Want to be more engaging? Ask more questions

On the first Sunday of each month, we have our all-age service. This usually means the kids stay in for the sermon and everything pays a bit more attention to the fact they’re there. The elements of the service are designed to specifically take account of the children and the sermon aims, not to talk exclusively to the children, but to help them listen and engage as fully as possible.

There are several things we are trying to achieve with the all-age service. We are trying to give the Sunday School teachers a break every now and then. Small church means most the work rests on the same few shoulders and we are not blessed with hundreds of people able to serve in children’s ministry. So, we want to try and ensure our Sunday School teachers get to sit in sermons some of the time too.

We are also trying to create opportunities for others to preach. Generally, I do not preach at the all-age service (this week past was an exception, not the norm). Like the Sunday School teachers, it is good for the pastor to sit under other people’s ministry some of the time too. It also helps the church to see that, just because I am in the room, doesn’t mean I have to be the one preaching for the Word to do its work. More importantly still, it creates opportunities for training people to preach. One in every four or five, we have a slot for somebody else to learn or grow in their preaching skills.

On top of those things, we are trying to help our children learn to sit through services. We have a Sunday School that runs for primary aged children. But we don’t want the children to face a cliff-edge when they turn 11, in which they are used to going out to Sunday School and then are suddenly faced with sitting in adult services. Once per month, we provide an opportunity for families to help their children learn to sit through a full sermon and service, but we take account of the fact young children are there and help them to engage now so that they are more prepared to engage with normal services when they hit secondary school.

One of the ways we try to engage children in the sermon, without dumbing things down, is to make them properly interactive. Whilst large chunks of the sermon are monologue, just like a normal sermon (at least, a normal one of my sermons), we pepper the message with questions. Usually, in a normal service, those questions are rhetorical and designed to get the listener to apply the challenge or encouragement of the question to their own situation and heart. In an all-age service, those questions are purposefully NOT rhetorical. We expect and encourage answers. If you begin to see the children drifting, we throw out a question to draw them back in. If you are trying to emphasise a point, you reframe a question to get them to recall something you said earlier. If you are using an illustration, we ask the children to tell us about a literal illustration and then explain the point of it to them.

Questions are a great way to elicit a response. With adults, we may use questions to get them to think about specific answers. With children, we may use questions to get them to focus on the particular point we are trying to make. We may similarly use questions to grab their attention (kids just love to answer questions!) We may use questions to get them to recall something important we have just told them. We may use questions to see if they have actually understood a point we might have made. But peppering the entire sermon with questions means the whole sermon is more interactive, engaging and draws the children in.

I am something of a sermon scripter. I maintain, if you are somebody who cannot get away from your notes – it doesn’t matter whether you bullet point or script – your sermon will be a struggle for anyone to listen. I don’t think the Bible has much to say on this issue – you simply do whatever will help you preach the best sermon for your people. For me, that means scripting it in full because I know I am able not to be tethered by them.

I mention this because my usual sermon would last 30-40 minutes. I know that around 3000-3500 words will be around that long. With my all-age sermon, my written notes were around 2000 words. Theoretically, you would think that would last around 20-25 minutes. But when you factor in all sorts of interaction, that came to around 30-40 minutes. But if you are engaging enough, and interactive enough, we found the children had no problem whatsoever with that length. The key, it seems, is making it engaging. And the key to being engaging was not about our amazing graphics (which were not that amazing) or brilliant rhetorical ability, but boiled down to floating questions at the right time, in the right way and engaging briefly with the answers.

If you want to engage the kids in your sermons, my advice: pepper it with questions. Ask questions that have multiple answers so different children can chime in. Ask questions that expect recall of things you have said. Float questions that reiterate key things. Ask questions that get the children to think about how things might apply to them (giving them hints and help as you do it). And as you think about how to engage the kids, ask yourself, are the adults really all that different?