Metaphors Gone Wrong

If there is a manual for giving children’s sermons, it must include the following instructions: Rule 1: Have a prop; Rule 2: Use a metaphor. It’s so simple, even a layman can do it!

I got talked into giving a children’s sermon once. I don’t remember what I said. It involved cookies (the prop), and as a result got high ratings from the kids. Rule 3: Give them cookies. Even better: candy.

Most of the kids who come up to hear the children’s sermon are pre-schoolers, at least in churches I’ve visited. My boys stubbornly refused to participate, but sometimes changed their minds if food was involved. Otherwise, they wanted no part of it. And I respected their opinions because children’s sermons can go very wrong.

Whoever wrote Rules 1 and 2 had probably never met any preschoolers. Bottom line: cookies are fine; metaphors are dangerous.

In the first place, children under the age of seven don’t think metaphorically. They are very literal.

A pastor friend of mine showed the children a package of seeds. “Does anybody know what these are?” Kids who have been through the routine before know that if the pastor asks a question, the correct answer is almost always, “Jesus!” If that doesn’t work, “Love!” is probably the right answer.

Presented with a package of seeds, half of the kids shouted, “Jesus!” The other half shouted, “Love!”

Though slightly daunted, the pastor forged ahead. “These are seeds, boys and girls. Do you know what happens if you plant them in the ground?”

Little faces brightened with understanding. “They grow into vegetables and flowers and stuff,” said one boy.

Relieved, the pastor went for the metaphor. “That’s right!” He held up his Bible. “This is a seed, too, boys and girls. Do you know what we will get if we plant this seed?”

There was silence. Finally a girl said, “More books?”

At that point he should have handed out cookies. Instead, he explained that we weren’t really going to bury the Bible in the ground, but that we were going to share it with other people. And no, there wouldn’t be any more books growing out of it. And yes, you buy books at a store. And yes, some books have pop-ups. But no, the Bible doesn’t have any pop-ups.

Children are not only literal-minded, they don’t put up with long explanations either. While you are explaining to them how Jesus is like a hammer, or a baseball, or a cigar box full of stars, their minds are focused on the here and now. Just when you think you’re getting through to them, a little girl will announce, “I have a new dress!” There is no way to recover from this. A small girl with a new dress has one goal: Notice Me!

Another problem: anyone who’s ever talked with a child knows that children will repeat anything they have heard. If their parents said it, it is truer than the Bible. And often accutely embarrassing. If you are giving a children’s sermon, you have to be careful what you ask a child. In front of a large audience of adults, a child will make the most embarrassing statement you can think of.

Once I heard a woman asking a group of preschoolers what a ‘warm fuzzy’ was. With some prompting, the children realized that “Love” was the right answer. They were able to provide examples: hugs, doing something nice, giving someone a present, saying, “I love you.”

Then she asked them if they knew what a ‘cold prickly’ was. There was no hesitation this time. A small boy said, “That’s when someone says, ‘F#@& you!'”

That having been said, even ten minutes of passing the peace couldn’t take the chill out of the room.

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