Paulist Father Steven Bell speaks with children in this OSV file photo. Photo by Jim Olvera

5 Tips for Preaching to Children

Young consciences are keener, their souls more alert

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Preaching to children belongs to the work of the priest.

In Ars, France, every day in the school called La Providence, St. John Vianney talked to children for about an hour. For decades it’s how he taught the Faith, simply and plainly. Soon not only children but adults came to hear him speak. Really, he taught as many adults as children that way. In no small measure it’s how God converted his parish, because he made it a priority to teach children every day. He knew it mattered.

This is what we should think of preaching to children: It matters because there’s something special about it. John Henry Newman wrote of children that their consciences are keener, their souls more alert. He said there’s something in the souls of children that “actually vibrates, responds and gives deep meaning” to what is said to them of God. That is, they’re open to God in ways adults aren’t. Preaching to children, like teaching, is a unique evangelical moment, one that should matter.

What shareable wisdom is there for preaching to young people? Karla Bellinger, homiletics professor at the University of Notre Dame, studied more than 500 Catholic school kids for her 2014 book “Connecting Pulpit and Pew” (Liturgical Press, $19.99), and in it she argues that preaching remains an essential evangelical medium. However, she said preachers must refocus their efforts and renew their skills to restore the “human connection” of preaching. Preaching is ultimately about encountering God, she says; but first preachers must take care how listeners encounter them.

Although by no means exhaustive, the following tips help us to think about the evangelical moment of sharing the Gospel with little ones — a sacred moment we must not forsake.

Tip 1: Be Not Afraid!

Among the ruins of a sex abuse scandal rocking not only the Catholic Church but Christianity as a whole, we may be tempted to recuse ourselves from ministering to children, preaching included. Avoiding Catholic schools, cautiously guarding every word, fearing misunderstanding or, even worse, accusation — we may be tempted to give up ministerial and evangelical ground out of caution.

Ministry to children is not something we can abandon. Rather, after repentance and after providing a genuinely safe environment, we should take up with renewed zeal and holiness this dominically mandated ministry.

That includes preaching. No matter our current credibility problem, we mustn’t be afraid to preach the fullness of Catholic faith and morals. If we give up preaching, or if we preach cautiously or impersonally out of fear, then what we have is a Gospel problem. And that quickly becomes a salvation problem, which is why we mustn’t be afraid, and why we must continue to preach boldly, no matter what.

Tip 2: Character Matters

Aristotle called it ethos. It’s what we mean by character. He said it makes the speaker “worthy of credence.” Another way to think about it is in terms of personality. Philips Brooks, a great 19th-century preacher, said it was the preacher’s personality that made the difference between real and unreal preaching, that “truth must come really through the person, not merely over his lips.” Authenticity is the hallmark of ethos, connecting the preacher with listeners, no matter their ages.

Which is why the preacher should be himself, avoiding tinny didacticisms or false, childish airs. Nothing touches the soul more powerfully than words that come from the heart and not just the brain, even when those words are simple and few. Ethos persuades. And kids, more than anyone else, have a nose for it. The preacher should accept who he is and speak conversationally as he usually does. Because that’s who’s speaking, and it’s who kids want to hear — you and not some character you think more relevant.

Tip 3: Where Kids Are Matters

Mister Rogers said once that listening is the “prerequisite of love.” It’s also the prerequisite of good preaching. To preach well, we must first listen well. This means listening to God, but also to our people. Pope Francis put it simply that the preacher should “keep his ear to the people.” Which includes, as he makes clear in Christus Vivit, young people, for whom we should “make room” to hear.

Blessing of Children
“Then children were brought to him that
he might lay his hands on them and pray.
The disciples rebuked them, but Jesus said,
‘Let the children come to me, and do not
prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven
belongs to such as these.’ After he placed
his hands on them, he went away.”

— Matthew 19:13-15

Now, at one level, this means staying current with the ever-changing landscape of pop culture in order to draw out whatever may point to Christ. If such things matter to our young people, they should matter to us, and we should be able to help them read culture as Christians. Helping children see Disney’s “Frozen” as a parable for discovering true love, or “Despicable Me 2” as an allegory for the Eucharist, or “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” as a story about faith, the preacher can become for young people a “mediator of meaning,” all by simply valuing what they value and helping them find the Gospel in it.

But this works only if we first respect the child’s inner life — that is, what really matters. Do we respect children’s souls, do we respect their hopes and fears, considering them real and not just childish? Are we empathetic? To put it in terms of Robert Coles’ wonderful book, “The Spiritual Life of Children” (Mariner Books, $21.95), can we accept them as spiritual pilgrims equal with us? These are questions we must ask ourselves, because it’s often what’s missing in bad preaching: the full recognition of the child’s interior dignity.

Tip 4: Remember Joy and Hope

St. Augustine famously advised that “those who offer instruction in faith do so in joy.” Pope Francis echoes it: “The Lord truly enjoys talking with his people; the preacher should strive to communicate that same enjoyment to his listeners.” In Christus Vivit, Pope Francis says that to talk about young people is to talk about joy. Joy fills, as he said in the first line of Evangelii Gaudium, “the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” Clearly, then, joy is fundamental to preaching to children.

Which means preaching hope. Pope Francis said preaching should not keep people “trapped in negativity” but instead help them discover the hope Christ always offers, which is vital for young people, whom, Aristotle said, “live for the most part in hope.” Trapped often as they are by school and social pressures, by ubiquitous screens, preachers can offer a bigger picture and thus hope. Remind young people that what they will be in the future — what Christ calls them to be — isn’t fully what they are now, and that no matter their present darkness, there is light ahead, that school doesn’t last forever. This is something preachers should be able to do better than anyone else — speak hope. But not without the joy and hope that we first must possess ourselves.

Tip 5: Trust the Planting

St. Paul made clear that only God gives growth (cf. 1 Cor 3:7). It’s a truth we preachers should always remember. Sometimes you’ll think you’ve accomplished nothing, that they’ve not been listening, that you’ve made no impact. But that’s not true; it’s just we don’t often see the fruit.

The Gospel can change lives, even when poorly preached. And that’s because ultimately it’s God’s word, not ours. Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put ourselves through criticism, just that at the end of our homilies we shouldn’t berate ourselves, but rather we should simply pray. Understanding homilies are seeds of the word of God planted in fertile soil, we must remember that growth takes time, which is why the best thing to do after every homily is quietly offer your words and your people to the Lord. Kids remember far more than we realize, which is precisely the memory God works upon. It’s where the Holy Spirit begins his preaching, just where you left off — preaching to children because it matters.

FATHER JOSHUA J. WHITFIELD is pastoral administrator at St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas, Texas, and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching: Redeeming the Heart and Way of the Catholic Preacher” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95).


‘The Gospel of Children’

“This Child [Jesus] … will show an extraordinary love for children. He will say to the apostles, ‘let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ and he will add, ‘for to such belongs the kingdom of God’ (Mk 10:14). Another time, as the apostles are arguing about who is the greatest, he will put a child in front of them and say: ‘Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 18:3). On that occasion, he also spoke harsh words of warning: ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better
for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea’ (Mt 18:6).

“How important children are in the eyes of Jesus! We could even say that the Gospel is full of the truth about children. The whole of the Gospel could actually be read as the ‘Gospel of children.’

“What does it mean that ‘unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven’? Is not Jesus pointing to children as models even for grown-ups? In children there is something that must never be missing in people who want to enter the kingdom of heaven. People who are destined to go to heaven are simple like children, and like children are full of trust, rich in goodness and pure. Only people of this sort can find in God a Father and, thanks to Jesus, can become in their own turn children of God.”

Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to Children, Dec. 13, 1994


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