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Big Thinking in a Small Church Children’s Ministry

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How to beat the “giants” that stalk a small church children’s ministry

Imposing. Monstrous. Unbeatable.

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Such are the “giants” that stalk a small church. If left to roam, they can erode our confidence, steal our joy, and squelch our mission. Nearly every children’s ministry faces tough odds, but small churches are more tender when attacked.

Yet difficulties need not pummel a small church. Rather, think big! Where problems dwell, build possibilities. And where obstacles stand, seek opportunities!

Successful children’s ministry in small congregations is rooted in our mind-set-in seeking positive solutions to imposing problems. Consider the following “Goliaths”…and dare to be a David!

THE POCKETBOOK BLUES

Smaller churches are notorious for tight budgets. And, in children’s ministry, that means walking away from some great (and costly) programming. If dollar-stretching were an Olympic event, many a small church would mine gold.

The answer is to be creative. I once planned a “Little Rascals” film festival (featuring over five films) and paid less than a buck to my local library! In fact, dozens of inexpensive resources abound within communities, including low- to no-cost goods from fast-food restaurants, Christian bookstores, and entertainment outlets.

And don’t forget the resources within your church! Big back yards. VCRs. Animal farms. Vans. And computers. We once threw a free “burger bash” compliments of a deacon who owned the restaurant.

A FEW GOOD PEOPLE

Most small churches suffer from volunteer shortage. Our problem is that we often overlook potential volunteers. The church leaders in one small Montana church had exhausted all efforts to find a volunteer for five kids. On the edge of shutting down the program, they discovered a 70-year-old gem. She was hardly “hip” in youth culture. She had no curriculum and knew nothing about programming frills. She just loved kids. Five years later, she’s still loving them-all 30 of them!

Children’s ministry volunteers can be anybody-parents, senior citizens, singles, and even teenagers.

WHERE IS EVERYBODY?

Ever planned the “greatest event that nobody came to”? Remember the frustration? the anger? Low turnout occurs in every program-no matter the size. But what’s a headache for large churches is a migraine for small churches.

Be careful how you react to low attendance. If you ask, “Where’s Julie?” or “What happened to Miguel?” you’re asking the wrong crowd and sending a dangerous message.

Instead of investigating who’s not there (and why), celebrate those who are there! After all, continual absentee inquisitions will only suggest to children that they matter more when they’re absent!

It’s better to be prepared. Low turnouts are inevitable, so have a backup plan. Go for pizza. Play in a park. See a movie. Celebrate kids’ presence, rather than sending them home.

Here’s the bottom line: Don’t count kids; make kids count!

NO TIME!

Smaller churches have an inbred dilemma-far more jobs than people. So the few tend to wear multiple hats. Teaching the fourth-graders. Sweeping the sanctuary. Mailing the newsletter. Driving the church van. No one specializes in a small church because there’s too much to do.

Smaller churches can better prepare people for ministry by creating job descriptions for children’s workers. List the responsibilities. Implement short-term, definitive commitments rather than open-ended, “until you die” responsibilities.

Finally, reward volunteers. Honor children’s workers in church services. Create a Children’s Worker of the Month program. Affirm volunteers with personal letters, phone calls, and visits.

If you pat a back, they’ll be back.

SPACE: THE FINAL FRONTIER

Space is a huge obstacle in children’s programming-in any size church. Unfortunately, that’s because most churches are built for adults, not kids. Classrooms are constructed for table discussions, not active-learning experiences. And fellowship areas are made for coffee, not kickball.

In a decade of children’s ministry, I’ve seen small churches put kids in every conceivable space. The church kitchen. Back-room closets. Attics. Furthermore, I’ve held children’s meetings in a variety of places-from baptistry dressing rooms to renovated mobile homes.

Of course, few were satisfactory. But none were beyond hope. The secret is to let the kids “own” their room. Allow them to decorate it. Paint it. Clean it. Stock it. If it’s theirs, they’ll meet anywhere, including the preacher’s office!

Now, there’s an idea.

THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER

Contentment is hard in small-church ministry. It’s difficult to feel satisfied. Especially if you’ve got the First Church of Effective Children’s Ministry two doors down, bulging with ideas, money, and kids. Against the blade of “success,” failure can cut deep.

But numbers are relative. Success is not in numbers as much as it is in ministry. If changed lives are produced, it won’t matter whether it’s five or 50.

One issue for smaller churches is crucial: Stop seeking success for success’s sake! Desiring to be a Wal-Mart is fine, but few corner shops ever see 25 aisles of merchandising. It’s far better to succeed in a few things than ultimately fail in many. Specializing is the answer. Give your program a unique signature. Develop a top-rate children’s church, a quality after-school program, or a ministry to children from broken homes.

Success isn’t pulling off “blue-light” specials. Success is having repeat customers. Again, and again, and again.

Nobody said children’s ministry in a small church would be easy. But nobody told David he had Goliath’s number either. Big jobs mean hard choices. Tough situations require determined people. “Giants” will always roam a children’s ministry. And they’ll continue to taunt, trick, and test our resolve. But giving in will never produce success.

So face the giants…and dare to sling the stone!


Rick Chromey is the co-author of Thriving Youth Ministry in Small Churches (Group Publishing.) and Energizing Children’s Ministry in the Smaller Church (Standard Publishing). Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

Big Thinking in a Small Church Children’s Ministry
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4 Comments

  1. I agree about being positive, rejoicing in the few, etc.; but are there any ideas out there that might address 1-5 children in a given Sunday School class? Ages Kind-Junior…..When a teacher can’t show up and there is one child, is there something special that can be done for that one? Your experience and ideas?

    • Christine Yount Jones
      Christine Yount Jones on

      Delma,
      We’d recommend taking the child into another class and doing mixed ages. We really like these books for mixed ages: Character by God’s Design, All Together Now, All in One Sunday School, and The Travel Guide series (all at group.com). But if you’re saying there’s only ONE child at church that day, that is a perplexing challenge. We once had a “lab” for kids who needed to stay for a second service and didn’t want to have the same lesson. We provided things they could listen to, watch, read, play with on their own for that time. We wanted them to have a faith-nurturing and enjoyable experience at church. Does this help at all?

  2. I became the Children’s director of my church eight months ago. During the school year we’ve had everywhere from 12-27 kids, but the day summer vacation started our highest number on a Sunday morning became 8, and today we only had two elementary kids at church. It feels heartbreaking. Most of our kids don’t belong to families at our church, they come on the church bus and their parents aren’t church goers. Most of these families are poor and they move around a lot, their phone numbers change every month, and they don’t use computers, so it’s impossible to reach out to them unless I go to their homes, which I’ve done but it doesn’t seem to get them back to church. I know it’s not about numbers but I feel sad for the two kids that do come when the games I had planned don’t work for two kids, no one feels comfortable worshipping when their own voice is so clearly heard, and church just doesn’t feel as fun without a bunch of new friends to make. It’s especially frustrating because last week we had over 40 kids at VBS, and only 2 of them came back for church on Sunday? I’m sad for the day no kids will show up for church and I’m afraid I’m doing something wrong. To clarify on the numbers, that’s two total kids. One was in 1st grade and the other 4th so they went to separate Sunday schools and then had large group together which I lead.

    • Christine Yount Jones
      Christine Yount Jones on

      Kaitlyn, I hear your discouragement! And I’m sorry! I was one of the kids you talk about that shows up sporadically and from an unchurched family. I lived in a town of 300 and went to a tiny church in town–when I did go. And when I did go, I was always loved and accepted and taught. The things God taught me didn’t complete bloom in my life until I was 19. But, oh did God get a hold of my life then! Please be encouraged! You’re making a difference with the two regulars–who see and hear your heart for them and other kids. You’re making a difference in the lives of kids who show up sporadically. And please be encouraged that most churches (my current church also) see a drastic decline in attendance over the summer. Maybe you could start planning games/activities for two instead of 8. It’s easier to make a game work with a bigger group than the other way around. Hang in there, Kaitlyn! Blessings!

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