Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mark's thoughts: "Children's sermons" and Children's catechesis



A pastor I know recently shared in a Lutheran discussion group that he was being pressured to introduce a “Children’s sermon” into the Sunday Divine Service.  He asked about how other pastors had handled this.  The overall response to children’s sermons in the discussion was very negative, and if one believes what the Book of Concord has to say about worship and the forms used for it, this is really not hard to understand.

As Lutherans, we recognize that in the Divine Service, God serves us with His gifts of the Means of Grace by which He forgives sins and strengthens faith.  The liturgy of the Divine Service is all taken from God’s Word and it has been built around the Means of Grace.  It has been constructed in a way that highlights Baptism, Holy Absolution, the reading and preaching of the Gods Word and the Sacrament of the Altar (consider how the Word of Institution are framed by the Preface, Proper Preface, Sanctus, Pax Domini and Agnus Dei).

Not only is the liturgy made from Scripture and put together in ways that emphasize the Means of Grace, but it also teaches the correct faith.  This is important because the way we worship shapes and forms what we believe.  The things we do, say and hear every Sunday determine what we believe.  What a church really believes can be learned from how they worship on Sunday morning.  The weekly use of the liturgy as found in the settings of our hymnal helps to form and shape us in the one true catholic and apostolic faith.

In this process the repetition of the liturgy in the Divine Service is a powerful tool for learning. The repetition of hearing and singing the words of the liturgy each week teaches us the catholic and apostolic faith, and shapes and forms the way we think about the faith.  This is a process that begins with the smallest child and continues all throughout our life.  It is not a process that ever ends or is finished because the words and phrases, movements and actions invite ever deeper understanding as we grow and mature as Christians. In this way, the liturgy also helps to preserve the faith as it keeps us believing the catholic and apostolic faith in the midst of a world that seeks to draw us away from Christ.

During the second half of the twentieth century an idea developed in American Christianity that has also implanted itself in the Lutheran church.  This is the assumption that there really isn’t anything in the service for children.  They can’t get anything out of it because it goes “over their head.”  What was needed then, was something that was aimed specifically at children.  And so "children’s sermons" were born as they were inserted into the service for the purpose of meeting this need and providing “something for the children.” 

During the last twenty years or so this belief has been pursued to its logical conclusion as churches have removed children from the service altogether and instead have them present at a separate “children’s church.”  If there isn’t anything in the service for children, why leave them in that setting?  Rather than the half-measure of a children’s sermon, it is better to remove them from the Sunday service and instead provide a “service” that is tailored for them.

This way of thinking of about children and worship errs completely in its understanding of what the Means of Grace and the liturgy do for children, and so with good cause many Lutheran pastors view children’s sermons negatively.  There are additional reasons as well.  In principle it is always better to use the settings of the hymnal as they stand (“do the red, speak the black”) instead of adding and changing.  Such activity arises from the pastor’s ego (“I know better”) and places the congregation at the mercy of the liturgical whims of the pastor. Many pastors also object to the way that children’s sermons make the children the object of attention (“They’re so cute!) in church.

I would agree with all of the objections that have been listed thus far.  However, pastoral ministry does not occur in a vacuum.  Instead it occurs in the setting of a congregation where prior practice and teaching have often shaped expectations.  Very soon the candidates who received calls this week at the seminaries will find themselves having to negotiate the interaction between their training about how things are to be done based on what we believe and the reality of how things have been done in their parish.

This was the situation I found myself in ten years ago when I accepted the call to my current parish. The congregation had a long standing tradition of children’s sermons. As I understood it, in some cases they had been done by lay people.  During the vacancy they even had puppet shows at this time in the service.  While I didn’t like them, I also didn’t believe that I could come in and eliminate the children’s sermon.  After all, they are children’s sermon and congregation members' emotions do funny things when children are involved (this also part of the reason why the request for children’s sermons is difficult for a pastor to deny).

I decided to keep this element in the service prior the Hymn of the Day and the sermon.  However, there were going to be changes.  In the first place, only the pastor would be doing them.  God had given the Office of the Holy Ministry to administer the Means of Grace, and so the one placed by God (Acts 20:28) to serve in the Office in that place would teach about God’s Word in the setting of the Divine Service. 

The second change dealt with the content and approach because I believed that it was possible to make this into a time of teaching that shared in the content in the Divine Service – something that was organically and naturally related and not a alien element injected by foreign presuppositions.  It should go without saying that “object lessons” were out. Even a basic understanding of child development made clear that small children could not learn from this.  In addition, anything that did not come directly from the Scripture lessons for the day, the day or season of the church year, or the liturgical setting of the Divine Service was out. And yes ... puppet shows were out.

I began doing this for a year or two before I changed the name, but the name captures the shift in focus: Children’s catechesis.  Catechesis shapes and forms people in the Christian faith.  Of course it involves new knowledge and information.  However, of equal importance is the fact that this involves new habits and practices as life is shaped and formed by God’s Word and the catholic practices that confess and teach the faith drawn from God’s Word.

Children’s catechesis at my parish always makes use of one of these three things: 1) Scripture reading for the day (usually the Gospel) 2) Church day or season 3) Liturgical setting (ceremonial, ornamentation of the church building, etc).  There is almost always some visual item used. Frequently appearing are:

1. The Gospel reading is repeated in summary form using a picture from The Story Bible or an item in the story like bread.
2. A special day or new season of the Church is taught and explained using the color of vestments and paraments that is now different on Sunday.
3. The furnishings (altar, font, pulpit, lectern) and ornamentation of the church (banners, windows, pictures, etc) are explained or used to teach when they are related to the Gospel reading for the day.

Key words and terms are emphasized by asking the children to repeat them at the beginning and again at the end (e.g., “Today we are beginning the season of Advent. Can you say Advent?”).

After ten years I can report that this has worked remarkably well in teaching children.  It does not appear as an element foreign to the Divine Service because it is always about the Divine Service.  It is the very thing the children are hearing, saying, singing and seeing.  And of course, it is not just the children who learn.  The opportunity to catechize adult members on a host a topics has been a great benefit.

One can still object that it is not something that is part of the rite as found in the settings of the hymnal.  This is true, but new elements have arisen and disappeared during the history of Lutheran worship.  One searches in vain for the cantata of Bach’s 18th century Leipzig in the first 16th century Church Orders, and we no longer have it today.  The reading of the Small Catechism in the Divine Service was a common practice among 16th century Lutheranism, but it certainly is not present in our hymnals today.  However, these were all things that were consistent with what Lutherans confess about worship.  I suggest that Children’s catechesis can be understood in a similar way.

It is true that people enjoy seeing the children and there is attention on them. But over time I have learned that at Good Shepherd this is not so much about the “cuteness” factor, but rather that the congregation loves her children and enjoys seeing them learn about the Christian faith as it is experienced on Sunday in church.

The opportunity to interact with the youngest children in the congregation has also been a great blessing.  I am able to begin to develop a relationship with them as their pastor who teaches them the faith at a very early age.  The time when kids decide they are "too big" to come up for Children's catechesis usually occurs at about third grade.  Yet this is the very time when children in our congregation can begin catechesis in Learn by Heart in preparation for receiving the Sacrament of the Altar prior to confirmation.  Opportunities for catechesis flow from one liturgical setting of the Divine Service into another in the Service of Prayer and Preaching (Lutheran Service Book, pg.. 260). 

It was not originally my wish to begin Children’s catechesis.  But a decade later I am thankful that the circumstances of pastoral practice prompted something that has been very beneficial for our congregation. 

To pastors who have grudgingly inherited Children's sermons or are being pressured to introduce them, I suggest that there is a way things can be done which fits with the Divine Service and provides a wonderful opportunity for catechesis of the children and congregation.  To pastors who reject Children's sermons as a matter of course, I express that I understand the reasons.  But I also suggest that perhaps there is another way to do it that is worth thinking about. To pastors who have the classic Children's sermon, I suggest that there are reasons to ponder the message that is being sent to members when this is done. "Children's church" (something that is beginning to appear in LCMS parishes) is the logical conclusion of Children's sermons.  There is a way to do it that better integrates with what we claim to believe. 











  







 




2 comments:

  1. I like what you did here, Pastor. You could have just written an extended rant, "cursing the darkness." Instead, you shined a wonderful light that will be useful to your brethren as we go about fulfilling our assignment in the vineyard. God bless you.

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  2. I like your approach a lot. One other thing I do, which you didn't mention, is give the children something specific to listen for in the Gospel reading (e.g., "How did Jesus heal the blind man?" or a specific word that is important). Occasionally, I'll even incorporate whatever it is they were to listen for into the sermon itself to further emphasize that all the parts of the service are for them, too.

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