Preaching To Children -- By: William H. Willimon

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 03:1 (Fall 1985)
Article: Preaching To Children
Author: William H. Willimon

Preaching To Children

William H. Willimon

Minister to the University and Professor of the Practice
of Christian Ministry, Duke University

My last parish was next door to the Jewish Synagogue. The Rabbi and I would often get together for coffee on Monday mornings. One day the Rabbi was saying, “It’s tough to be a Jew in Greenville. Time after time we find ourselves telling our kids, ‘That’s fine for everyone else, but not for you. You are special. You are a Jew. You have a different set of values, a different story, a different claim upon your life. That language is OK for the Joneses but not for you. You are a Jew.”

I said, “Rabbi, you aren’t going to believe this, but I heard much that same thing said in a discussion in a young couples’ church school class right here in Northside Methodist Church last Sunday. Even here, even in Bible-belt Greenville, more of our parents are having to say to their young, ‘That’s fine for everyone else, but not for you. You’re different. You’re special, You are a Christian,’”

More and more American Christianity is beginning to feel like a sectarian form of Judaism. There is an increasing realization on the part of many American Christians that our children will not grow up Christian simply by living in the “right” neighborhood, drinking the water, and watching TV. The world is offering us fewer free passes, fewer breaks. Now, if our children have faith, it will be because we have intentionally, quite determinedly, bestowed that faith upon them through a careful process of our witness and their conversion and nurture. As James Fowler has said, we must “detoxify” our young, reforming them after their contact with a culture which is, though pleasant and comfortable in many of its guises, pagan and alien to the claims of the Gospel.

Therefore I believe that it is of great importance for pastors to listen to the young parents in their congregations because I believe they are the first wave of a new awareness of a changed relationship between the church and American culture.

I don’t think that my parents worried much over whether I would become a Christian. It was the only game in town. Everyone we knew went to church. Being Christian seemed as natural as being American. Today I know few people who will dare to make this assumption.

I therefore want to begin my thoughts on preaching to children by being honest about my assumptions of a changed context for this discussion. What we say to and how we live before our children becomes deadly serious business for a church which again bears the burden to “make disciples .... baptizing them...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you...” (

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