Children’s Ministry: Overlooked Outreach

Children’s Ministry: Overlooked Outreach
By Mikal Keefer

When Brooke Lee left Saddleback Church in Southern California and moved to Colorado, she knew there’d be adjustments. What she didn’t know was how difficult it would be to find a new church – and why.

Lee’s 6 year-old daughter, Sage, had loved Saddleback’s children’s ministry. Getting her up and out of bed on Sunday morning was easy, Lee remembers. “She absolutely loved going to church.” Sage was less enthused about the churches she visited in Colorado.

“The first church we tried, Sage didn’t like at all,” says Lee. “And there’s no way I could enjoy being in church – or pay attention to the sermon – when I knew Sage was unhappy.” Lee tried a second church, with similar results. “I even sat with Sage a time or two during the children’s worship program,” says Lee. “She stayed glued to me – which wasn’t like her at all.”

At the third church Sage was warmly welcomed by teachers and was invited into the classroom activities. As Lee and her daughter left the church building, Sage looked up and said, “Mommy, if we go to church again, I want to go here.” Guess where Lee’s family is worshipping?

Pastors, Preaching, and Preschool

Conventional wisdom holds it’s the pastor and the preaching that bring visitors back to a church. In Surprising Insights From the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them (Zondervan), author Thom Rainer makes the case that pastors – like you – are firmly on the hook to meet the expectations of church members and visitors. But no level of excellence in the pulpit or programming compensates for an inadequate children’s ministry – not in the eyes of parents.

Rainer’s findings indicate that one way those who are unchurched measure a church’s quality is the quality of childcare provided. For parents, that’s often the only yardstick that matters. “I can deal with preaching that’s so-so if necessary,” says Lee. “What I can’t deal with is my daughter being miserable or bored.”

Children’s Ministry Is Outreach

Your children’s ministry is a key component of your outreach program. In addition to the oft-quoted Barna Group findings that eight out of 10 kids who become Christians make a commitment before their 14th birthdays, there’s also this fact: Children don’t drive themselves to church. A fully functioning children’s ministry does more than attract children. It attracts adults, too.

If you haven’t checked in with your children’s ministry lately to make certain it’s above par, now is the time to review what your church delivers to kids – and their parents. Why the rush? Easter will be here before you know it.

“Christmas and Easter are the times you must make a good impression,” says former children’s minister Heather Dunn. “And they’re hard times to be excellent. Your regular volunteers are out, you’re swamped with a crowd of visitors, and everyone’s distracted. But if you don’t come through on holidays, you won’t see the visitors back later.”

So what can you do – this week – to ensure that the Brooke Lees and Sages who drop by this Easter will return again? Follow these suggestions:

Ask your children’s ministry leader, “What do you need?”

You set the standards for excellence in your church – make certain those standards extend to your children’s ministry as much as they do to the worship service. Whether you regularly meet with your children’s ministry leaders or have just a vague notion of what they do, schedule a time to ask this question: “What do you need to provide an excellent experience for the children in your care?” Then listen…and see what you can do.

Do a spring-cleaning

Walk through your children’s ministry area. What hallways need a fresh coat of paint? What carpets could use cleaning? Where might some decorations freshen up a room? Would the area be more cheerful if you increased the lighting?

Give your children’s ministry leader a list of your observations. Then ask, “What can we do to make this happen?” Note the emphasis on the word we. Your support is a deal-breaker when it comes to marshalling church resources. Until you decide a first-rate, visitor-ready children’s ministry is important, it’s unlikely to happen.

Host a family-oriented holiday program – one that includes follow-up.

A church packed with visiting parents and children this Easter means nothing if you don’t follow up. So host a family-friendly holiday activity that collects names and addresses – and then get back in touch to tell visitors about your regular children’s programs.

One option is to have families sign in for the ever-popular egg hunt. You’ve likely done egg hunts before, but put a new twist on it by including numbers in plastic eggs or on wrapped candies that can be redeemed for prizes. Consider having Hands-On Bibles from Group as your larger prizes – the 200-plus activities will keep kids interested in exploring the Bible.

Make your Easter programming child-friendly.

A candle-lit choir program or a sunrise service that requires absolute silence to be enjoyed may be beautiful, but it’s not child-friendly.

Is your special holiday programming designed to accommodate children? How could you tweak your programs or add meaningful children’s programming during the same times (read: not just babysitting)? Look for flexibility in the children’s programming you provide. No matter what your estimate, you can expect surprises when the children show up for out-of-the-ordinary programs. A “onesize-fits-all” option for programming is Group’s Hands-On Bible Curriculum, which is active and easy to use with multi-age groups.

After Easter…

An even more important issue is how you can best use your Children’s Ministry as an outreach tool all year. Here are a few ways to turn Christian education into an outreach magnet.

Require parents to collect children in person…from the teachers.

It’s probably possible for someone to attend your worship service and never actually speak with anyone. Don’t believe it? Ask a new person in your community to visit your church and count the number of personal interactions he or she experiences -and the perfunctory handshake from an usher doesn’t count.

Yet while it’s possible for parents to avoid contact (or be avoided) in the sanctuary, those parents must interact with someone in your children’s ministry. They have to sign their children in – and out.

When you require parents to pick up children from their teachers, you guarantee there will be at least one significant interaction – and you can make the most of it. Instruct teachers and small group leaders to greet parents, to express gratitude that their children are participating, and to invite parents and children back again. Children’s Ministry is a key contact point for evangelism and outreach in your church – resource it accordingly.

Ask again: What would make your children’s ministry excellent?

You think you already know the answers: more visibility, more volunteers, more money. And “more” may not be in the cards. Ask anyway. You may discover that what’s needed most is simply encouragement, a few gallons of bright paint and some carpet squares, a different curriculum, or better sharing of information. In short, stuff that doesn’t ding your budget.

Host “entrance ramp” children’s ministry programming.

Throughout the year host and publicize low-commitment, high-impact “entrance ramp” events that draw unchurched children (and their parents) into your facility. For example, vacation Bible school, a fall outreach event, Christmas and Easter programming, sports camps, and summer reading programs. Look at your schedule and strategically plan one program for each season.

Entrance ramps move people toward greater involvement with your church. At each entrance ramp deliver information about what else you provide for children and their families (Sunday school, children’s church, and midweek programs), and offer the chance to become involved.

Children’s ministry is impacting your church’s outreach. Whether it’s a positive or negative impact is up to you and your ministry team. Parents trust your church with their children do all you can to give families a tremendous experience. Not only will you be faithful in outreach, but you may one day be rewarded with hearing a little girl say, as she walks toward the parking lot holding her mother’s hand, “Mommy, if we go to church again, I want to go here.”

Article “Children’s Ministry: Overlooked Outreach” excerpted from “Rev!”. Article written by Mikal Keefer.

“This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”