April 16, 2005
One of the most poignant moments of Brant Baker’s 20-year career in the pulpit came from a 3-year-old boy coloring while seated next to his mother in the first pew where they always sit during service.
"I was giving the invitation to Communion, which is a little piece of liturgy that we do the same every time," said Baker, a pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Mesa. "And when I said, ‘The Lord be with you,’ he stopped his coloring, looked up and with everybody else in the whole church said, ‘And also with you.’
"Now, that had been laid down in his heart as he had sat there those two years. . . . The same thing happens with hymns. It’s why we all love ‘Amazing Grace’ so much. It was etched in our hearts."
Baker calls it "overhearing," and one reason why children benefit from attending adult church services — the only option until about 25 years ago. It was then that churches of virtually all denominations started experimenting with what has become an almost solely American institution: The children’s service.
"People started to say to their ministers, ‘You know, my kid just sits here and squirms,’ " said Baker, who soon will publish his fourth book on children’s sermons. "They don’t have any real interest in what’s going on. They certainly don’t understand the adult sermon."
Thus, children’s services were created, he said. The form that those services now take changes from congregation to congregation — whether the service lasts for five minutes at the beginning of regular service or is held outside adult services. But the goal everywhere is to help young minds learn to worship God.
"It’s still a learning situation, but it is a situation where the children are being taught some mechanics and also how to worship at their age level. . . . How to sing praises, how to say prayers," said Mike Tucker, youth and family minister at Tempe Church of Christ, where children sit through the beginning of adult services before being escorted to their own separate services.
"In Tempe (Church of Christ), the idea is that it is good to be a part of the whole body. And when it comes time, then the adults are fed in a worship style and then the children are fed, spiritually, in children’s worship," he said.
Quite often, said Baker, a children’s service will have the same focus as an adult service — but in a simplified form — or an expansion on what the children learned in Bible class.
Children’s sermons also can introduce elements that otherwise might be missing from church service, such as laughter, spontaneity and play, said Baker. "I think those are aspects of God’s nature. They are certainly aspects of our human experience. And, for too long, they were missing out of worship."
Family services have been a long tradition at Temple Emanuel in Tempe, where the child-oriented messages are held once a month on Fridays. "We don’t necessarily do it in the form of a sermon, but often this will be more of a story, a telling of a story," said Rabbi Andrew Straus. And a well-told story benefits all listeners. "It’s a teaching moment for adults, too," he said.
Children-oriented services, he said, are important because they provide meaning for worship and prayer to young minds.
"We want kids to be rolemodeling and living Jewish life from the earliest ages," said Straus. "Wait until you are old enough to understand it, and by then they will have already been turned off."
Whatever the format, children’s services should be a criteria for any family in the midst of church shopping, said Kathleen Harris, director of children’s ministry at Valley Presbyterian Church in Paradise Valley and co-author of Baker’s latest book.
"It says that children are important in our church," said Harris. "Because we believe that children need to not only study, but to worship."
She makes sure her children’s sermons are interactive, which means engaging the attention and trust of her youthful audience. "A lot of it is based on how the kids respond to me," said Harris. "And I have had to really develop that."
Baker said children’s services differ from Bible class in that, at least at his church, they are shorter — five minutes compared with the 45- to 50-minute classes.
"So, quick like bunnies, you get the whole congregation around the perimeter of the pews to stand up two or three wide to become the walls of Jericho," said Baker. "And then you get the children to march around real quick seven times. And then sit down. Boom. And you’ve had a real fun learning event."
His pet peeve: Children’s sermons that are not based on what he called object lessons. Children, he said, cannot think in abstractions until their preteen years. So lessons about, say, how the three forms of water — liquid, solid and gas — represent the holy trinity are lost on them. "A 3-year-old, a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old isn’t going to get that," he said. "They have not yet developed the capacity to think in analogies."
Dwayla Bruington, a Gilbert resident who with husband Terry attends Tempe Church of Christ, brings up another bonus of the children’s service — the opportunity for parents to devote themselves to the lesson and worship. It’s why, on a recent Sunday, the couple volunteered as last-minute replacements as leaders of a children’s service. She was able to find a suitable lesson on the resurrection of Lazarus after a quick hunt on the Internet, where a Google search for "children’s sermons" generated 481,000 responses.
The couple remembers when their young children left for separate services. "It was so nice to have a place for our children to go," said Dwayla. "We thought we could give back . . . so the parents have a chance to listen to the sermon."
Baker said the importance of children’s worship is to have "a communication just for them. It makes a child feel validated, feel more connected to the larger worship experience."
"I think there’s lots of collateral benefits, too. I can’t tell you how people say to me, ‘I get more out of your children’s sermon than I do out of the other sermon a lot of times,’ " he said. "I think it’s true that as adults we all can lose track, our minds wander. . . . Even an adult can follow a fiveminute presentation."