Knuckleball Approach to Children’s Sermons

Children’s Time in the service is a control freak’s worst nightmare.

Preparing and delivering a children’s sermon reminds me of the statement by military experts that no plan of war, however carefully conceived, ever survives the first shots of battle.

The one thing you can depend on in this brief encounter with very young people of faith is that there is nothing you can depend on. You can take NOTHING for granted: not cooperation, mood, logic, attention span, propriety, or even the duration of their presence.

I compare the art of the children’s sermon to throwing a knuckleball. You aim and release it in the general direction of home plate. You don’t really know what’s going to happen–how the air currents will affect it. It may dart or dip or flutter or float. It may occasionally wind up in the dirt. The best you can do is learn, through trial and error, how to release the ball so that it comes close enough to the target to be effective.

If your goal as a pitcher is to paint the corners of the plate with precision, don’t throw a knuckleball. If you have precise expectations of the trajectory of a children’s sermon, prepare to be frustrated.

Because of this truth, I spend less time than I used to preparing a children’s sermon. Let me amend that–I spend more time aiming the sermon in the right direction and less time mapping out exactly how it’s going to go.

I was reminded again last week of the need for flexibility in the children’s sermon. The sermon text was about the disciples arguing along the road as to which of them was the greatest. Jesus used the occasion to explain that the purpose of God’s creation is not to strive to beat others–but to build up the whole.

For my children’s sermon, I had four kids line up partway down the center aisle. Their instructions were to race to the step in front of the baptismal font. First prize was a bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups.

A little boisterous for a sanctuary? Not to worry. I added a caveat. No prize would be awarded unless each of the contestants crossed the finish line at the same time.

You see where this is going. What better way to illustrate the idea of people working cooperatively for a common goal rather than trying to beat out people for personal gain?

As expected, my four contestants walked in step to the finish line. But just before they crossed, one boy jumped ahead and finished ahead of the others. This was not in the plan.

I had to switch gears and use this as an object lesson. See what happens when people don’t cooperate and when you put yourself ahead of others? Now no one gets the prize.
Ah, but a chance for redemption. Another four contestants chosen. Instructions repeated. Lesson learned. This time, please get it right.

On the count of three they all stepped over the line together–except one boy who inexplicably stepped back at the last moment. Now I’m totally baffled, and I tie up the lesson talking about what Jesus said about being servant of all instead of trying to get ahead.

After the service, a parent explains to me what happened. One of the boys who came up for children’s time is deathly allergic to peanuts. Being relatively new at this congregation, I did not know this. The two guys who messed up the unified crossing of the finish line did know this. They were protecting him. They gave up a chance to get a treat they would have enjoyed so their friend would not be at risk or feel left out.

In other words, their completely unexpected actions did a better job than I had of conveying the message of the text. In a real and not artificial situation, they put themselves last and put another first.

The children’s sermon certainly did not go the way I had planned. But did it fail?

At the second service, I did the race thing again, which came off without a hitch this time. But the more effective part of the event was telling the story of what the kids at the first service had done, how they had lived out the gospel message.

My take on children’s sermons? Aim for the plate. See where the Spirit and these special members of the body of Christ take the pitch. And don’t take it too hard if a few wild pitches fly all the way to the backstop.