Olin Sletto, former missionary to Africa, children’s book author and pastor of ELCA congregation Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Elgin, Ill., sat down with the Seeds for the Parish editor to talk about children’s sermons. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: You have weekly children’s sermons at your congregation. What are some of the recent topics you have used?
A: I love children’s sermons. There are several reasons for this — one is genuine love for the children, because they can read you like a book. Number two is adequate preparation.
There are a lot of people who say, “Oh, I can get this ready early Sunday morning.” Percentage-wise, I spend the same amount of time working on my children’s sermons as I do for my regular sermon. This is because it takes time to be creative.
There are three elements to my children’s sermon: the object, the lesson and the prayer.
For Pentecost, it was about the Holy Spirit. The object was a fan. We turn on the fan, and the wind blows; we can’t see the wind; we don’t know where it’s coming from, but you can feel the wind. Do you feel the wind? Yes, we can feel the wind.
We created church fans: We make a fan — a paint stick and a cardboard piece with “Holy Trinity” written on it — so that the children could fan themselves and remember the Holy Spirit. So that’s the object.
The lesson is short and to the point — not more than four or five minutes in length. You can keep the children’s attention very well in that amount of time.
The prayer is a short one that the children and the congregation repeat after me line by line. I’m teaching the children how to pray: They don’t know it, but that’s what’s happening. It says to the parents, “Guess what — I’m teaching you how to pray, too.”
Q: Is the children’s sermon well attended?
A: When I first started at Holy Trinity eight years ago, the children weren’t enthusiastic. Attendance wasn’t very good. I got maybe eight kids to come up to the front.
Now we have 35 to 40, and they come running down the aisle. I always say to the adults, “If you don’t get the other sermon, at least you’ll get this one.”
Q: Why is the children’s sermon so popular?
A: If children find church to be fun and interesting, they will like it. I want children to love church. I want children to think of church as the most fun place they can be on a Sunday morning.
The question for me is: How many adults do you talk to who hated going to church as a child? They had to just sit there and be quiet. When the adults went for communion, the children sat in the pew and watched. They couldn’t go up to the altar, they couldn’t participate.
The adults remember that, when their parents made them go to worship, they didn’t want to be there. Now it’s the reverse at Holy Trinity. The children want to be there. The children are bringing the parents to church.
We have children communing at an early age. If the parents feel that the child is ready, then I prepare them.
That has changed the whole atmosphere in the congregation. The children are included. For those who don’t yet take communion, I give them a grape before I bless them.
It’s just a little thing but you can’t imagine the impact. For instance, I’m preparing a couple for the baptism of their baby. This family (they also have a 4-year-old) visited last year and had not been back until recently. Do you know why they came back? What they remembered about that service? The grape.
They remembered the grape. The 4-year-old little girl said, ‘I remember when I came here that you gave me a grape.” It’s just a little thing but it says to the child: You are important, you are included, you are a part of this community.
Q: What advice would you have for other pastors who want to use children’s sermons?
A: Be prepared. I put a lot of work into it. It’s like anything else that you do — preaching your regular sermon, worship, your choice of hymns — everything is a packaged deal. Humor in church is critical; we need humor. And the children’s sermon gives you the opportunity: you never know what’s going to happen, and you need to be prepared. Sometimes the insight of a child is just breathtaking.
Q: Where do you get your ideas?
A: Online is the best place to go. My executive assistant combs the Web, and she will give me three or four ideas that she has found. Most of them are really workable.