Saturday, July 2, 2022

PODCAST: Children's Messages

To Cause to Learn - Episode 8 

If you want to know the truth about effective children's messages check this out! 

If you don't have time to listen and just want me to get to the point, keep reading to get the basic script. 

As promised, today we will be talking about children’s messages for the Narrative Stage of faith education. First, a quick reminder of the 5 stages of faith education: Narrative (PS – 2nd), Knowledge (3rd – 5th), Understanding (6th – 8th), Reason (9th – 12th), and Wisdom (adults).

So, welcome! and let’s get started!

The Tip of the Day is: There are a lot of options besides object lessons.

Question 1: What are children’s messages? What is their purpose?

The children’s message is… basically an attempt to make church more relevant to young kids who have a hard time participating in the service and understanding the sermon. It can be a long time for them to be quiet and a challenge to keep them as still, but busy, as possible. We DO want them to be in worship, to hear the word of God (even if they don’t seem to get it the Spirit can still use it to create and grow faith), and to learn the process and traditions of worship. We also want them to feel a part of the church family and a part of their family and not separate them. Worship is a family event. So, children’s messages help them be a part of worship.

Before crafting a children’s message, a few questions should be considered. First, what is their purpose? I know what I just said, but what is the purpose of YOUR children’s messages? Hopefully, it’s to leave the little ones with a nugget of God’s truth and a reminder that they are greatly loved by Him unconditionally. The next question, to whom is the message addressed, depends on the answer to the first one. Here’s why. Some people haven’t really thought about it, but their children’s message is more for the adults than the kids; and sometimes they don’t even know it. I’ll talk about that in a bit. The last question to be considered is; what are the ages of the kids who come up for the children’s message? If you’ve listened to some of the other podcasts you know how important it is to understand what young children understand. That brings us to question 2.

Question 2: Think about the age group of those who listen to your messages. What do you know about them?

Usually children’s messages are for kids in preschool through 2nd grade (ironically, that’s the Narrative Stage), but sometimes parents will bring up their younger children and sometimes a few older kids will come up too. It’s okay to include 3rd graders and even 4th graders, but then the question becomes, on which age do you focus the message? A lot happens in the body and world of a child between preschool and 4th grade. So, what do you do? Do you focus on the older kids or the youngers? If you focus on the older kids the youngers will get little from it, but if you focus on the youngers the older kids will still get something from it. Obviously I recommend focusing on the youngers.

What difference does that make (I hear people quietly asking themselves as they listen)? Well, actually, quite a big difference when you think about the kids and what those in the Narrative Stage understand. The biggest one is concrete thinking and the ability to transfer one idea to another. Here’s an example. At one church there was one lady who always gave the children’s message on Christmas day. People raved about it. Every year she pulled an elaborate Rube Goldberg type of toy into the sanctuary and the children oohed and aahed over it. She would put a marble in it and it would go through all these tubes and drops and spins as it made its way to the bottom. She would then talk to the children about life’s challenges and how Jesus was born to save us from our sins and help us through life’s challenges. My question: What does a kindergartener understand about life’s challenges? They don’t think of life as easy or hard, they just live it. How does a preschooler connect that cool toy to their life? They can’t. For the younger kids, that children’s message was all about watching the cool toy and had nothing to do with Jesus. That’s transference. There are points they just can’t connect even when an adult tries to explain it.

Here’s another one. I’ve seen people try to explain the Trinity with an apple, a hardened sinful heart with a Tootsie Pop, and the Holy Spirit with a balloon, to children who cannot transfer the object (no matter how clever or obvious it seems to an adult) to a concept (that they cannot understand).

A final example: One Sunday the sermon was called Rejected! It was based on Luke 4, specifically verse 24 where it says, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” The person giving the children’s message started telling the kids a story about how somebody got a letter of rejection from Harvard University. First of all, children 3-7 years old have no understanding of rejection and it would be a challenge to explain it to them as they have no experience with it. Second, they have no idea what Harvard University or a letter of rejection is. He might as well have been speaking to them in Chinese. He asked questions they couldn’t possibly answer and finally let them go. This was a non-object object lesson.

The truth is that the majority of children's object lessons aren't for the kids if the kids are under eight or even under 10 or 12 years old. The young kids who come up to the front of the church for your object lesson don't have the ability to connect the object to your intended concept. Again, that’s transference, the ability to transfer a quality from the object to a religious concept. It's a higher order thinking skill and their young brains simply can't get it.

So, the first step in a good children’s message is to know the children. I call the early years of faith education the Narrative Stage because of how influential they are in a child’s learning experience. We all learn through experience that connects to previous experiences, but a child’s experience is limited. These little lambs:
  1. Have little ability to think in terms of general principles (kindness, goodness, sin, forgiveness, etc.).
  2. Have little ability to think about non-physical entities (God, heaven, etc.) that they haven’t seen or experienced. God the Father is a really big dad. Heaven is an actual place like the library or a big park, but apparently it’s in the sky sitting on the clouds.
  3. Have little ability to understand symbolic meaning. Visual symbols do not initially have symbolic meaning -- children must be taught what the cross means as a symbol.
  4. Cannot relate one fact to another, for example, the heart being like the inside of a tootsie pop that was hardened on the outside by sin? No way.
  5. Cannot make generalizations like what happens to a Sunday school class when the word of God is shared. If they can’t see it happen; super no way.
  6. Classify Bible stories as any other stories. There are none more or less important. Jonah and Pinocchio are on the same level of truth or make-believe. They start coming out of this in second grade.
  7. Primarily perceive miracles in the same way as magic in fairy tales. They cannot understand them as real or fantasy. Again, they start coming out of this in second grade.
  8. Determine the difference between real and make believe better as they age, but that's different than taking something that sounds like it can't be real (coming back from the dead) and assuming it's real. Of course, they don’t really understand death because it looks like sleep. When my son-in-law died his young son kept asking when daddy was coming home. He couldn’t understand death.
  9. Do not understand metaphors. Their literal thinking would have them believe the Holy Spirit IS a dove (or at least a bird), a hardened heart actually gets hard like a rock, Jesus lives in a tiny room in their heart, or a stiff-necked people actually have stiff necks and should go see the doctor. 

So then, question 3…

Question 3: If object lessons don’t work. Where do you start?

First of all, remember the Brain Rules for memory. They are the same at every age and will come in handy.

  • Remember that children’s lives are much simpler than ours (thank God!). They have, but don’t understand complex emotions. They primarily recognize happy, sad, and angry or mad.
  • The vocabulary you use is important. Be careful about using theological language they don’t understand. Be aware of the good/bad behavior language. Jesus doesn’t love them because they’re good and when we attach God’s love to behavior kids really hear that.
  • If you ask a question and kids answer correctly, it doesn’t mean that they understand a concept. It’s okay to get them familiar with terms before they understand their meaning. Concepts can come later.
  • Young children love stories and they indirectly learn from them. Use them!

Question 4 then must be...

Question 4: So, what actually works?

Our greatest desire is for children to know that God loves them more than they can imagine and after that, to become familiar with Him and His people, of which they are one. We want them to know that they are part of a family of believers who are people that care about them. We do not need to try and explain life to them. They will experience it as they grow. We do not need to find clever ways to try and explain things they cannot understand. We can tell them that God is so amazing and cool that there are mysteries that only He knows. The Trinity is three people, but one person. What? How can that be? There is no possible way to explain it, especially to young concrete thinkers. Don’t tell them it’s an apple (seeds, fruit, skin) or water (solid, liquid, ice). They can’t imagine that anyway and it’s not actually a true description. The Trinity is not three different parts that make up a whole. It/they are three and one at the same time; always. It’s a mystery. Let it be.

When you are creating a children’s message, before you look for cute or clever ideas, decide on your goal. What do you want the children to leave believing? (I use the form on this website under the Confirmation Resources Tab.) If the pastor’s message is about Jesus going back to Nazareth and being unwelcome, you could briefly tell the story and show pictures. Young kids like pictures to go with their stories. It's why there are picture books for that age. If you don’t have a screen they can easily see, you should print pictures and hold them up for them. You can easily find pictures online or use a good children’s Bible. Little kids don’t know what it means to be rejected or to go somewhere and be unwelcome. They certainly don’t understand the concept of a prophet being rejected in his hometown and what that’s all about. So, think about your goal. What, out of that story, can they understand? 

Also, what the pastor talks about won’t necessarily be what the children’s message can be about, and everything can’t be about how somebody was treated and how that makes them feel, which seems to be a regular go-to or children's messages. Everything is not an emotional moral lesson or about how they should be good. Sometimes we have to flip it over. Here’s an idea:

Tell a story. Message: Jesus loves us even when we aren't nice, don't get it, or don't believe.
In the Gospel lesson today we heard the story of when Jesus went home to Nazareth to visit. He was a little boy there and grew up in the same way you’re growing up here. He lived there and played with friends there. He was Jesus, the carpenter’s son. Carpenters build things. Nobody knew He was God’s son except Mary, Joseph, and him. So, when He came back as a prophet (a guy who delivers messages from God) the people didn’t believe him. They said, “You’re not a prophet. You're Mary and Joseph’s son! You’re a carpenter! When did you get so smart? Who do you think you are?"
Do you think Jesus stopped loving them when they were mean like that and didn’t believe him? No! He didn’t! If you were there what would you want to tell those people? I would tell them that Jesus loves them even if they're mean. Let's do that now. Say this after me (use hand motions too), “Jesus loves you! (point to them) Jesus loves me! (point to yourself) Even when we’re mean (mean/angry face) or don’t believe (you're safe baseball action)!” Say it in rhythm a couple of times. Then, have them teach it to the congregation. "That’s the thing with Jesus. He loves us no matter what! Always!"

There are a lot of options for children’s messages besides object lessons. Most of the good ones involve the congregation. Here are a few examples:

  • To illustrate that the message is more important than who gives it, one presenter had a few children read something simple written for them. Then those little ones who couldn’t read were taught by the readers to repeat it so they learned it. After they knew it, the little ones taught the congregation to repeat it.
  • A Director of Christian Education at my church used the congregation to tell the story of Jesus calming the storm in a very clever way. He had the congregation make storm noises and wave their arms like waves and the children were to be Jesus. The children walked down the aisle and the storm grew as the waves got bigger and bigger until the kids shouted, “Stop!” The storm died down as the people stopped. They did it a couple of times and the lesson was that Jesus has power over nature. 
  • Tell stories that are close to the emotions of the children. Stories that use human characteristics such as loving, sharing, and caring are excellent at this age.
  • Use poems, riddles, and songs. Putting scripture to rhythm and song helps them remember it. They need to be short, so break a verse down into a memorable phrase and have them repeat it multiple times throughout your message.
  • Use illustrations when telling stories. Children read picture books and we know from Brain Rules that pictures help us understand and remember.
  • You can also use props, pictures, voices, puppets, and/or volunteer actors to tell stories.
  • If you have an abstract moral they won't get it, but they can answer simple questions like, "What happened when I...?" "What happened when (the puppet) hit the other one?" "What would happen if you...?" The information needs to be relevant to their experience.
  • Make the message about a picture of a story by showing it on the big screen and having kids answer questions about the picture. "What's happening in this picture?" It’s okay for kids to have their backs to the congregation so they can see the picture.
  • Add movement to a story you’re telling. What if you taught them the stories of the Old Testament with hand motions. The first one would be creation and might be using your arms to make a large circle above the head. The second would be the fall and that motion could be two hands making a breaking motion. There’s not a motion for every story in the Bible, but if chosen wisely and one taught a week, by the end of the year they’ll be able to tell the whole Old Testament! Imagine if the young kids and everyone in the congregation could tell the story of the Bible because of hand motions, which help with memory.

I bet you’ve got all kinds of ideas now!

Next time we’re moving on to move into the Knowledge Stage, 3rd – 5th grade! Things are getting interesting! Don’t forget, if you’ve got a question or a curiosity you’d like to have answered you can contact me and we’ll talk about it here. Whatever it is, if you’ve got a question, I’ve most likely have an answer. You can submit questions using the form right here under the podcast tab.

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