By Debra Vos
When I was young, my dad thought fishing was a must-learn skill. He’d lived through the Depression and believed strongly that fishing was a skill all eight of his kids should master-just in case we ever fell on hard times. And despite the fact that for supper we all preferred Mom’s fish sticks baked straight from the box, we did eventually learn to fish pretty well.
Similarly, many churches and children’s ministries have also learned to fish well. It takes knowledge, understanding, the proper techniques and tools, and enduring motivation when the fish aren’t biting. We in children’s ministry passionately seek to be “fishers of men, women, and children.” As a children’s minister, knowing how to fish well is much more than something to fall back on during hard times; it’s a crucial aspect of your ministry.
Special events are wonderful, effective “bait”. They draw your community’s interest and attract people to what your church has to offer – Jesus. But if you’ve ever lost sleep worrying how to bring new kids and families into your ministry after the event, you’re not alone. That’s because even after you’ve successfully managed to attract a child or family to a special event, your real work is just beginning. You have the bigger question to tackle: How do you turn them into regulars in your ministry?
What works? Grab your rod and tackle box-let’s find a nice, sunny bank and learn what it takes to become an effective fisher in children’s ministry.
Communicate And Stay Visible
Is your ministry visible in your community? Is your information updated, professional, and accessible for people ho want to learn more? Do you communicate what your ministry is doing-inside and outside your church-well and often? Make your ministry known in your community for its dedication to kids and families through concrete actions and excellent communication.
Tackle Box: Visibility And Communication
* Presence-Never miss an opportunity to set up information booths at community and church functions.
* Updates-Keep your Web sites, brochures, and bulletin boards up to date.
* Media-Take advantage of free local community news updates.
* Contact-Include your ministry name, phone number, and Web site on everything you hand out, including give-a-ways such as pencils, pens, and treats.
* Accessibility-Host events that bring the community into your ministry space-this lets your show it off and gives you the opportunity to treat community members as your treasure guests.
* Mail-Kids love getting mail. Cards, birthday greetings, invitations to church, or email messages all make kids feel special.
* Parents-Contact parents. A phone call, email, or direct mail will remind them of your ministry and show them you care about their children.
* Programs-highlight what your ministry offers. Send families information about other entry points or services at your church-MOPS, sports camps, divorce care, seminars, special needs programs, food pantry, and your regular services.
* Invitations-Continually encourage your regulars to invite their friends to your programs and services.
* Touches-A good rule of thumb is to “touch” families seven times, or to find seven ways to communicate and invite them into your ministry following their initial visit.
Publicize The Benefits
Recently my church sent out a community mailer invitation to check out your church. To encourage parents to bring their children to our children’s ministry, I wrote an article pointing out the benefits of our ministry, highlighting our commitment to partnering with parents and to growing their children into loving, caring people. Even parents disinterested in God and church typically recognize these universal values for their children. As a result of the mailer and article, we had many families accept our invitation to visit on behalf of their children.
Ask yourself why kids and families would choose to add your ministry to their already packed calendars. Then communicate clearly to parents what their children will learn and how it’ll impact them.
Pray With And For Your Guests
Suncrest Church in St. John, Indiana, offers a regular prayer update for church members and guests through its Web site. Regulars, children, and guests can share their requests and report updates by submitting them online. Everyone who opts in gets an e-update with the latest prayer news and requests. It’s also proven a great access point for parents and kids who’ve attended a special event.
“Asking parents if they’d like to be added to our e-updates opens the door for some great conversations,” says Sue Hertzfeldt, the children’s ministry director who manages Suncrest’s prayer program.
Recruit A Follow-up Team
Sometimes children’s ministers invest all their energy and volunteers into making sure the special event is perfect-and then they’re too exhausted to take on the follow-up. Before any special event, recruit a follow-up team to take over after the event. This team of fresh volunteers brings new energy and dedication to connecting with kids. Plus, it allows families and kids to experience yet another positive aspect of your ministry-kind and approachable people serving as supports for your ministry. Remember, if the same team responsible for the event is also in charge of follow-up, exhaustion can set in. Scale back. Pass the fishing rod to a refreshed, enthusiastic fisher.
Tackle Box: Follow Up
* Survey-Call and survey families about their experience at your event. They’ll give input on how your event and ministry team served them-and they’ll feel valued.
* Updates-Ask parents for permission to add them to your mailing and email lists for updates and ministry information.
* Mail-Send a packet of information about your ministry, special events, and programs along with a handwritten invitation to attend.
* Returns-Track kids’ and families’ guest attendance, and follow up at regular intervals.
Hook Parents And Kids By Giving them Good Reasons To Stay
Part of effective fishing in ministry is dangling compelling reasons to return. That means your promote what’s big, what’s next, and what’s unique. Create a “Whatever you do, don’t miss what happens next week” atmosphere.
Prepare Ahead To Make A Good Impression
When families take the step from visiting for special events to actually attending a service, they’ll very quickly decide whether to come back. So be a good host! Don’t announce from the pulpit that a cry room is available when it’s actually locked and the lights are out. Do a walk-through from a guest’s perspective. Is it clear where to go? Are your safety precautions up to standards? What would you think-honestly-if you were a first-time guest?
Tackle Box: First Impressions
* Peers-Provide child greeters as well as adult greeters. Children enjoy being warmly greeted by their peers.
* Information-Assign knowledgeable volunteers to give tours, answer questions, give directions, explain security procedures, and provide refreshments and information packets to new parents.
* Welcome-New children love getting a special treat as a welcome gift. We let kids select a gift from a basket, which also holds the registration cards. We ask parents to fill out a card and tell them we’ll mail them an information packet and CD for their child when they return it.
* Gift-Some churches provide a gift bag for parents as well. With one of these gift bags in hand, your other congregation members can recognize new visitors and welcome them.
* Recognition-Get down and speak directly to children at their level the first time you meet them. This demonstrates to parents that your church is a place where children are valued and welcomed.
Help Families Reclaim Family Time
Families know that spending time together creates a sense of security and strengthens their bonds. Sponsor family night to provide opportunities to strengthen, honor, and encourage families in your church or community. As new families meet your other families, connections grow.
Tackle Box: Family Time
* Games-Host game nights with refreshments.
* Service-Provide opportunities for families to do service projects together.
* Fun-Host a family fun event. Community Bible Church in Cedar Lake, Indiana, hosts what’s become a favorite community event in a local park each summer-Family Flicks and Franks. This free event lets families watch a family friendly movie on big outdoor screen while the church serves hot dogs. “This event is our gift to families in the community,” says the children’s director Sue Wells, “and it reminds the community that we’re here.”
Help Kids Build Meaningful Relationships
I can’t emphasize this point enough: Relationships are the key to retention. Children need to have friends in your ministry if they’re going to get and stay involved. They also need to connect with their adult leaders as they grow into their relationship with Jesus. A major filter in all your ministry endeavors should be relationships, relationships, relationships!
Tackle Box: Relationships
* Names-Get to know kids by name. Play name games to encourage kids to learn each other’s names.
* Play-Dates-Tap your top parents to reach out to new parents by inviting their children over for pay-dates.
* Buddies-Assign peer buddies for new children. A buddy’s purpose is t guide new kids through your ministry while getting to know them. It’s a new environment. Match children with common interests, schools, or situations.
* Friends-Kids feel safety in numbers, so encourage them to bring their friends from outside your church.
* Extensions-Provide fun connection activities outside of your ministry that let new kids link with regulars to socialize and have fun. For example, a group of suburban churches plans an annual overnighter for their combined groups of fourth- and fifth-graders. By planning it together and pooling their resources, they do it up big. They encourage kids to invite friends, making follow-up much easier. Because the new kids have already had an awesome experience and already have friends who attend, they’re more apt to try the children’s ministry after an invitation.
Make Kids Feel Special
“In my experience, many special event attenders attend simply because the event is special and makes them in turn feel special,” says Sheila Halasz, a children’s ministry expert and writer. When children feel special, they’ll keep coming back.
When a regular Sunday allows kids to still feel special and loved,” says Halasz, “kids are happy to come to not only the big events but also the smaller everyday events. When we have a larger event, we always take pictures. I email kids their pictures the next day with a special note thanking them for attending and inviting them to the next regular event.”
Take notice of kids. Learn who they are. Be generous with your time, and encourage your team to do the same. Personal contact and invitations are essential connection points.
Give Kids A Taste Of Jesus
Rhonda Haslett of Lakeview Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, challenges children’s ministers to mingle with kids and listen to their ideas-while acting as an extension of Jesus.
“Be Jesus with skin on,” advises Haslett. “Even at fun events, kids notice real people having a real life with God.”
This article “Gone Fishing” by Debra Vos is excerpted from Children’s Ministry Magazine, March/April 2008.