Drop Off or Drop Out?

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It was 9:30 on Sunday morning, and Tanya stood outside the
church building — left in the dust of her mom’s four-door
Plymouth. It was her first time to be a drop-off kid; she wasn’t
sure what to do.

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Inside the looming church door, Tanya saw a platter of
chocolate-covered doughnuts. The ones with nuts caught her eye. She
sneaked in the door behind an elderly couple who moved very slowly.
Sheepishly, Tanya moved toward the table and grabbed two doughnuts.
An older lady barked at her, “The children’s class is down the hall
on the left!”

Tanya stuffed one of the doughnuts in her mouth, trailing nuts
and crumbs as she walked down the hall toward the room. The class
had already started, and as she opened the door every eye was on
her — 10 kids and one teacher. She quickly sat in the only empty
chair.

The other kids looked kind of strange to Tanya, and it was
obvious that the teacher was irritated that she was late. When the
teacher talked about some kind of a contest, Tanya thought it was
safe to eat the other doughnut. She was famished.

“We do not eat in this classroom!” the teacher reprimanded. The
kids surrounding her giggled sheepishly, and Tanya kept her head
down for the rest of the class. The teacher talked about a mean
fish that ate people and spit them out on dry land. It was really
weird. She even made everyone in the class color a picture of the
dumb fish. As soon as Tanya heard the bell, she ran outside as fast
as she could.

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The street never looked so good. Tanya never wanted to go
back!

What do you do about drop-off kids — those kids whose parents
drop them off and leave them to fend for themselves in your foreign
culture? Drop-off kids don’t know your church’s language, customs,
accepted behaviors, values, or unwritten codes.

For the last five years, my wife and I have been reaching out to
the kids in our downtown neighborhood and trying to get them into
local churches. We lead the Huntington Kids Club — an outreach to
about 70 unchurched kids each week. Our goal is to build
relationships between the leaders and the kids in an exciting club
environment and to eventually guide the kids and their parents into
the fellowship of a local church. Each of the 30 club leaders or
“buddies” spends time with kids outside of club and strives to
encourage them and their parents to become a part of a local
church. We’re learning both the joys and challenges of getting
unchurched kids to feel comfortable in the various churches in our
community.

We’ve identified seven ways to help drop-off kids feel welcome
in church.

1. Pair each drop-off child with a mentor
family.
One of the best ways to ensure that each drop-off
child is meaningfully connected at your church is to assign each
child an entire family as a mentor. The role of the mentors, or
buddies as I prefer to call them, is to get to know the child and
the parents and to help them understand what it means to be a
follower of Jesus and part of a local church. Other possible
responsibilities of the mentor family:

  • Pick up the child for church.
  • Introduce the child to various people in your church.
  • Explain and interpret the unique customs and traditions of your
    church.
  • Listen to the child’s feedback about experiences at
    church.
  • Sit with the child during the church service.

2. Build relationships outside your church. For
drop-off kids to feel connected to your church, they must have a
close relational connection with at least one other person. While
most churched kids get this relational connection through their
parents and friends, drop-off kids must usually depend on more
formal relationships in the church, such as those with teachers or
program leaders. As busy as teachers and leaders are, it’s often
difficult for them to become a “big brother” or “parent figure” to
everyone under their care. For this reason, it’s imperative for
churches to mobilize as many people in the church as possible to
mentor and follow up with each drop-off child. As mentor families,
they need to plan regular times with their kids doing fun and
wholesome activities. Ideally, mentors should stick with their kids
through the teen years. Things mentors can do with kids outside the
church:

  • Visit kids during lunch at school.
  • Plan a special event once a month.
  • Invite kids home for a meal.
  • Attend kids’ concerts, games, or practices.
  • Go to a fast-food restaurant together.
  • Play sports together.
  • Take them with you on a family vacation or camping trip.
  • Do special things with them on birthdays and holidays.

3. Make learning personal, interactive, and
applicable.
While churched kids may put up with a more
passive learning environment, unchurched kids must especially be
personally engaged in learning if they’re to get anything out of a
teaching experience. Sometimes our tendency is to be more directive
and preachy with kids who have little or no biblical knowledge. We
erroneously think we need to get as much biblical knowledge into
their heads as possible and as quickly as we can. Nothing could be
further from the truth. Take even more time with unchurched kids to
prepare their hearts to learn and to make their learning personal,
interactive, and applicable. Helpful learning approaches:

  • Start lessons by asking pertinent questions to get the kids to
    share their life experiences related to the lesson theme.
  • Listen more than you talk as a teacher.
  • Keep kids active in the lesson — discovering, sharing,
    building, exploring, designing, planning, questioning,
    problem-solving, examining, and creating.
  • Teach kids to listen to and interact with one another
    respectfully.
  • Challenge kids to come up with applications based on what
    they’ve learned from Scripture.
  • Hold kids accountable to put their specific goals into practice
    during the week.

4. Start with kids’ experience — not yours.
There’s a tendency among those of us “in the know” about Christian
things to think those outside the church are “dumb” spirit­ually.
Once again, nothing could be further from the truth. Unchurched
people sometimes have a much more accurate perception of spiritual
issues than those who’ve grown up in the church. In fact,
unchurched kids may have a fresher and more honest understanding of
spiritual issues than churched kids. They just need to be given a
chance to share their ideas and perceptions in a nonthreatening
environment. The best way to get kids to share their insights is to
ask questions in nontheological language related to their needs,
questions, and perceptions. Some conversation starters that could
be useful to get drop-off kids talking about spiritual things:

  • What do you think God looks like?
  • What do you think of our church?
  • When was a time in your life you were really scared?
  • What do you think about God sending his Son to die on the
    cross?
  • If people were left on their own without God, do you think
    they’d get better or worse?
  • Why do you think people fight so much?

5. Train kids and adults in your church to reach out to
guests.
If drop-off kids and their families are going to
feel like a part of your church, your entire church will have to be
mobilized to reach out to them socially. The follow-up of
unchurched kids cannot be left entirely to the designated mentors.
It must become everyone’s passion. Yet while many church members
talk as if they want to reach people outside their church, very few
actually desire to get close to people from a different background.
Most church people, including ­children, tend to come to church to
hang out primarily with their friends. If this dynamic isn’t
changed, it can be very difficult for unchurched kids and adults to
feel as if they’re truly a part of the church “family.” Ways to
train your people to reach out to newcomers:

  • Preach a sermon series on reaching out to newcomers.
  • Offer training classes with practical, experiential learn­ing
    activities.
  • Design strategies within each program, Sunday school class,
    service, and activity in the church to mobilize people to get to
    know new people.
  • Design attractive intergenerational social experiences in your
    church.

6. Use wisdom in discipline. Most discipline
problems with drop-off kids come from the fact that the kids are
entering a very different environment with unknown norms and
expectations. If they’re to succeed in your church environment,
they must learn and respect the church rules, procedures,
leadership structure, and expectations. These are learned best
within a relationship with a trusted mentor or friend. Some wise
principles of discipline:

  • Set and explain clear behavioral expectations.
  • Keep the rules simple and few.
  • Don’t humiliate or punish kids for acting “normal” in a
    “strange” environment.
  • Use direct eye contact for praise and correction.
  • Be firm when intentionally challenged.
  • Never ridicule or use sarcasm.
  • Don’t let large groups of unchurched kids sit together
    unsupervised.

7. Get to know drop-off kids’ parents. If we’re
to have a long-term influence in the lives of unchurched kids, we
must reach their parents and extended families. For this to happen,
church people must get closer to the drop-off kids’ parents.
Suggestions to reach out to parents of unchurched kids:

  • Greet parents when they drop off and pick up kids.
  • Have mentor families invite the parents to go to church or come
    over for a meal.
  • Mentor families can sit with parents when they visit their
    child’s activity or concert.

So how can you deal with drop-off parents? Instead of resenting
their absence, receive the gift of their children. These kids may
be the next Billy Graham waiting to be groomed in your church’s
love and nurture. Or they may be an opening door into the hearts
and lives of their families. Follow these guidelines to welcome
drop-off kids, and you’ll echo Jesus’ joyful cry to “let the
children come” — whether by bus, by foot, by family car, or by a
drop off at the curb.

Gary Newton is a professor of educational ministries in
Huntington, Indiana
.


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