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It's a Small World

Sharyn and David Spradlin

The most effective way to reach today's kids is through small groups. Here's how Eastside Foursquare Church in Kirkland, Washington, is doing just that!

"I didn't want to go to another church to make a dumb craft, listen to a story about a guy named Jesus that didn't make any sense to me, and be with kids who didn't like me," said 10-year-old Ryan. He had recently moved from Minneapolis with his mother and sister after his parents divorced. That's how Ryan said he felt before he came to our church.

Ryan's first memory of his classroom at our large church outside of Seattle, was a huge, handpainted mural of a jungle scene covering an entire wall. Reluctantly he entered the room filled with kids his age playing Foosball, talking, reading Sports Illustrated for Kids, and making leather bracelets. He recognized a familiar song by Jars of Clay playing on a CD player. An adult leader greeted Ryan and asked him if he wanted to shoot basketballs into a small, portable hoop.

After about 15 minutes, kids moved into small groups of five to seven kids and an adult leader. The groups then had Piggyback Races and quickly discovered that speed and mobility were difficult to achieve with 80 pounds on your back. For some the challenge was impossible, while others struggled forward. Each group then gathered with their small group leader to discuss the activity: What was it like to be carried by your partner? Can you remember a time you needed help? How is your experience in this game like a friend who helps you through a difficult situation?

After the discussion, the kids and their group leaders moved to a room arranged for many small groups. They were joined by other kids as the room filled with first- through fourth-grade small groups. Kids intently watched a music video about friends in trouble, recently created by one of several adult support teams. Then a team of musicians and background vocalists led children in praise and worship. As the last words of the final song appeared on the overhead, the lights dimmed and a facilitator introduced a drama. Four kids and two adults presented the story of friends who lowered a paralyzed boy through a roof to be healed by Jesus.

The facilitator, who guides the small groups in activities and debriefings, posed questions regarding the drama for small group leaders to discuss with the kids in their groups. These questions are designed to allow the small group leaders to encourage kids in the discovery of the biblical point and its application in their lives. This process also provides the leader with insights into the individual group members as they seek to build relationships with one another.

CARING LEADERS
The leaders in this program aren't teachers. They're relational role models who facilitate the learning experience through discussion questions, prayer, and encouragement. The intimate setting of the small groups-and the interpersonal relationships they create-allow kids to feel safe and accepted and have a general sense of well-being.

Small groups give kids the sense of security to say what they feel without fear of belittling or intimidation. Leaders are sometimes surprised by the depth of kids' love of Christ and the sincerity and thoughtfulness of their questions. Some kids are very concerned about difficult family situations while others are ready to focus on challenging theological concepts.

A fourth-grader told his group about a close adult friend who liked to take him fishing in the Cascades. The boy then started crying when he said his friend had suffered a heart attack and died. He asked for prayer and wanted to know what happens to people when they die. The discussion and prayer that followed were deeply emotional and sincere. That morning he realized how deeply Christ and his friends cared for him.

"We seek to instill Christian values and an understanding of biblical truths," says Cyndie Steenis, the church's director of children's education. Cyndie leads a team of four, and collectively they serve nearly 300 adult volunteers who serve 700 kids. "Educational programming without the benefit of relationship can cause kids to feel like the targets of someone else's beliefs. The relationship with their small group leader is the foundation on which kids receive the message. We believe that the leader's relationship with the five to seven kids in his or her group is both biblical and crucial to learning."

TODAY'S CHALLENGE
Understanding the unique needs and interests of the Millennial generation, the kids born after 1982, as well as other generations represented in the church, is a critical challenge. This Millennial generation will gather and assimilate information, form values, and make decisions based on their relationships. Kids who find themselves disconnected from any relationships inside the church will be dissatisfied. They'll hear what we say, but they'll also want to see our words in our lives. A vibrant community of believers must be committed to being relational role models for our kids just as Jesus was for his disciples.

Christian education faces the question of relevance from this generation saturated by information and knowledge. Void of any relationships, our attempts to instill Christian values or educate children in the basic doctrines of our faith may prove to be ineffective.

Authentic life change happens in the context of relationship, not education. We can't deny that programs initiate and promote some interpersonal opportunities, but most often they're information-driven, frequently causing our volunteers and children to feel like a product, a target, or even an object that experiences little life change.

However, the relational interaction between two or more people, such as in a small group, is what causes genuine change in the lives of children.

"When I first started here," says Rachel Bartlow, a small group leader of third- and fourth-graders, "it was 'cattle in and cattle out.' There were 32 students and one teacher so I didn't know many of my students' names or backgrounds. I think the small groups have had an impact because now you can sense bonds building within the group."

Judy Jeppesen, a first- and second-grade group leader, agrees. "The 20 kids I know will come in, hug me, and climb on me while asking questions and fixing my hair," Judy says. "I'm here to give them some direction and to share God's special love."

Small group leaders such as Judy have realized that the value of relationship takes priority over the methods used in education. While a contemporary delivery of the biblical story is vital, the relationship between the teacher or small group leader provides the foundation for the story to be understood and applied.

A recent trend in Christian education is the desire to return to the core beliefs of the church. It's important for kids to understand these basic beliefs. However, some have interpreted this movement as a call to "simplify" or to return to the teaching methods of the past, rather then recognizing the need for relationship. That's a mistake.

Finding suitable curriculum using contemporary communication to a large group while remaining sensitive to the priority of small group relationships, presents a challenge.

"Curriculum for this type of program is difficult to find," says Cyndie. "In addition to using Group's Hands-On Bible Curriculum™, we also spend a considerable amount of time writing or adapting scripts for dramas and puppets, creating videos to enhance the point, and forming questions for small group leaders. The program requires us to be very creative."

A creative curriculum with a relational base requires small group leaders to appreciate the value of building relationships and to know that a high level of commitment is necessary to nurture discipleship. The criteria for teachers within children's ministry often requires experience and skill. However, a small group leader may have little experience or few teaching skills, yet understand that investing time, effort, and understanding is vital to building relationships with kids.

The Scriptures reveal to us that from Creation to the coming of the Messiah, relationship is the central theme of our faith. God's purpose in sending his Son to die on the cross and be resurrected from the grave, was to build and restore intimacy with us. The process of communicating his message of eternal life necessitates relationship. The Millennial generation will absorb the reality of the gospel, primarily through relational experiences. This is enhanced in the context of the small group. Ultimately, these relationships will foster authentic life change.

Sharyn Spradlin, a children's minister, and David Spradlin, a freelance writer, live in Kirkland, Washington.

STARTING SMALL GROUPS

You can develop a relational small group approach in your church. Here are practical starting tips:

•Recognize the value of relationships. God's purpose in sending his Son was to build and restore intimacy with us. Our faith story is to be lived out in the community through relationship. Effective evangelism and discipleship are dependent upon relationship.

•Understand kids' culture. Read magazines such as Nickelodeon or Sports Illustrated for Kids for insights about what communicates to your kids and the attitudes and issues that exist in their world. Watch television with them or listen to their music. Discover what they like or dislike and why. Go to their homes or schools. Walk into their world. It'll show them that you care.

• Commit to investing time in building relationships. Does your personal calendar reflect your investments in relationships? Do the programs and activities in your church provide opportunities for building relationships? Review your curriculum for kids. Does it provide for relationships to be enhanced in a small group setting?

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