So, Ms. Sadie, what happened to“object lessons”?
We’ve all heard them. The children’s sermons that relate God’s love to some thing.
“This watering can is like God’s love because…”
“The Holy Trinity has 3 parts like a snowman…” (For real, it’s on the internet.)
“Our daily hours and minutes are like the rice in this jar…” (Actually attempted this one, early in my children’s ministry. Fail.)
Any time we use an object to symbolize something in God’s kingdom, we get overwhelming approval from the adults in worship, but only looks of confusion from children.
Because that isn’t how children think.
Children are concrete thinkers. As much as possible, I try to relate concepts of faith and God’s love to ideas they can touch, hear, see, and understand. We’ve all heard the lessons on “catching fish” and “herding sheep” and “planting mustard seeds”, and it sounds beautiful-but what was Jesus actually teaching? He was teaching about inviting people into relationship with God, about how God’s love for each one of us is special, and the power of one. And guess what? Kids can understand those things! Just tell them! They don’t need images of fish.
Why did Jesus talk about sheep? Because he was talking to shepherds.Why did Jesus refer to nets of fish? Because he was inviting fishermen. Why did Jesus illustrate his lesson with a mustard seed? Because he was discipling the people of an agrarian society.
Jesus was a masterful teacher; he used the objects around him, to relate to the people listening to him , and help them understand what he wanted them to learn.
With very few exceptions, the children we teach today are not fishers, shepherds, or farmers. So these images will have little impact.
So what do our children spend their time doing? Playing! Yes. They play . How do we garner interest, and help them understand concepts of God’s love? Well -we could certainly do some of that with toys.
As with all aspects of ministry work, we try first and foremost to lead by the example of Christ. Do things how He did them. Woe to those of us in children’s ministry, we actually don’t have much of an example from Christ for how to talk to children. We have very few accounts of Jesus interacting with children at all, and almost no scripture basis for how he might have taught them. Which means-wait for it-we have to figure out how Jesus might have told children about God’s love… without an example from him (no pressure or anything).
I’ve been developing my own approach to children’s ministry by melding together the theories of incredible pioneers in the field. Some of the most influential have been Jerome Berryman, who wrote Godly Play; Leanne Hadley, the author of Sacred Circle Time; and of course, my hero, Mark Burrows at FUMC Fort Worth-the pioneer of Children First and children’s academies. Many of my ideas for bringing the abstract to the concrete have come directly from his books, and I have to give credit where credit is due. Mister Mark taught me about using toys for the “Playful and Prayerful.”
You will see me incorporate toys and play into children’s prayer stations, children’s sermons, individual sessions with children and families, academies, and in summer Sunday School sessions.
We must meet children where they are, and lead them to where we want them to go. Let’s use objects for what they are-not what they represent.
A top is a tool for a breath prayer.
A Barrel of Monkeys is a lesson that patience and gentleness get more accomplished than panic and rushing.
A Magnadoodle is a powerful tool for individual W.I.T.H. prayers (even if our instinct is to talk about wiping away sin…)
A slinky is a reminder that a man once turned a potential object of war into a toy that brought joy to many children (and we can turn our swords into ploughshares, too, because God’s love is powerful!).
So, as I learned from Mister Mark, instead of using these objects to teach about God’s love, let’s use toys to help children experience God’s love. And if the grown-ups still nod approvingly in worship, well then-bonus.