Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Problem with Object Lessons

The vast majority of books about including children in the congregation’s worship are collections of object lessons to use as children’s sermons.  The preacher displays an object and talks about its characteristics with the children then connects the object to a spiritual truth.  One classic example is to start with a battery powered flashlight without the battery in it.  The leader and children figure out why it does not work.  Then the leader produces the needed battery, they all marvel at the light, and the leader notes that we are like flashlights.  We need God’s Holy Spirit in us before we can shine.
The only problem with this is that it requires the mental ability called transference, the ability to transfer a quality of one thing to another.  This is a problem because human brains do not develop this ability until early adolescence.  So, the adults get the connection and may laughingly tell the preacher that the children’s sermon was the most memorable part of the message for them.  Children on the other hand don’t get it.  They think concretely and specifically.  That is part of the reason they have trouble learning to imagine how another person feels in a given situation.  They know how they themselves feel, but they can’t transfer that feeling to another person in another situation.  It is not that they don’t care about other people, their brains simply cannot transfer what they feel to what another person might feel.  Given that it is no surprise that they can’t transfer the power of a flashlight battery to the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives.

To prove this to yourself, try this test:  Ask a child in the middle of the week to tell you about the object lesson presented on Sunday.  He will tell you with great interest about the object and its features.  Then ask, “why do you think pastor showed you this in church?”  Most will make a good effort at guessing what it might be, falling back on the safe, “it was something about God” or “we’re supposed to be nice” but it will be clear that they did not get the spiritual truth side of the equation.    

My favorite illustration of this test in action is the story about the pastor who began a children’s story with “I am thinking of something that is small and furry and eats nuts.”  An enthusiastic kindergartener shot a hand into the air saying “I know, I know.  It’s gotta be God!” then with resignation, “but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”  This child had learned the format of object lessons, knew what to expect, but could not do the mental gymnastics needed to truly understand them.     

That does not mean that we should never use things the children can see, touch, and manipulate during worship.  Objects grab the attention of children.  The trick is to use them as props rather than as object lessons.  For example, before reading Amos’ prophecy about the plumb line, display one and show how it is used.  Then invite children to listen for the plumb line as you read the scripture.  Or, display a piece of sports equipment telling a story in which it is used.  The aim here is to discuss with the children what happens in the story.  The prop simply draws their attention to your story.  Or, feature an object that is used regularly in your congregation’s worship.  Demonstrate its use and let children practice using it.  Or, use a puppet to tell a story.  The list goes on.   What all these uses of objects share is that they draw the attention of children without requiring that children transfer something about that object to a spiritual truth.

I guess that also does not mean that we should never use object lessons in worship either.  But, it does mean that when we do we should pitch them to the older youth and adults who will understand and remember them rather than to the children who are baffled by them.


  1. It is easy to forget this --

  2. Thank you for laying out this rule so well! I try to pack my sermon suitcase very simply, but I am sure I am guilty of this mistake sometimes. --Frances

  3. I watched a pastor on Easter show the children a butterfly mounted beneath glass and talk glowingly about how the butterfly is a symbol of resurrection. One child pointed to the butterfly and astutely observed, "But it's dead!"


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