Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.

Kids view grown-ups as their role models in the faith. Grown-ups view the minister as theirs. What better test case for how a church is teaching the next generation than the one time each week when the minister talks to kids about the faith: the ubiquitous children's sermon.

I can see some of your eyes rolling, even from here. Hang on. I used to hate the very idea of children's sermons—until the church that called me told me I had to preach one every week. Now I'm a convert. It was my one time to connect with the next generation about the things that matter most.

And what I've discovered is that what it really takes to teach the faith to the next generation is to

  1. know the faith,
  2. live the faith, and
  3. communicate about the faith with kids.

Miss any of those three and the project is gonna fail.

  1. Adults who don't know the faith can't live it or talk about it.
  2. Adults who don't live the faith can't be taken seriously about it.
  3. Adults who don't really communicate about the faith with kids aren't even trying to pass it on.

So, try on my hypothesis: if a pastor wants to teach the adults about teaching the faith to kids, the children's sermon has to do three things.

  1. The content needs to be the real faith.
  2. The presentation needs to embody that faith.
  3. The words and ideas need to communicate with kids.

Good children's sermons are about the real faith.

Many children's sermons are unscripted—or should I say unprepared? That means the content comes straight from the heart, from unedited core convictions. Often the result is not pretty.

A great many children's sermons focus on the three Bs: "Be good; Be nice; Behave," with the implied conclusion "so God will love you." That is not the Christian faith.

I impressed the kids (and distressed their parents) when I told them that God would love them just as much even if they did bad stuff. That actually is the Christian faith.

Often the content of children's sermons is unrelated to anything else in the service. Better to just explain one crucial part of the morning's text. The kids want to understand. You can't help focusing on the actual faith. And it is much easier than making something up.

Good children's sermons embody the lived Christian faith.

Countless preachers get the kids to talk and go for a cheap laugh—but a kid might remember that the church laughed at her in public. Or they ask quizzing questions—and then the kids who are shy or struggle in school feel terrible about being in church.

Better to work in a "Mr. Rogers Moment." Fred Rogers, Presbyterian minister and host of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood on PBS, always looked straight into the camera and told the kids "You are special. I'm glad you are here."

Ministers who want their actions to embody the gospel start the same way.

  1. A warm smiling invitation: "Hey, kids, it's time for the children's sermon! If you are age 2 to 5 I hope you'll come up here to the front."
  2. Then look them in the eye for a friendly welcome: "Hey kids, I'm so glad you are here today. Thanks for coming up. You are always welcome here."

These things do what Jesus did when children came near. He welcomed them. He blessed them. These things embody the fact that the gospel is actually for them.

Good children's sermons actually communicate with kids.

Too many children's sermons communicate in ways kids can't understand. Sometimes it almost seems intentional—talking over kids' heads to the adult congregation. Sometimes, though, it is lack of good planning.

Better to ignore the grown-ups. Talk to kids in ways that kids understand. It takes courage. It also takes careful planning.

No more elaborate metaphors, especially about some random thing pulled out of a sack. A stuffed Big Bird has no actual gospel content, and kids' brains can't grasp metaphors.

It requires energy and effort to re-learn how to speak, too. Kids can't follow long, convoluted sentences. Take the time to craft short concrete sentences.

Knowing, living, and communicating the faith are hard. But who said passing on the most important thing in life was going to be easy?