The Children’s Sermon: Here I venture into troubled waters. Those who employ them may chafe at what follows, while those who find the practice aberrant to proper liturgical decorum may dismiss this essay out of hand. It is a lose/lose proposition. But something must be said because, overall, what passes for “the children’s sermon” today is a failing, frequently embarrassing endeavor and, for those who omit them, proclamatory opportunities are being lost.
The word-centeredness of (especially) the Reformation tradition would seem to lend itself toward addressing principally, though not exclusively, children during Mass. Yes, this can be done during a sermon from the pulpit when the congregation receives the proclamation of the Gospel. In fact, I have seen it done to considerable effect with riveted engagement by younger auditors when directly addressed by the preacher. It should and must be done. Yet, I have also seen how children, the same children who could remain fixated for hours binge-watching, immediately lose interest the moment the pastor angles toward the ambo. They tune out and break out coloring books or, Lord have mercy, their cellphones and gaming devices.
The children’s sermon, it seems to me, may abide in the spirit of New Testament. There we find our Lord Jesus taking the “little children” or, as Saint Luke reports it, even “infants” in his arms to bless them and admonish others that, “to such belongs the Kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). Yes, Jesus is present to take, touch, and bless children in the Sacraments — all of them. But He also blesses them with His spoken word — His royal proclamation to them and His prayers for them which save and sanctify. Jesus aimed His word for children and to children as well. “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them” (Mark 10:14). With this in mind, we do well to appreciate more fully Christ’s presence in the duly called and ordained man consecrated to the Office of Holy Ministry. The pastor, then, possesses the prerogative of calling the children to himself, in the stead of Christ and after the manner of Christ, to particularly bless them with the Word. The children’s sermon or, better, sermonette or homily, does that and does it publicly.
It is even further reaching than this. Just as one should not think the composition and delivery of the sermon is for adult auditors only, so too, the children’s homily extends to all who are present. Indeed, when done with purpose toward proclamation (and not merely catechesis), it is not infrequent for adults to say they better understood the sermon in light of the children’s homily. This brings to mind something else Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). Likewise, the children’s homily portends toward the better hearing of the sermon by children themselves. So, far from satiating them with their “moment” and ushering them off to “Children’s Church,” the thoughtful sermonette equips its young hearers with vocabulary, thematic cues, and doctrinal concepts enlarged during the sermon for all and for which all are present. The children’s homily is poised for a dual audience for the purpose of conveying the blessing of Christ to His people.
Relatedly, the children’s homily is not merely a cute “message” or object lesson, but a sermonette, a homily from Christ’s ambassador, calling children to himself and addressing them. As such and being such, this is something only the pastor or priest should do, not the vicar or youth leader or anyone else. The pastor represents the Lord Jesus during the Divine Service’s ministry of the Word and Sacraments. Consequently, only the pastor preaches the Word. This has the additional benefit of training children as welcomed by the pastor and coming to the pastor for holy ministry in Word and Sacrament. They are welcome to come to the pastor for the blessing and benefits of Christ. They were always welcome, even from their tender youth when they were brought to him unhindered, finding the pastor busy about the Word and Sacraments in the chancel for them.
The children’s homily is not merely a cute “message” or object lesson, but a sermonette, a homily from Christ’s ambassador, calling children to himself and addressing them.
How, then, may the children’s homily be done well? First, we note some pitfalls. A sure-fire way to derail the pastor’s purpose is to have others do the speaking. No, not just in terms of someone taking his place, but the children themselves. This is not supposed to be open mic night at the comedy club. They are children; they could say anything. They do say anything. Moreover, few congregants can hear their voices in even a small sanctuary, so the cutesy dialog (usually employed to showcase the pastor’s relational skills) frequently proves counterproductive, if not awkward. One device a pastor employed to harness the moment children gathered on the chancel steps and maintain decorum was familiarly liturgical: “The Lord be with you.” To which the kids responded: “And with thy spirit, pastor.” Mood and expectations were then set. Similarly, on another occasion a pastor promptly asked, “What is the title of the children’s homily?” “Jesus is our King,” the children exclaimed. They not only anticipated the title, but their parents had already linked it to the Gospel text for them and they were ready—trained—for what followed: The Gospel of Christ.
Another pitfall: using props at the expense of the Word. The rule here is the visual should never eclipse the auricular. This is not to say visual focal points cannot aid in the proclamation of the Word of God; when fitting, they can and do. Preachers rightly and effectively gesture to the font and altar, the crucifix and corpus. In like manner, the children’s homily should be just that, a means to convey the Word of Christ, augmented by reference to the familiar fixtures of the House of God. It should not unfold like another installment of show-n-tell, much less Penn and Teller.
A final pitfall before touching on some pay dirt: Never dismiss the parish’s youth to “Children’s Church” or “Junior Church” following the children’s homily. They belong with their parents, learning the discipline of the disciple. Vacating the sanctuary (where Christ is present and speaking) to color and amuse before (presumably) the Junior God and to partake of (a competing) communion of fish crackers and juice boxes reinforces exactly the wrong sentiment, namely how the sermon and the liturgy of the Eucharist are not for them. Rather, do not underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to minister through the sermon and the liturgy of the blessed Sacrament. Do not hinder them from where Christ is present. Allow the Holy Spirit to engender within them a hunger, a desire for the body and blood of Christ, but also a notion that they always belong in Church and are always welcome by the entire congregation.
Allow the Holy Spirit to engender within them a hunger, a desire for the body and blood of Christ, but also a notion that they always belong in Church and are always welcome by the entire congregation.
Pay dirt comes with clear, simple and brief proclamation: Clear, Simple, Brief. Aim for a single point to explicate and apply it directly to them. Be certain it is specifically for them. Born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus was once their age too. Our Lord knows their cares and concerns and can be a good pastor to them by speaking the Word in their parlance. The children’s homily is not the time for catechetical Q&A. Instead, it is an opportunity for proclamation in such a way that the youngest catechumens may depart edified by the object of our holy faith—Christ and Him crucified—having been placarded before them.
Children are immersed in a life dominated by law. In school and at home, on the sports field and extracurricular activity, their lives are saturated with “do” and “do not,” “should” and “should not.” During the homily they have an opportunity to hear and receive pure, unadulterated gospel, just as the little children in Mark 10 and Luke 18. Let your children’s homily, therefore, be not another occasion to demand morality (although it has its place), but amidst their failures to obey and attain to the laws, standards, boundaries, and rules which otherwise define their sinful existence, grant them relief and joy by the forgiveness of sins Jesus won for them. Emphasize their identity as those baptized into Christ. It will be to them pay dirt and you will have fulfilled the only viable purpose of a children’s homily, without which it would be a vain endeavor.