I remember going forward for the children's sermon, feeling pleased and shy as I slipped out of the pew. I remember the smiles of the big folk as we gathered at the foot of the pulpit. It can be one of the sweeter moments in a Sunday service. It can also be one of the most uncomfortable.

Children's sermons test the skills of the best pastor—and some of the best pastors fail the test. I've seen quite respectable preachers go slightly pale at the prospect of having to do the children's sermon because the associate (bless her motherly heart) is away. So they take what seems the most cautious strategy, faced with a dozen fidgeting midgets, one of whom is pulling on the vestments, one of whom is showing off her new flowered panties, one of whom looks on the verge of sudden tears. They placate. They talk down. They plead with the children, silently but visibly, not to get out of hand. They ask "safe" questions: "Does God love us?" "Do you sometimes have to say you're sorry?" Even small children know when they're being set up. A real question invites reflection, and even small children are capable of reflection. One reason kids "say the darndest things," as Art Linkletter put it, is that they do think. They haven't yet dug the grooves of convention so deeply that they don't reason and muse and make surprising connections. If a children's sermon is to start with a question, let it be a real question.

One rich source of real questions is a catechism. Contrary to popular impressions, the material in a good catechism isn't "canned" but a series of durable questions with answers that invite more questions, and offer a vocabulary of faith and a storehouse of usable images. A catechism also offers guidance and authority. Children want to ...

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Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has taught at Princeton University, the College of New Jersey, Mills College, Dominican University, and Westmont College. She now teaches at the UCSF/UC Berkeley Joint Medical Program and in the University Writing Program at UC Davis. Her column for Christianity Today appeared from 2000 to 2001.
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