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A Church Made for Kids

Julianne Winkler Smith

Kids just want to have fun. They want to move their bodies -- they want to create things -- they want to play games. And they want to, well, eat. A lot! To every parent and teacher of children, this information is old hat for sure. But we can't forget that while these kids are busy having all that fun, there's a tremendous opportunity for them to learn about themselves, others, life, and God.

Now that reminder call has to reach children's ministry leaders around the nation: "Church" and "Fun" must be synonymous! And that's just what a focus group of kids told Children's Ministry Magazine when we gave them the opportunity to tell us what they want from church. What do they like and dislike? What keeps them coming back? And most importantly, we wanted to determine what would make them tell their unchurched friends, "I love my church! It's so fun! You oughta come with me some time!"

Keep It Coming

After multiple slices of pizza, countless sugar cookies, and a river of juice boxes, our group of 6- to 11-year-olds held back nothing while explaining what makes church enjoyable (and, although they didn't come right out and say so, educational) for them.

When asked what they like and what they want more of at church, these kids had a lot of unanimous input. Even though their respective ages had a five-year span, the key elements that kept them happy and coming back didn't differ much. (This is great news for program developers! The main facets of programming can be the same through the ages, just modify the theme's simplicity/complexity.) The "more of" could be boiled down to the following four categories.

Activities top the priority list. Now, with this one, you're probably grinning with pride and recognition, pulling out your "1,001 Bible Crafts" manual. But before you get too excited, we're talking active activities here. Although some small-motor skills crafts are greatly appreciated (and what kid doesn't love to come home with a colorful bracelet or bookmark?), there's much more to consider. Running, jumping, climbing... big movement stuff. And what's even better than running, jumping, and climbing? Games and skits that incorporate all that running, jumping, and climbing, of course!

Music makes kids' hearts sing... but put away the hymnals. Kids want a fast, hip beat; repetitive lyrics (for easy learning); and a little action. When they're moving their mouths to the music­ -- and their arms and legs to solidify the song's meaning, kids are in heaven. (And the angels may just have to put down their harps to move along with all these new praise action-songs!)

The Great Outdoors beckons. Being outside brought a loud, undisputed cheer from our group. Whenever possible, kids want to experience the awesome world that God made while they're talking and learning about its Maker. Being outside not only provides them with new scenery and fresh air, but different outdoor environments can lend great opportunities to use God's natural wonders as learning tools.

Food opens kids' mouths and minds. Kids love food at church. They especially love candy, popcorn, cookies, cupcakes, and everything sweet, tasty, and unhealthy. Kids like food and want second and third helpings of it. And food can even drive home spiritual truths when done right. Move from crackers and Kool-Aid to snacks that make a significant point about your lesson. Ever thought of burnt offerings in snack form or angel cakes to make a point?

Think Again

So what are kids getting at church that they really don't want? What provides fodder for that dreaded announcement, "I hate church; it's so boring! Do I have to go back?" We asked our focus group about this, and they had plenty to say.

• Kids don't want to sit through Big Church. Nothing will more quickly elicit an "I'm bored!" than an hour or two of sitting in pews with all the grown-ups. When they're older, say 12 and up, kids are much more likely to have the patience and attention span to sit through prayers and sermons (not to mention the ability to get something out of the week's message).

Another facet of Big Church that brought a resounding "Yikes!" to the group was the practice some churches have of calling all the kids to the front of the congregation for a "children's message." Nothing will more quickly clamp shut the mouth of a child (or an adult for that matter) than putting him or her in front of a large crowd. (A note to parents: Take this input to heart. If your church provides a class for your child's age, remember that your child will ultimately prefer to be there -- even if there's an initial separation battle.)

• Sitting still and quietly in classes ranks high on the "dislike" list. Having to sit and listen to audiotape stories or lessons brought an almost painful expression on the kids' faces. For the older ones (ages 6 through 10), even sitting through videotapes was unpopular. Finally, the group asked for no more "boring" games -- ones with no bodily motion or too slow a pace.

• "Reading out of the confusing Bible" is no fun. This was a response that got plenty of nods throughout the group. Leaders need to stick to Bible stories and verses that have been modified for kid-level understanding...then do the reading themselves! Even better, let the kids act out the story (there's that movement/activity again). Most importantly, age-appropriate application is crucial to the kids actually taking home the Bible lesson. Determine what the respective ages are dealing with in their day-to-day lives, and reveal how the lesson can help them once they walk out of the classroom.

• Saying "goodbye" to a cool teacher is uncool. Along the lines of asking what kids don't like, we asked them what about church makes them sad or angry. This subject provided the most universal feedback of all: "I don't like when a cool teacher leaves." The kids love, want, and need consistency from their teachers and leaders. They greatly appreciate and applaud the time, energy, and enthusiasm teachers put into the class... even though they may never come out and say so directly. Additionally, the kids are frustrated when teachers don't do what they say they're going to do. For example, if a leader says, "Next week we're going to do a scavenger hunt!" Then, by all means, next week do the scavenger hunt.

Building a Dream Church

Building committees often begin their vision for a new church with a dream. They verbally and visually sketch out what their ideal building would look like, complete with every bell and whistle. They say, "If money were no object, this is what we'd want..." Then after adding a dash of actuality, plus the reality of budget constraints, they ultimately decide on the real details of the new structure. In some cases, a few of those dream components even come to fruition. This process of dream-big-to-filter-out-what's-really-important actually works quite well. And it's not just for church building committees; it happens on a daily basis within organizations of every kind.

So we gave it a shot too. We gave each of our focus- group members a big sheet of white paper, magic markers of every color, more cookies and juice, and then asked them this one question: "If you could create your dream church -- the best church ever -- what would that be like?" And 15 minutes later, the kids managed to collectively design the ultimate in children's church programming. So all you children's ministry leaders, listen up! If you want kids to get excited and stay excited about church, if you want to teach them about Jesus in ways they'll not only remember but also be inspired to tell their friends about, if you want your program to be fun, then take some cues from our children's ministry design team.

  • "Church would have lots of outdoor activities. And I would be a teacher." -- Brianna B., age 7
  • "My ideal church has food -- and lots of it! We'd watch Bible movies with lots of popcorn and candy -- just like at a movie theater." -- Trevor G., age 11
  • "Kids would have their very own church building, with many different playrooms. And cakes would be baking! There would be big trees outside to play in and on." -- Brittney G., age 7
  • "Learning Bible stories would involve playing sports. We would have lots of show-and-share times." -- David S., age 8
  • "Kids get to be outside and explore and play lots of games. Kids get to do more crafts and listen to fast music. And we'd get to bring our pets to class." -- Cassidy W., age 9
  • "We would play games, we would eat food, and we would do lots of crafts." -- Jonathan S., age 8
  • "There would be lots of outdoor activities, like scavenger hunts. We'd play lots of games and sports. We'd do lots of skits and sing only upbeat songs. We'd also do lots of crafts and watch some movies. And we'd only say short prayers!" -- Karina S., age 10
  • "Church would be held outdoors with the birds and clouds...and a ladder to climb on whenever we wanted." -- Dean W., age 6
  • "Church would be inside a tree, carved out of the trunk -- not inside a boring building." -- Bret G., age 11

Ideal to Real

Filter out a few "must-haves" based on the input and dreams of our focus group kids.

  • Go outside and play as much as possible.
  • Get kids' bodies moving to keep their minds lively.
  • Sing hip, fast songs that are easy to learn -- and add movements whenever you can.
  • Let kids create, act, and lead. They really want to help construct the lesson with you.
  • Feed them. Then feed them some more.

Whatever your church's children's ministry may be doing -- or not doing now -- try to incorporate more of what kids want...and perhaps a little less of what you think they want. This way, with confidence you can ask any child at your church, "What do you think of church?" Then you can watch their bright eyes go wide and a joyful smile erupt as you hear, "My church is SO FUN!"


Julianne Winkler Smith is a freelance writer in Loveland, Colorado. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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