Beyond Moralism

Children's sermons should bring good news rather than grand expectations

The pressure is on. The council has votedyes on the parents'proposal that each morning service include a children's sermon. It's up to the worship committee and the pastor to come up with some topics.

The quickest solution is also one of the worst. It's something we've all witnessed far too often:

Grab an object. Have the kids identify it. Then have the kids guess what it means—why you've brought it. When they fail, pause a few seconds to give the congregation a chance to chuckle. Then proceed to tell the children the true meaning and moral behind the object you're holding, using analogies and moral lessons that go far beyond their ability to comprehend.

Such a sermon—-typical in many congregations—-may warm the hearts of parents and grandparents, soothe the consciences of council members, and make the pastor look like a nice guy, but it does nothing for the children. Nothing except convince them that church is only for adults—something they already suspected.

How can a pastor construct a children's sermon that speaks to kids on their level and avoids moralizing? On the following pages Richard Coleman, author of Gospel-Telling—The Art and Theology of Sermons, offers some guidelines for avoiding morahsm and addressing children on their own level. "It is in no way sufficient," says Coleman, "for ministers to preach adult sermons reduced to a child's level.They run the danger of substituting good behavior for the Good News,and overlook the fact that children live in their own world and cannot be considered miniature adults" (Gospel-Telling, preface).

I begin with some assumptions.
First of all, I assume that within corporate worship, children—as well as adults—are entitled to hear the Word of God read and proclaimed. I also assume that what they hear should be appropriate for their age level and special needs.

Churches which agree with these assumptions and attempt to act on them often do so through a children's sermon—something I call "gospel-telling." Effective gospel-telling occurs when children sense that all of what God expects them to be as persons is grounded in God's love and acceptance of them as human beings made in God's very own image and redeemed through the saving work of Christ.

But too often our gospel-telling is far less than effective. Ministers have a tendency to moralize in their messages to children—a weakness closely associated with the popular "object lesson."

Good Behavior or Good News?

What's wrong with moralizing—with using a story or an object or an analogy to teach our children how to be holier, healthier Christians?

On the surface, that technique seems harmless and even useful. But moralism reduces Christianity to moral behavior. Children hear our repeated pleas for better behavior: be more respectful, industrious, honest, and kind; be less selfish, mean, temperamental, and greedy. And they begin to view Scripture as yet another adult voice that points out their shortcomings.

Scripture is nothing like that. Our proclamation should aim to capture the shock, scandal, amazement, and joy of the first hearing rather than to nag and nudge our listeners. Who would choose to emphasize the duti-fulness of the shepherds keeping watch by night and ignore the dumbfoundedness of the shepherds visited by messengers of God who brought startling news?

The danger, and I suppose the strength, of moralism is that it attempts to reduce the faith response to predictable, expected behaviors. But true faith cannot be controlled or predicted that way. My faithfulness, and lack of it, is always a mixture of doubt, hesitation, wrong choices, courage, trust, and hope. It is a response to God's love for me in spite of what I have done. Let the response of children be, "This God of ours is too good to believe" rather than "This God expects the same old stuff that everyone else expects of me."

From a different angle moralizing is an authoritative attempt to predefine the moral choice of others. Who among us does not have in his or her bag of children's sermons one about stealing or coveting?

We have two approaches available. One is to load up children with guilt and with the need for the approval of human beings and their institutions. However, fear, and the fear of guilt, changes few of us (e.g., does the fear of cancer deter adolescents from smoking?). The other approach—the more demanding one—is to tell stories and portray Scripture in a way that gives children a sense that all of life is a gift of the Greator. This approach lays on us the burden of all proclamation—a radical reorientation of what we do because of our relationship with God.

If moralizing effectively eliminates the motivation of gratitude and love, then proclamation effectively motivates us to live life from sunrise to sunset thankfully and lovingly because we are thankful for and loved by God in Jesus the Christ.

Recreating the Feelings

Since I strive to avoid children's sermons that aim at personality adjustment, I have worked hard to develop other approaches to gospel-telling. The moralism {or lack of it) we often associate with biblical figures can be effectively shifted to telling-stories about heroes of the Christian faith.

I am such a firm believer that people of any age are interested in and identify with other people that I use that interest as the core of one sermon a month. Usually I do so in a sermon addressed to the entire church family, making that message our most inclusive form of corporate worship. But the following remarks and suggestions are certainly also applicable to a gospel-telling time. when the children are the primary listeners.

I surely do not want to flatten out the dynamic personalities of ever)- Christian hero I have identified with. Quite the contrary, from Abraham to Timothy we find scandal, failure, and timidity balanced against courage, repentance, and hope. Few, if any, of the biblical personalities made it into Scripture because of their virtuous personalities. Certainly they can be held up as both positive and negative examples (straight-line lesson exposition). But I prefer to wrestle with their faithfulness in spite of it all.

Consider, for example, some of the personalities surrounding the birth of the Savior. What can we proclaim concerning Mary's patience and humility, Joseph's fidelity and strength? These are traits I would mention but not moralize about (e.g., we should be more humble like Mary).

When I'm preparing my message, I begin by asking myself, How was Joseph transformed by what happened? God was asking Joseph to undertake a journey to Bethlehem and then to Egypt. Joseph went not because he was inherently strong but because he had a faith that was born out of acovenantal relationship with God.

During the gospel-telling I would relate the story specifically to children, entering into their world. How is their world like Joseph's? Have they moved recently? Gone on a long trip? Undertaken a difficult task? I cannot help but believe that Joseph spent a lot of time praying for strength—a strength he received because of his relationship with God. Through gospel-telling I would attempt to recreate the feeling that when the road ahead is unclear, God can be our strength. I might use Joseph's story, or I might use a contemporary story with a similar theme— a story about me or someone I know. In either instance I would tell the story straight, without adding a moralistic tag at the end.

Since you cannot legislate faith, you must engender it (provoke it, excite it, nurture it). According to the consummate preacher Dr. Paul Scherer, in preaching you recreate the feelings—in this case the feelings of Joseph that ranged from anger to dismay to a quiet confidence.

Good News, Not Expectations

Lest I be misunderstood, there is a place in the teaching ministry to discuss and put before children the ethical expectations inherent in the Christian faith. I do not feel, however, that the primary place or time for this teaching should be the act of proclamation.

The sermon is not a conversation between pastor and people. It is not a counseling session or a mutual seeking for moral direction or guidance. The sermon is one-way communication— God's word to his people. As such, it usually is an inappropriate vehicle for teaching morals to children. Because children tend to be literalists, it's important that they be given the opportunity to converse about moral matters.

For me the gospel-telling time is just this: the time to tell the good news in a way that helps children experience it. We are called to tell the good news just as at other times we are called to teach—to help students learn the standards of Christian conduct and the skill of ethical decisionmaking. I would urge that we be clear about these two callings and carefully think through the context in which proclaiming and teaching will happen.

Gospel-Telling the Coleman Way
A Prince in Disguise

Text: Matthew 25: 31-6 (44-45)
Appropriate Day: All Saints Day, any Sunday
Summary: Treat everyone as if he or she were Jesus.

Today I want you to listen very carefully to a story. This story will not take the place of the usual children's sermon; it is the children's sermon because it has a double meaning. After I've finished it, you'll have to think about it and perhaps ask your parents about its meaning. It's called "A Prince in Disguise."

Once, long ago (but not too long ago) in a faraway place (but not too far away), there lived a very special king. He was, by any standard, very kind, veryjust, and very wise. Even though his kingdom had no boundaries, for it was large beyond imagination, everyone in it knew the king was a loving ruler. Once a week he would step in his royal carriage, and his royal horses would carry him through the streets. And of course, all the young men would bow and all the young ladies would curtsy as the king passed by.

Although this king was very, very rich, there was one thing he did not have, and because he did not have it, he wanted it more than anything else in the world. Can you guess what it was? That's right—he wanted a child! The king prayed every morning and every evening that a child would be born to him and his wife, the queen, for what good would his kingdom be if he did not have an heir who would become the next king or queen? Oh, how he prayed and wished for a child!

And one day it happened: the queen gave birth to a child—a baby boy! The good news spread quickly throughout the kingdom, and the people were happy and thankful; now they had a prince who would someday be the next king.

The years passed, and the little baby boy grew to be a little prince. Once a week the prince and his father, the king, would step into the royal carriage, and the royal coachmen and the royal horses would carry them through the streets.

Because the king had only one son and because he loved him with all his heart, he was especially careful to make sure that no harm befell his son. In fact, he built a very tall stone wall around the castle so that the prince would see nothing of the ugly, evil things that happened in the world beyond it. But the prince was curious, just like boys and girls usually are, and one day he decided that he wanted to see what the world was like beyond the stone wall. After carefully disguising himself, he slipped away from the castle. He walked down dusty roads and through village streets. He saw the clear blue skies, enjoyed the beautiful flowers, and enjoyed the gentle rainjust as he did behind the stone wall; but he also saw people stealing and cheating one another, and mothers too poor to feed their babies.

Of course, the king was frantic when he discovered that his dearly beloved son was lost in the great world beyond the castle walls. So the king gathered together all his messengers and told them to go to every street corner and alleyway and read to the people this solemn declaration: My son, the prince, is lost somewhere among you. Will you help me find him?

Young and old, male and female, the people looked high and low for the prince, because they knew that the king would be forever grateful if they found his son. But no one could find the prince, because he disguised himself to lookjust like everyone else. And because the prince could be anyone, the people decided it was best to treat everyone as if he were the prince.

Even to this very day the prince still walks the streets, and you may by chance meet him some day.

Note: I prefer to leave the story open-ended. The success of this story doesn't depend on its analogy to the story of Jesus in Matthew 25. It can standby itself in the minds of younger children as a story of a prince who learns the truth about this world and of a father's love for his son. Older children and those adults who "happen" to be listening in will catch the analogy. True, our primary responsibility is to target children's sermons for children, but we should never forget the powerful dynamics that develop when others listen in. This is one very good reason why the Sunday Scripture lesson(s) should serve as the basis for both the children and adult sermons.

"A Prince in Disguise" is one of more than thirty sermon examples in Richard Coleman's Gospel-Telling, (Eerdmans, 1982).

Richard J. Coleman is pastor of Community Church of Durham, Durham, New Hampshire.


Reformed Worship 12 © June 1989, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.