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Digital Family Ministry

It's a digital world we live in. Today's toddlers learn how to work an iPad before they can walk. They learn how to use a computer mouse before they can read. Sources estimate that 90 percent of today's kids ages 2 to 17 play electronic games. Digital content on mobile devices is simply what today's children know-because their parents use it. Families are comfortable and familiar with current technology. In today's world, technology has evolved from an interruption to an integration into our everyday lives. It's vital for those of us in ministry to leverage the power of technology that families are already using to help them move their faith from a weekly interruption to a daily integration as well.

Digital content can enhance kids' learning experience and make your ministry more relevant to people's lives. Fully 74 percent of educators say use of digital content increases their students' level of engagement, according to onlineschools.com. If this is true in the classroom, it can work at church and at home.
The key here is intentionality. It's essential to keep in mind that all digital and mobile content is for the purpose of creating, building, and enhancing offline communication and relationships. So be intentional about focusing your use of mobile and social technology toward that goal.

We've asked three children's ministers who've led the way in digital ministry to share their stories and strategies on how they tap into technology to minister to families.
-Matt McKee

Make Contacts and Find Volunteers

Jonathan Cliff Director of family
ministries for Athens Church in Athens, Georgia (athenschurch.com)

Technology is the perfect way to engage parents in new and fresh environments. It's an open door to families' living rooms…as well as their coffee shop pitstops, doctors' office waiting rooms, and the pick-up lines at school. Today's tech allows children's ministers the opportunity to engage parents wherever they are at any given moment in time.

Technology has made connecting easier on many levels-significantly in the anonymity it allows our parents. That's because the opportunities for parents to privately engage can become a distraction if we never work to engage parents more fully on a relational level. But when we do it well, technology opens the doors to so many other ways to connect.

One especially effective way we've engaged parents through technology is to make it easy for parents to know what's happening with their children each week. Physical take-home papers will always have a place in our churches, but technology allows these same resources to be e-mailed, text-messaged, and easily retrieved.

I always use a parental opt-in. Parents sign up for the technology option on their own accord. We may personally ask them, e-mail postcards with web links, and promote the sign-up-but it's each parent's responsibility to opt in. We think of this sign-up as a hoop we're asking parents to jump through to get the information they want from us-and then we know parents who are willing to engage with us on this level. We have our leaders-without them even knowing we've found them!

Using this opt-in list as my source, I have a built-in list of parents who've shown willingness to invest in their kids' church experience. This list of connected parents becomes my take-to-lunch crowd and my built-in focus group for feedback on new ideas. This opt-in option has allowed me to find the most engaged parents of all and strengthen my ties with them.

Tech Tools To Use

Heidi Hensley Director of children and family ministries for Quail Lakes Baptist Church in Stockton, California (heidimhensley.com)

Technology-is it ministry friend or foe? I believe if you seek some of today's technology with the knowledge that there's usually a free version of what you're looking for, you have a winning combination for preserving your ministry's time and money.
Most families are having life piped to them via some kind of electronic device. So how do I use technology to engage them for ministry?
Let's start at home. Parents can log in to our church website (qlbc.org), which is our center of information. Once on our site, they can view a calendar that has everything families need for our church. Our calendar lets people click to add items to their personal calendars using a free tool through Google called Google Calendar. My personal favorite perk is that it lets people share calendar items on Twitter or Facebook, which becomes an instant personal invitation.

Also on our site, families can find printable dinnertime devotions for families in a PDF format. This simple tool puts my families around one table having biblical conversation.

The other key tech items I use are KidCheck (kidcheck.com), which is our check-in system that also allows me to communicate with parents via text message as well as gives me any kind of report I could ever want-birthdays, attendance, you name it. Every Wednesday I use it to send out a group text message with the week's Scripture. Parents love the reminder and tell me it helps them work on the verse with their kids.

Another tool I love is the ParentLink Newsletter (theparentlink.com), an online newsletter with current reviews of apps, games, and all kinds of media for families. I can personalize it and send it out in any format. As leaders, this helps us keep up with trends.
This current generation has one of the largest percentages of people who've never been to church. Why not make your church more accessible to them by using technology they know to help them engage their families and put information at their fingertips to disciple their children?

Digital Communication

Kenny Conley NextGen pastor for Gateway Church in Austin, Texas (childrensministryonline.com)

ow relevant and accessible is your ministry to parents? If your primary methods to deliver content to parents is through postcards, notes, and fliers-well, you might just be behind the times.

Think about it for a second. Only a fraction of fliers we're sending home each week ever actually make it home. But most of your parents spend more than an hour a day on Facebook. So look at other forms of communication. Marketing experts say that if 20 percent of the mass emails they send are opened, that's success. On the other hand, people read more than 90 percent of text messages sent.
You decide. Is communicating shorter messages to 90 percent of your parents better than saying more on paper, but to fewer than 20 percent of your parents? It's time to retire the flier and take your ministry digital!

Most parents are going to visit your website long before they visit your church. Is all the information you'd want a parent to know about your church there? What about fresh content about events, curriculum, and relevant content parents want to know? The easiest way to deliver this kind of content is through a blog. Start one and connect it to the church's site so fresh content is highly accessible. One or two short posts per week is all it takes.

What about Facebook? Two or three times a week, just link a post from your blog to your ministry Facebook page and ask an engaging question. Spend a few minutes a day interacting with people on your page.

Lastly, use Twitter to connect to a large number of parents through text messaging. Once you set up an account, tell your parents to text "follow [your Twitter username]" to 40404. Their phone is now following your Twitter account, and every time you tweet something (such as a link to your blog or website content), they'll get that message on their phone. Be responsible or your parents won't be happy with you. Tweet strategically, and you'll reach far more parents than your fliers ever did.
Welcome to the 21st century-isn't it great?

Special Needs Ministry Goes Digital

Justin and Joni Tapp have a 4-year-old son named Elias. Elias is a high-functioning child with special needs who's very intelligent but has extreme difficulties in some social situations. Because of this, going to church can often be a challenge for this family. Elias doesn't do well in traditional formats where there's a teacher leading a small group of children and expecting interaction. He can't answer questions and is often intimidated when surrounded by strangers.

However, Elias loves media-video, music, computers, and especially the iPad. He learned to read at an early age by watching educational TV shows. His parents decided to take advantage of his love of multimedia and technology to teach him Scripture and faith lessons. He regularly watches faith-based kids' shows, which he loves and memorizes completely. He also memorizes the music he listens to, including praise and worship songs and hymns. His mom found a website (hubbardscupboard.org) where there are Scripture verses set to traditional tunes. Memorizing Scripture this way makes Elias feel successful.

Elias loves to play and read books on the iPad, so in addition to his other apps, his parents sometimes have him play games and read books that teach him Bible stories and faith lessons. They're confident-and delighted-that he's learning this way.
Another aspect of technology that helps this family is Skype, a video calling website (skype.com). Elias generally requires a lot of repeated contact with someone before he's comfortable speaking or playing with that person, and his family has discovered that regular Skype chats have been enough to keep him comfortable with his extended family. Since Skype is a technology he's already familiar with, one of the family's most successful visits to a new church occurred when the children's church used Skype to talk to a missionary family-Elias loved it.

When it comes to a children's ministry being able to reach children like Elias and his family, technology and digital content are a sometimes-overlooked gold mine. Elias' special needs cause him to be much more comfortable with technology than with unfamiliar people, and he learns better using media formats as well. For this family to keep coming back to church, there has to be an environment where their son can feel comfortable and safe, and technology enables that. This family has done the legwork to find their own digital and mobile resources, but they admit it would be a dream come true for them to find a children's ministry that provided them with this content and worked collaboratively to reach their son in the way that works best for him.

Matt McKee, formerly a next generation pastor for 10 years, now leads ROAR (roar.pro), a company focused on mobile apps and social media for churches and nonprofits. He also oversees YouLead, a leadership curriculum.

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