A Proper Replacement for the "Children's Message"
I opened my first blog post for Gottesdienst by stating clearly my disdain for “children’s church.” I have the same mind about “children’s messages.” Besides an obvious distraction to the Divine Service, it’s often used as an opportunity for the Pastor or whoever to take an underhanded shot at parents. It’s usually a lesson in morality and never delivers the Gospel. As a result, the “message” likely doesn’t have anything to do with the Scriptural theme of the day and was copied and pasted from a free Internet database of inter-denominational object lessons. (Seriously. Type in some words or phrases from the last children’s message you heard. I guarantee you’ll find a word-for-word manuscript on one of these sites. Just remove the “altar call” and “sinner’s prayer” at the end, and it’s Lutheran, right?) Besides, everyone knows the real reason this break in the liturgy is so popular. It’s an opportunity to check that text message that buzzed in your pocket during the Absolution. Guys need to have the latest injury report for their fantasy football team, too. What better opportunity for these things than when all eyes are on the kids saying the darndest things up front? None of this is helpful.
Now, this post isn’t meant to cover all of the reasons children’s messages shouldn’t be happening or to condemn those who insist that they should be. It’s to give you an appropriate alternative—let’s say “a more excellent way.” Some of you might already be doing what I’m going to mention, but it might be a little out of hand and need to be brought to order. The thing of which I speak is a structured Sunday school opening.
Your first thought might be, “Our first service is at 8:00, and our second is at 10:30! Sunday school is supposed to start at 9:15, and we already barely make that! How will there be enough time?” While I won’t deny that the Divine Service often breaches that sacred “one-hour mark,” a structured Sunday school opening can be introduced and kept without being rushed. People might actually learn something, too!
To begin, while I would prefer to meet in the nave, you might choose to meet wherever the adult class meets simply out of convenience. Have the children sit up front with their teachers each according to their kinds…I mean classes. The Pastor should begin with a prayer (I prefer Luther’s Morning Prayer to be prayed by all) and then introduce the liturgical date. This is the Pastor’s opportunity to take a few minutes to present at least the Gospel text and to give the children (and adults) some things to listen for in the Divine Service. When in the major seasons of the Church year, this opening provides a chance to translate those funny Latin phrases and to learn why Quasimodo isn’t ringing the bells of Notre Dame and is instead there on Easter 2! (Wouldn’t you know, it has something to do with newborn infants?)
Sometimes pastors (especially when unprepared) can become unnecessarily long-winded, so it will be very important that the Pastor come in organized so that this is accomplished succinctly, yet with a clear point. Remember—this is not the sermon. It is meant to be the blueprint for the day so that especially the young hear and understand.
Next, I suggest the singing of a hymn. It could be a hymn you intend to introduce to the congregation or a hymn that you are singing that day that some might find unfamiliar. Don’t lose Gerhardt or any of the other classics just because “you’ve never sung it before!”
After the hymn, you have an opportunity to recognize baptismal birthdays, anniversaries, make pertinent announcements, and transition into what the different classes will be learning that day. (Pastors should already be aware of what’s happening in each Sunday.) Finally, close with the Lord’s Prayer and the Benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
In an ordered and structured way (and in only about 10-12 minutes), you have easily taught about the liturgical date, prayed, sung, rejoiced, and brought all together in unity for the common good of the church. Through this added opportunity for teaching, you can once again stress the importance of Sunday school and Bible class to the congregation, and most importantly, keep the Divine Service for what the Divine Service is for—God coming to us to deliver the forgiveness of sins through Word and Sacrament.