Experience of a Lifetime

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[4] Make it fun. Let’s face it — if kids think
your programs are a drag, they won’t be back. And if you can’t get
them in the door, you don’t have the chance to tell them about
Jesus. Dannah Gresh, founder of Secret Keeper Girl, a ministry for
preteen girls, says she always thinks of D.L. Moody in this
context. Moody loved kids and would take a pony into the streets of
Chicago and give rides, which ended at a church, where kids learned
God’s Word.

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“Moody was often criticized by the Christian community who thought
he should be taking a Bible out into the streets,” Gresh says. “For
teachers, we realize that the pony is part of it and is part of the
experience. Scripture talks about the joy of God, and when we look
at Jesus, and how he taught with parables and stories — he was
fun!”

Gresh adds that the problem in many children’s ministries is that
fun and teaching don’t seem to co-mingle. “Some are all a pony
show, and some have the kids yawning and saying, ‘This is God?’
It’s a false dilemma to say it has to be one or the other. The
problem comes when we divorce the two and think joy only comes from
activities and not Scripture.”

Likewise, build in flexibility to your programs so kids like
Michael who join groups midstream can still participate and feel
welcomed into your children’s ministry family.

[5] Let kids create the experience. Having adults
welcome children is certainly important, but it can mean even more
to kids when other children reach out to them.

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“Sometimes kids are afraid of adults but will connect with another
child their age,” says Hudson, whose program uses teams of child
greeters who are outgoing and trained to speak with new children
using the acronym FISH (family, interests, school, and heroes) as
conversation prompts. “That greeter stays with the new child the
entire service,” he says.

[6] Accommodate special needs. Parents of
children with special needs often wonder whether their children
will fit into a church’s program and whether they’ll be
accepted.

“That’s why it’s so important to find out what each specific child
needs,” says Courtney Smith, founder and director of Links of Love,
a disability ministry at Family Worship Center in Lansdale,
Pennsylvania. “Do they need someone with them the whole time? Or
help getting into church? Do they have learning disabilities? a
physical disability? We use a form that parents fill out, telling
us what they need.”

After they learn each child’s needs, Courtney Smith’s team uses
“Links,” volunteers who are trained to shadow that child and help
as needed. “It may be possible that a child needs to be taken from
the room so as not to disrupt others, but if possible we try to
include, not exclude, and to find ways to incorporate all children
into our program. After all, look at Jesus’ ministry-most of the
people he ministered to had some kind of special need.”

[7] Adjust to kids’ learning styles. Some kids
learn best by reading out loud. Others dread reading aloud because
they don’t read well or they stutter. Some children learn best by
seeing a picture. Others need to feel or touch. All children learn
differently. Smith’s Links of Love ministry, which works with
several autistic children, includes “sensory baskets,” where
children who need to be in a quiet area can feel and touch things
that are included in the lesson.

An attention span of about one minute per a child’s age is
average, says Hudson. “We don’t have anything that lasts more than
five to six minutes,” he says. “We’ll have a skit, and then a game,
and then worship time, and then acting out the Bible story, and
then maybe video clips. The goal is to reset kids’ internal clock
about every five minutes.”

[8] Get to know parents. No one knows their
children better than the parents. When something’s going on at home
that’s carrying over into your program, you need to know about
it.

“Your primary goal is to listen,” says Smith. “You’ll discover an
incredible number of things about a child by listening to the
parents.” Smith also makes a point to regularly ask children and
their parents what they like about the program and what could
improve. “By using a process of evaluating and enhancing, we can
become better each day,” Smith says.

[9] Introduce other church staff to kids. It
doesn’t do any good to have fantastic programs only to find out
that the children are scared to death of the custodian or the
senior pastor. Get your entire church staff on your team. Invite
them to come to classes and talk about what they do in the church
and how they help kids. Bob Faulhaber, senior pastor of the
Marlborough Congregational Church, puts a jar of jelly beans and
M&M’s candies in his office to break the ice with kids.

“Oftentimes, kids can be a little afraid of pastors because
they’re up front at a pulpit, and it can be intimidating,”
Faulhaber says. “Just putting out candy really helped — now I have
a parade of kids in and out!”

[10] Bring children to Big Church. Putting your
kids in front of your congregation accomplishes three things in one
fell swoop: it makes kids an integral part of your church’s life by
not isolating them; it gets parents there to see their children;
and it’s great public relations for the vibrancy of your
programs.

Have children read Scripture, sing, hear a children’s message,
even step up to the pulpit — all these communicate that children
are important.

“Just having them present isn’t enough,” says Faulhaber. “Having
them participate sends a signal to kids and adults that they’re an
important part of the church.”

•••

Giving kids the experience of a lifetime in your ministry starts
with the small things on this list. Don’t be overwhelmed by the
bigger picture; start small. “Many times we fail because we tackle
something too broad and too great,” says Smith. “Sometimes taking
the beginning baby steps is where we need to start.”

Valerie Van Kooten is a writer and serves in children’s
ministry in Pella, Iowa.

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