Children listening to sermons

Children listening to sermons

In our church, the entire congregation is in the main hall together for the first half of the service. This means that we sing and pray together with older people, young children, and everyone in between all together. There is something wonderfully encouraging about this! And then, when the time for the Bible reading and sermon comes, the younger children leave for Sunday School. We have three levels of Sunday School class from kindy (around age 5) through to the end of primary school (around age 11). This is not to entertain them while the adults do the ‘real learning’ but teaching different ages at levels appropriate for them. Making a craft to remember the Bible story works well for 6-year-olds, while adults are more helped by something more direct. Once the children graduate from Sunday School, when they start high school, they then join the rest of the congregation in the sermon.

Every year children graduate from Sunday School there is some resistance either from the graduating children or their parents about the children being in a sermon. It is seen as less fun and perhaps less appropriate than Sunday School. Maybe the kids won’t be able to understand it, or maybe they won’t be able to concentrate for that long? Maybe they won’t want to go to church anymore?

Before looking at this issue, I should point out that Sunday School has not always existed. Traditionally, through most of the history of the church, children were with the adults in the main gathering. Of course, just because it has often been this way doesn’t make it right, but it does mean that segregating the children out for their own teaching time is not the only way to do things. Even today, some of our sister churches do not have Sunday School in the service but beforehand so families can all worship together in the main service. This is a matter of wisdom, not a matter of following some direct Biblical instruction.

The alternative to having children in the sermon would be to extend Sunday School to teenagers, running older level classes. This delays the introduction of the children to the wider church teaching, requires a much higher commitment with more teachers etc., and only delays the issue for a few years.

There is a theological principle in play here. All of us need to be exposed to the word of God, which is useful for equipping us for every good work (2 Tim 3:17) and for building us up to be mature and no longer children in the faith (Eph 4:11-14). For that to happen, we need to have the Bible explained to us and have the Spirit apply those words to our hearts. This needs to be in a form that we understand.

Jesus and Paul also welcomed children to their teaching, with direct commands not to stop them coming (Matt 19:14) and instructions in letters to the wider church addressed to children (such as Eph 6:1). There is something wonderful about children and adults worshipping and learning together. We don’t want to have a church that is so segregated that there are special ministries for every conceivable demographic, tailored to them, such as youth church, aged people church, family church, and children’s church; we need to be united and learn together as a witness to the uniting power of the gospel.

So how can we change the way we think about children (teenagers, really) in Sunday sermons? Let me give some possible ways forward:

  1. See the value of sermons. We need to be convinced of the value of hearing and applying the word of God each week for ourselves. This is an important time for believers and their families. It is where we look deeply at the word, we learn the same things as one another, and we think through how to apply what we learn. Parents need to do some parenting here; if their children are resistant to listening to sermons, they need to find out why and explain why it is important for their family.
  2. Think rightly about Sunday School. Our Sunday School is intentionally teaching focussed, not entertainment focussed. That means we need to expect our children to learn things and speak to them about what they learn. If we see Sunday School as fun and entertaining and then contrast it with a sermon that we see as boring and academic, our children will see the contrast too. They are both teaching, places we go to learn.
  3. Set an example. If parents look forward to the sermon, read the Bible reading in advance, pray for it, and then speak about it afterwards with their children, that will have an impact. Children pick up their parents’ attitude toward
  4. Have higher expectations for our children. By the time our children are in high school, their teachers expect a degree of independent learning. They go to school and learn at a significant level and have to interact with the material, do assignments and sit exams. Few parents complain about this and ask teachers to bring back the way things are done in primary school. The children are growing up and are very capable of deeper learning. That is the same with the church! Listening to a half hour sermon which contains Biblical teaching, illustration and application is not beyond them. In fact, the best questions I get after sermons are often from teenagers. Don’t underestimate their capabilities.
  5. Work on the transition. Listening to sermons is a skill that needs some teaching and refining. Usually, our youth group helps with this transition, but parents can too. Be explicit about how you listen to sermons, what makes a good sermon, how to use what you learn. A great little booklet on this is “Listen Up” by Christopher Ash. Help the children understand what was taught and discuss it together afterwards.

Remember the bigger goal here. We all want to grow in the knowledge of God and our response to the one who loved us first. Sermons are a key tool in this and have been throughout the history of God’s people. I try hard to make them accessible to teenagers too, often including applications specifically for them as I go along. Let’s make the most of the sermons we hear together.