Monday, July 8, 2013

kids' talks in church vs kids' talks in sunday school

A minister friend told me recently that in his next church there will be no children's talks in the morning service. Kids' ministry (which he strongly believes in) will happen separately, in Sunday school.

There's reasons for and against having kids' talks in church. The main reason against is that they are often poorly done. They are cringeworthy and of dubious educational benefit.

To hit the mark, a talk must:

- be absolutely true to the bible,
- be crystal clear about the one point that it is teaching (the big idea of the passage it is based on) and not get distracted with other stuff,
- be age appropriate (there's a knack to finding the correct level to pitch it at in a multi-age group),
- be concrete without losing the subtleties and nuances of the passage,
- be presented in an engaging, energetic and creative way so the kids can't help but be drawn in,
- be entertaining for the adults,
- keep the kids under control (no one likes to watch kids misbehave)
- be pretty short, and
- fit with the broader flow and feel of the service

A decent adult's sermon takes at least 10 hours to write. Most people won't have anything like that amount of time to spend on a kids talk. If you have a kids' talk in church each week, the chance of it not hitting the mark most of the time is pretty high. Even if you employ a 'professional' (a teacher or a someone with a degree in theology) to give the talks, the results are often still disappointing. (IMO, the skills/personality required to give good kids talks are quite different from the skill set of the general classroom teacher.)

So why try to do kids' talks at all?

Well, I don't think every church should.

Kids talks (done well) are a fantastic addition to a church service. The children feel that the main church service is for them. Parents get to see what their kids are learning. Adults learn along with the kids (this is particularly helpful for people with English as a second language or lower literacy levels). Kids talks can add a fun element to the service. The importance of children's ministry can be highlighted and kids' ministers get an opportunity to profile what they do. Furthermore, having kids' talks in church makes it easier for the church's leaderships - minister(s) and elders - to oversee what is happening in children's ministry. If it is off track, action can be taken.

But kids talks done poorly detract from the service. Generally, the bigger the church, the more professional the kids' talk needs to be just to be adequate. If kids are taught exclusively in Sunday school, then different teaching methods can be used. Small group leading requires a different (and more common) skill set to up front teaching. With preparation and basic training, most Christians will be able to teach a group of 5 or so kids. Good small group teaching will achieve much more than poor up front teaching and will be more achievable than up front teaching for most churches.

So my friend's next church won't be having kids' talks. 

Fair enough. 

But most churches aren't about to give up on kids' talks. How can the pain be minimised?

In my experience, most kids' talks suffer most in their 'hinges', in their pitching, and in their delivery. 

The 'hinges' between the different parts of the kids talk are really hard to do well, particularly the hinge between the opening illustration or story and the direct teaching part of the talk. If the connections aren't really clear in your mind and seamlessly executed, then you'll lose the kids. I usually spend as much time working on the hinges as the rest of the talk. I find they work best if I've flagged where I'm going right from the start so that the 'moral of the story' isn't just an awkward add on. 

Pitching a kids' talk is also a real challenge. If there are kids in the church from 0 to 16 it can seem really perplexing deciding where to aim your address. But the trick is to not worry about ages but worry about clarity. A five year old can understand (at a basic level) just about any biblical doctrine if it is taught properly and a four year old, a fourteen year old and a forty year old will all be fascinated by a story that is told well. If you don't know where to pitch your talk, don't worry about it. Work out exactly (EXACTLY!) what you want to teach and when you are absolutely clear (ABSOLUTELY CLEAR!) about your big idea, teach it by telling a story well, flagging your big idea from the start. Object lessons (where you take along an object and draw out some similarity between the object and God or something (I've bought along this ring today. Look at it. See how shiny it is? It's very precious to me. Something else that's precious to me is the bible/Jesus/?)) are much more likely to fail than stories. Chances are that you'll hold no one's attention.

The delivery of kids talks is also tricky. You have to be enthusiastic. You have to be confident. You have to present in such a way as your draw kids (and adults) in. You have to be seen as exciting or interesting or as a close friend. Different people will achieve this in different ways and while everyone can learn to do it better, some people will never be able to do it really well.


That's all for now. Thoughts? Does your church have kids' talks in church or does it focus on its Sunday school program? Do you have strong feelings one way or the other?


  1. We do kids' talks in church. Reasons we do are:

    - Because is a great way of expressing the unity we have as the people of God/as the body of Christ.

    - It is also helpful for the congregation to know what the kids are learning and hopefully triggering them to talk about it with the children after the service (both parents of the kids and just other adults in the congregation).

    - Adults learn from the talks too. They are great at reinforcing the basics/main point of the passage and not getting hung up in all little details or tangents.

    - Another reason when we originally introduced kids' talks in the service was that some families wanted their kids to stay in church for the whole service so it was a way of accommodating the parent's wishes and still give the kids from those families some age appropriate teaching. (those families have now all left the church)

    I use the Kidswise material written/developed by Sandy Galea and I think she does a great job at writing talks that fulfil all the points you list for a talk to hit the mark. And she even manages for more challenging stuff including Romans! And because her material is written to follow the sermon series of the adults at their church(in general), it means we cover stuff that most general Sunday school material might skip over. For example we are currently doing a term on Judges...usually Sunday school curriculum would cover Deborah and Samson, but for example this past week we looked at Micah stealing his mum's silver and her then telling him to make an idol from it. We have found the adults without kids (ie. young adults or parents who's kids are grown up), really enjoy the talks and learn from them and it also prompts them to go home and look at the bible passage themselves (our talks don't match the sermons) as sometimes the talks bring out details that they don't remember or haven't noticed before or they haven't really looked at closely at all. Actually all the comments we get after the services from the adults about the talks aren't from any parents of the kids that are part of Sunday school but those in the category I just mentioned. And sometimes the minister/pastor jokingly laments that some of the adults remember the maint point of the kids talk better than the main point of his sermon. Which I guess is what your pitching point is all about.

    I also agree that the 'hinges' of the talk are very tricky and even well written hinges can become awkward if not delivered in the right way.

    I also agree that delivery can be tricky and not everybody is able to do it well. Which is why at our church Peter and I are permanently stuck with this job (there are a few others who are happy to teach the smaller groups we split up into after the talk).

  2. Interested about your comment about object lessons - from memory we do them a bit, and I feel like they work? Maybe because our kids are pretty young (we regularly get 25 kids under 9 and only a handful older than that). Do you think they can ever work?

    1. I'm sure they *can* work, but I think they don't work anywhere near as well as stories. They are almost necessarily abstract. But check with your kids. Ask them if they remember what yesterday's kids' talk was about. If they remember the object, do they have any idea what the point of the lesson was?

    2. The worst kids talk I have ever heard was an 'object' talk. The 'object' was cake and the ingredients that make up a cake. The 'main point' was "Church is like a cake, it has a pleasing aroma".

      (This was while we were church shopping when we first moved to NZ)

  3. Thanks for this Simone..

    Our normal sunday services don't have a children's talk, as they have a pretty extensive bible-teaching class (as in they go through the bible over a couple of years!) for kids which runs in parallel.
    However, for our monthly International service, we try to incorporate either a talk or at least a song for kids, to include them - but also realising that the simplified language which kids stuff usually has is likely to be helpful for those whose English is not so good. (Preaching for ESL-ers is probably another good topic for another day!)

  4. A really good children's talk is a marvellous thing. But rare. And that's basically my beef against children's talks. Most of the children's talks I've heard in the last five years have suffered from one or more of the following problems: way too long, jargon language or Christian clich├ęs that kids wouldn't get, poor theology (thus it actually takes away from the effectiveness of the sermon later on), abstract links that the kids don't really follow, or moralizing. At the moment, we have a new minister who happens to be very good at giving children's talks. But he's a rare one too.

    The most memorable children's talk I can think of was the one about the "sword of the spirit" for which an enthusiastic young man decided to bring in his large family machete to illustrate the idea of a double-edged sword. As he waved it around, he joked that if he was naughty, his parents might come and get him with the sword. And that God's Word was a big double-edged sword so we'd better do what he says or else! We spent the car ride home undoing that one and assuring our kids God doesn't come to get us with a sword if we are naughty! The guy meant well but random 18-year old young group guys don't always get the pitch right.

    If kids are going out to Sunday School at some point, they are already getting content geared towards them. If they are staying in for the whole service, then a children's talk might be appropriate. But it's often done so poorly that I wish it wasn't done at all. My other beef is the way kids are set up to "perform" by giving the right answer. Would we like to be asked theological or Bible questions in front of a whole room full of adults who are going to giggle if we get it wrong? And do we think it does our child a great service if everyone thinks he is such a good Christian boy because he knows all the right answers? So I really hate children's talks that quiz the kids on their knowledge of spiritual things in front of a large audience.

  5. Our church used to have them every week. Now they have become more of an occasional event, for example, we might have one or two over the school holidays when the kids program isn't running, so that the kids have something that is targeted towards them.

    I like it much better now we don't have them as often. It's a bit more attention grabbing because it's a novel stimulus for the little people, I think.

  6. Can you post a copy of one of your kid talks?

    I'd like to understand the "hinges" more.


      Here are a couple. I'll write a post on what I mean by 'hinges'

  7. Completely agree with your thoughts on both the benefits and challenges of doing kids' talks well, Simone. In a small church, we only do kids' talks in church occasionally - eg during school holidays or at Easter or to give the adults an insight into what the kids are doing at church4kids. Given the choice, we'd rather put our limited resources into doing the kids' program well week-to-week. Hopefully it also means we can do a quality job with the kids' talks when we do them.

    For what it's worth, I think many of the challenges you mentioned with kids' talks apply equally to doing kids' songs in church too... Cathy

    1. We are also a small church - congregation of 60-70 with 8 to 10 kids ranging in age from 3-9. The kids talk we do in church is the main 'teaching' element of our kids church program and they then do discussion and craft in smaller groups while the sermon is preached. So limited resources doesn't mean talks can't be done and done well.

  8. For me, I always prefer to read at least one sentence word for word from the Bible (sometimes I try to simplify the language without being too interpretive). I want to be explicitly clear to the kids that the Bible is our authority. And yes, "hinges" are key, and not always easy!