Experience of a Lifetime
Valerie Van Kooten
10 little things that make a big difference in how kids experience your ministry–and whether they come back.
Our ultimate goal in children’s ministry is to introduce kids to a growing, lifelong relationship with Jesus. But occasionally our goal gets derailed: Our lessons are well-planned, our team is welcoming, and our teachers have the best intentions. So what could possibly go wrong?
A child’s experience of your ministry begins with the very first contact you make with the child and the child’s family, even before he or she sets foot on your church’s property. This experience continues as the child walks through your door, joins in the activities, strikes up a relationship with teachers and other children, and then goes back home—where the child then decides whether to return. Your ministry may be running smoothly, with all your i’s dotted and your t’s crossed. But sometimes it’s the seemingly smallest things that keep a child—and the child’s family—from returning. Take a look at these examples.
XTreme, your ministry’s boys club, is having a campout next week. Only members of XTreme can attend, for what seem to be good reasons: not enough leaders to oversee too many boys, vehicle space limitations, the need to plan for supplies and gear. Michael visits an XTreme meeting with a friend who’s a member, and gets really excited when he hears about the campout. However, the leaders decide he hasn’t been coming long enough to qualify as a member. Michael goes home and doesn’t return to that church’s programs.
Julia’s excited about the Sunday school class she’s been attending for several weeks. On Bring Your Family to Church Sunday, she eagerly invites her parents and two brothers. When they arrive, Julia’s brother, who uses a wheelchair, has a hard time negotiating the archaic elevator system of the church. After requiring assistance from ministry volunteers, he feels that he’s a real hassle and just wants to leave. Julia continues to attend Sunday school, but her family never returns.
Can you relate? To ensure that children truly experience what we work so hard to give them in our programs, we’ve got to look behind the programs to be sure the proper underpinnings are in place. Here are 10 ways you can make the experience a good one for every child who walks through your door.
1. Make Your Ministry Physically Accessible
Just navigating the building and its surroundings can be a headache for a newcomer. Are the signs in the parking lot easy to read and follow? Do they need to be in more than one language? Do guests know where specific rooms are? If the church is older and wasn’t originally built to accommodate people with disabilities, how have you made it possible for these guests to access your building?
“Parents decide whether they’re coming back in the first eight minutes,” says Dale Hudson, director of children’s ministry at Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and co-author of Turbocharged: 100 Simple Secrets to Successful Children’s Ministry. “We often forget what it’s like to be in a new place, and the signage needs to be clear, even in the parking lots.”
Hudson adds that the church members who are just inside the door are vitally important. “Obviously, you need friendly people to be greeters, and you might want a guest services counter when they first walk in,” he says. “When people ask for a classroom, never point, but personally walk them there and be sure they connect with a teacher in the room.”
2. Take a Look at the Space
The physical location where kids meet needs to be more than something “converted” from big people’s meeting spaces the rest of the week. Patty Smith, director of children and family ministries for the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church, says great children’s ministry programs make it look as if they’ve been preparing for children all week long.
“Of course, we want to be welcoming, and the environment goes a long way toward that,” she says. “Don’t just limit yourself to paintings on the walls—take a look at proportions and dimensions of things.” For example, Smith says using big chairs for little kids isn’t comfortable or welcoming. Other things to consider are how far away the children’s ministry is from adults who may be meeting at the same time. You want the spaces close enough that parents have easy access, but far enough that kids can be kids—noise and all.
3. Make All Children Feel Welcome
Learn children’s names immediately—along with the spelling. Using name tags, where you can visually see the name, can be a big help. Denise Peterson, director of children’s and family ministries at Marlborough Congregational Church in Marlborough, Connecticut, remembers when just knowing a child’s name made a huge impact.
“I make it a practice to say a new child’s name over and over,” Peterson explains. “We had a little girl who came to our programs four or five times and then left the area. Months later the family came back, and I called her by name. Her mom couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘You remembered her name?’ That was really important to her.”
One of the welcoming items Peterson uses in her program is Wonder Bags—brightly colored bags sewed by a church member. A new child gets to take a bag home, choose something to put in it, and return it the following week. “I then have three minutes to tell a story or a spiritual message about the item the child put in,” Peterson says. “If the child stumps me, he or she gets a gift from the gift drawer. The kids love it.”
Not all children walking into your church understand the signs, symbols, or reasons for these things—regardless of whether they’re unchurched or not. When Peterson’s team set out the crèche, many of the children thought the figure of Joseph was the church’s senior pastor. “So we now have an area that introduces kids to symbols and people—crosses, Jesus, other Christian symbols—where we can sing welcoming songs and let the kids get to know each other,” Peterson says.
4. Make It Fun
Let’s face it —if kids think your programs are a drag, they won’t be back. And if you can’t get them in the door, you don’t have the chance to tell them about Jesus. Dannah Gresh, founder of Secret Keeper Girl, a ministry for preteen girls, says she always thinks of D.L. Moody in this context. Moody loved kids and would take a pony into the streets of Chicago and give rides, which ended at a church, where kids learned God’s Word.
“Moody was often criticized by the Christian community who thought he should be taking a Bible out into the streets,” Gresh says. “For teachers, we realize that the pony is part of it and is part of the experience. Scripture talks about the joy of God, and when we look at Jesus, and how he taught with parables and stories—he was fun!”
Gresh adds that the problem in many children’s ministries is that fun and teaching don’t seem to co-mingle. “Some are all a pony show, and some have the kids yawning and saying, ‘This is God?’ It’s a false dilemma to say it has to be one or the other. The problem comes when we divorce the two and think joy only comes from activities and not Scripture.”
Likewise, build in flexibility to your programs so kids like Michael who join groups midstream can still participate and feel welcomed into your children’s ministry family.
5. Let Kids Create the Experience
Having adults welcome children is certainly important, but it can mean even more to kids when other children reach out to them. “Sometimes kids are afraid of adults but will connect with another child their age,” says Hudson, whose program uses teams of child greeters who are outgoing and trained to speak with new children using the acronym FISH (family, interests, school, and heroes) as conversation prompts. “That greeter stays with the new child the entire service,” he says.
6. Accommodate Special Needs
Parents of children with special needs often wonder whether their children will fit into a church’s program and whether they’ll be accepted. “That’s why it’s so important to find out what each specific child needs,” says Courtney Smith, founder and director of Links of Love, a disability ministry at Family Worship Center in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. “Do they need someone with them the whole time? Or help getting into church? Do they have learning disabilities? A physical disability? We use a form that parents fill out, telling us what they need.”
After they learn each child’s needs, Courtney Smith’s team uses “Links,” volunteers who are trained to shadow that child and help as needed. “It may be possible that a child needs to be taken from the room so as not to disrupt others, but if possible we try to include, not exclude, and to find ways to incorporate all children into our program. After all, look at Jesus’ ministry—most of the people he ministered to had some kind of special need.”
7. Adjust to Kid’s Learning Styles
Some kids learn best by reading out loud. Others dread reading aloud because they don’t read well or they stutter. Some children learn best by seeing a picture. Others need to feel or touch. All children learn differently. Smith’s Links of Love ministry, which works with several autistic children, includes “sensory baskets,” where children who need to be in a quiet area can feel and touch things that are included in the lesson.
An attention span of about one minute per a child’s age is average, says Hudson. “We don’t have anything that lasts more than five to six minutes,” he says. “We’ll have a skit, and then a game, and then worship time, and then acting out the Bible story, and then maybe video clips. The goal is to reset kids’ internal clock about every five minutes.”
8.Get to Know Parents
No one knows their children better than the parents. When something’s going on at home that’s carrying over into your program, you need to know about it. “Your primary goal is to listen,” says Smith. “You’ll discover an incredible number of things about a child by listening to the parents.” Smith also makes a point to regularly ask children and their parents what they like about the program and what could improve. “By using a process of evaluating and enhancing, we can become better each day,” Smith says.
9. Introduce Other Church Staff to Kids
It doesn’t do any good to have fantastic programs only to find out that the children are scared to death of the custodian or the senior pastor. Get your entire church staff on your team. Invite them to come to classes and talk about what they do in the church and how they help kids. Bob Faulhaber, senior pastor of the Marlborough Congregational Church, puts a jar of jelly beans and M&M’s candies in his office to break the ice with kids.
“Oftentimes, kids can be a little afraid of pastors because they’re up front at a pulpit, and it can be intimidating,” Faulhaber says. “Just putting out candy really helped—now I have a parade of kids in and out!”
10. Bring Children to Big Church
Putting your kids in front of your congregation accomplishes three things in one fell swoop: it makes kids an integral part of your church’s life by not isolating them; it gets parents there to see their children; and it’s great public relations for the vibrancy of your programs. Have children read Scripture, sing, hear a children’s message, even step up to the pulpit—all these communicate that children are important. “Just having them present isn’t enough,” says Faulhaber. “Having them participate sends a signal to kids and adults that they’re an important part of the church.”
Giving kids the experience of a lifetime in your ministry starts with the small things on this list. Don’t be overwhelmed by the bigger picture; start small. “Many times we fail because we tackle something too broad and too great,” says Smith. “Sometimes taking the beginning baby steps is where we need to start.”
Valerie Van Kooten is a writer and serves in children’s ministry in Pella, Iowa.
This article “Experience of a Lifetime” by Valerie Van Kooten was excerpted from: Children’s Ministry magazine. March/April 2009. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
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.”