learning and using their names, affirming them for their contribution to the church, calling them at home to offer birthday wishes, and praying for them by name when you visit their homes. Small things go a long way in forming positive attitudes.
Growing up in today's climate isn't easy. Many children, even in our churches, come from broken homes and bear some significant scars. We need to pray that God will help our ministries to become child-friendly, our churches secure, warm, and loving places, that our children may grow "in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52, NIV).