When Children Listen

Some churches seem to ban children from the main service.  Others make the main service all about the children.  The rest of us are somewhere in between.  As a preacher I am conscious when people are drawn away from the message by a distressed or distracting child.  And as a parent I am also very aware when a preacher doesn’t seem to be aware that children are present and listening.

Children are great recorders, but they aren’t great processors.  They won’t fill in background context and think through why something the preacher said actually isn’t supposed to bother them, or scare them, or intrigue them.  They’ll hear and then they’ll remember.  And maybe they will ask about it later.  But often they won’t.

So what kind of things do preachers say that parents may not appreciate?

1. Direct references to sex.  The Bible is full of euphemisms for marital or extramarital intimacy.  When children are present, don’t preach like you’re talking to prisoners, or sailors, or whatever.  Yes, David did commit adultery, and yes Adam did know Eve, and yes, the Samaritan women had had five husbands and was living with a man.  But no, there’s no need to be sensational for the sake of it.  Show concern for the children, and other sensitive listeners.

2. Unnecessarily gruesome description.  The Bible is not as prudish as some people make it out to be.  Beware of description that may lodge in tender minds and prove unhelpful.  Yes, there is a lot of death, the cross is an agonizing way to die by suffocation, a tent peg can be a quick way to leave this mortal tent, etc.  But no, there’s no need to be so detailed that tender listeners feel traumatised and distracted from the real message of the sermon.  Be careful.

3. Unhelpfully glorifying things parents may be keeping from their children.  The Bible is not a simple list of forbidden and allowed, there are numerous grey areas.  Beware of glorifying things that some parents might consider harmful to their children.  Yes, Saul did visit a witch, Samson was both sensual and violent, and fishermen probably did have colourful language.  But what if some families don’t want their children interacting with Harry Potter, or watching highly rated films, or listening to swearing, etc.  Be sensitive to the more sensitive listeners.  It’s not that we should allow Pharisees to control the church, but we certainly should honour parents as they carry the primary discipleship burden for their children.  This isn’t a call for absolute avoidance of everything anyone might disagree with, it’s a plea for wisdom in order to avoid “glorifying” things which may not be wise and edifying for others.

Parents, how else should preachers be sensitive when your children are present?

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6 thoughts on “When Children Listen

  1. Great stuff Peter. How about being sensitive to their intelligence and inserting from time to time hooks to captivate them too? Making them part of the audience.

    • Absolutely. Preachers patronising children can be very frustrating for children and adults alike. I think that children can be captivated by preaching without making the sermon into a children’s talk. It takes the tension and vivid description of good story, energy and warmth (just like with adults). Perhaps the connections need to be made at the level of application to make sure children don’t feel ignored if they are present.

  2. I’ve found that the ways one would use to hook children (story, powerful verbs, etc.) work delightfully for adults as well. We err when we assume that dry and boring is appropriate for adults but not for kids. Dry and boring isn’t appropriate for anyone!

  3. One of my big concerns is that although there is lots said these days about all-age services and intergenerational church, the starting point often seems to still be adults. If we’re serious about sharing the truths of God with children and in a way that demonstrates there value as part of the church, I believe we need move on from the ‘default mode’ in this instance preaching, being from an adults point of view and perspective.

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