I think there are two parts of supporting parents in this endeavor: giving them a vision and giving them lots of little tips.
In my mind it helps to compare listening to a sermon to learning a sport – say soccer. In both you have to start playing the game before you have mastered it. Actually you master it by playing it. The more you practice and play the better you get. If you are a child you are often trying to learn skills almost before your body has the ability to do them (think trying to slam dunk a basketball or sit still on a pew with your legs dangling). But, you keep trying. Part of the trick is to find ways to enjoy it while you are learning. This comparison helps parents think like coaches and children think like players (rather than both thinking like survivors tied in mortal combat).
Once parent and child have decided that listening to a sermon is hard and will take time but is worthwhile, the tips become useful.
- Remember that few adults listen to every single word of a sermon. Something is said that makes me think about something important to me and I follow that for a while then tune back in. It’s the same with children. Only the younger they are the less often they tune in. For preachers the trick is to seed a sermon with words and references that will cause the children to tune in for a few minutes here and there. For parents the trick is to notice when the child tuned in and talk about that rather than the times she was definitely tuned out. For children the trick is to pay enough attention to the parts that fly over their heads that they notice when something interesting happens. Nudging parents can help with this.
- Every week in the car on the way home expect every member of the household to tell one “sermon take away”, i.e. one thing to remember from the sermon – and yes a joke or funny story counts. Children learn through this discipline that they are expected to listen – at least a little – rather than just to be quiet. They also learn that their parents think sermons are important. (Heads up: occasionally a child who wants to talk about something that was not mentioned in the sermon but is important to him and which he thought about during the sermon, will raise it as a “sermon take-away.” Go with him on it. It may be more important than anything the preacher said this week.
- Particularly with older children, insist that looking through books be saved for sermon time. They can participate in all the songs and prayers. During the sermon provide Bible story books that can be read or simply looked at during the sermon. (Such books keep children “in the room” more than their latest mystery or computer game does.) Some congregation provide a shelf of appropriate books at the rear of the sanctuary or put one in each child’s worship bag.
- Provide a hard candy (they are called lifesavers for many reasons) to enjoy during the sermon. They give children something to do with the tongue while they sit back and listen.
- Provide paper and pencils or crayons for sermon art and/or worship journals. Go to Worshiping With Pencils and Crayons and Worship Writing for details expanding on this.
- To explore all this further, find a copy of my book You Can Preach to the Kids, Too. Most of it is aimed at helping preachers learn how to create sermons that draw the attention of children as well as adults. But there is also a section for parents and for worship leaders who prepare children to listen to sermons.