A cartoon in my Facebook newsfeed showed a pastor in front of the church behind the pulpit saying, “There’s been a complaint from a few of the members that the sermons are too intellectual. The following adult members are invited up front to join the children’s sermon.”
At first I chuckled, but then I stopped and thought about what the cartoon was implying.
It indicated that somehow a children’s sermon would be less intellectual than the sermon offered to the adults.
It made it seem like adults experiencing something intended to reach children would not be challenged in their faith, implying that an adult would be insulted to be “lumped in” with the kids.
I don’t think any of these things are true, nor should be they be perpetuated within our faith communities.
Both theologically and socially, these underlying assumptions about the differences between adults and children can actually undermine the church and lead to segregated faith communities where little to no interaction takes place between generations.
So let’s start with the basics.
Of course, we can all recognize there are differences between adults and children. Physically, emotionally, developmentally and in a myriad of other ways, they are different.
They have different needs based on these different stages of development. They have different abilities, both physically and cognitively. They have different likes and dislikes, frameworks through which they view the world.
Therefore, age-appropriate ministry within the church is necessary and valuable. However, in spite of these differences, there are important spiritual principles that are common to both.
Theology, for instance, is something that doesn’t change based on age. The way it is presented might change, but the theology itself should not change.
Even in a sermon intended to reach children, the theological content should be such that an adult would learn from it and gain insight from it as well.
Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales, and Buck Denver shared this response to someone who said that theology was too deep for children.
“Kids can learn more than we think. Adults can learn less than we would hope. We consistently underestimate what kids are capable of learning and overestimate what adults will learn. Kids still ask questions – grown-ups stop asking questions,” he said. “Could you explain it to a 3rd grader? If you can’t disciple a 3rd grader, you can’t disciple anyone.”
Christian faith is not only common to the whole community, but also it is exemplified in children (see Matthew 18:1-6; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:16, 17).
To assume that an adult cannot learn with and from children because adults are at a deeper place in their faith is to lose one of the most precious things about our faith, namely, that it is best experienced and expressed through the life of a child.
It is not an insult for an adult to be called to learn with and from children; it is what Christ has told us to do.
What if we re-envisioned the whole sermon? What if the pastor of the church didn’t see himself as the pastor to the adults only but also to the youth and children?
What if the sermon was a time where we learned together because the goal wouldn’t be one group being fed while the other was ignored or set aside, or one group being entertained with simple stories and surface values while the other group sits hungry for discipleship and theology?
Can that even be done? I think so if we all bend a little.
Kids would have to listen to some things that developmentally they couldn’t understand and relate to.
Adults would have to humble themselves to a place where they could learn with and from children even if they think they are beyond that.
There would need to be grace given and discipleship offered as we grow together.
But it is possible and would be a healthy place for the church to explore helping generations grow together. Intergenerational discussions may yield more insight and ideas that we could come up with on our own.
We know that, as I saw posted on Facebook, “Since God’s point of communication with all of us is the Word, it’s clear that the Bible must be for children too.”
Christina Embree is director of children and family ministries at Nicholasville United Methodist Church near Lexington, Kentucky. A version of this article first appeared on her website, Refocus Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @EmbreeChristina.