A successful bus ministry can be a great outreach tool — but only if it’s run well. Here are the secrets to making it work…
Imagine a church bus pulling into a neighborhood where children jump up and down and run to the door even before the vehicle stops. These kids want to come to church! But what’ll greet them when they get to the church building — kids who eagerly embrace them? a congregation that welcomes them? or people who groan when “these” kids don’t seem to follow all the churchy rules? If your bus ministry is run right, these kids will encounter the love and grace of Jesus Christ.
Rod Baker, a former bus supervisor and outreach pastor at the Church on the Move in Tulsa, Oklahoma, weekly stood before thousands of inner city boys and girls transported on 48 buses from Tulsa and the surrounding metro area. Baker had served 12 years in bus ministry — an area of outreach that he wholeheartedly advocates — mainly because it allowed children a refuge and a chance to escape to a new environment where their minds and hearts open up and “the walls come down.”
Three elements made Church on the Move’s bus ministry successful: organization, structure, and vision. Not everyone in the church had the vision, but leadership from the head pastor fueled the ministry. The head pastor at Church on the Move once served as a bus minister himself.
The largest Sunday school in the nation, run by Metro Ministries in Brooklyn, New York, started as a bus ministry, but now primarily runs sidewalk Sunday schools. Each week the church teaches up to 17,000 kids. Around 11,000 of these kids come to sidewalk Sunday school in their own neighborhoods. The rest are bused in on Saturdays for three separate services.
According to children’s pastor Chris Blake, the core concept of the 15-year-old ministry is that “it’s better to build boys and girls than repair men and women.”
On a smaller but just as meaningful scale, Dave Diehl, a children’s pastor at Central Assembly of God, in Cumberland, Maryland, runs a bus ministry that gathers children on Sunday mornings for Sunday school, the beginning of a worship service, and children’s church. The program includes prayer and encourages children to pray for each other.
Beatin’ The Bushes
The Saturday program at Church on the Move reached over 2,000 boys and girls, but the work of volunteers and drivers extended into the week. Every Thursday and Friday, drivers visited kids’ families and sought out new families. On Sundays, the buses picked up kids who wanted to be part of the church. And the staff sent out 350 to 400 birthday cards per month.
A typical Saturday started with a half hour of praise and prayer. The program was high-impact and fast-action. Planned from beginning to end, all the pieces fit like a puzzle — even down to the chant “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” Each month centered around a theme such as obedience.
It was important that there was no “dead time”; the kids heard preaching right on the bus. Theme prizes such as whistles and candy donated by organizations served as motivators. Volunteers fed the kids, taught an object lesson, played a game, and taught a Bible lesson. The goal of Saturdays was clearly sharing God’s love with unchurched kids. According to Baker, the reason for tightly packed activity and teaching is that “you may see some kids for 16 hours all together and never see them again. You have to teach it in a way they can take and run with.”
Saturdays always ended with an opportunity for kids to respond to God’s love.
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What’s the best way to integrate bused kids into church life? Blake believes in setting up a separate program for bused kids. He’s seen the frustration of teachers who don’t know how to deal with behavior problems; kids’ confusion from mixing bused kids and churched kids; and, too many times, a final decision to shut down the program because of the trouble it causes. To avoid “mixing apples and oranges,” Blake advocates busing children in at a different time from Sunday morning or running a sidewalk Sunday school and visiting homes the day before. The kids don’t have different spiritual needs; they have different behavioral needs. Eventually, the kids grow into the church setting.
Baker agrees with Blake. Church on the Move ran its bus ministry separately from its weekly Sunday school because mixing the two programs is akin to mixing two different cultures. There are too many barriers to overcome for effective ministry to occur to the churched kids and the bused kids at the same time. One culture has learned structure; one has little structure. A separate program for the bus-ministry children also creates a comfortable environment. Baker doesn’t believe it’s kind to “mix Sally in a beautiful Easter bonnet with Johnny who hasn’t bathed.”
Diehl sees outreach differently. He says that bus ministry is a means to tear down barriers between different cultures. He uses object lessons such as X-rays to demonstrate that God looks not on the outside, but into the heart. The key, Diehl says, is to treat all children the same, to model love and acceptance, and to react immediately to any negative comments or treatment with loving yet firm correction.
At Metro Ministries, a crowd of 1,000 children sits in two groups — boys on one side, girls on the other. Most intently watch the front, where a lively speaker stands between two sets of four balloons.
There’s a definite plan behind the structure for discipline with Metro Ministries. Blake says that “if you don’t put on a program for kids, they’ll do it for you.” So the program is high-energy and first-class. The children continually receive the message that it’s a privilege to be involved. A typical Saturday or weekday afternoon begins with games, songs, and teaching.
Periodically, someone blows a whistle. That means, “Sit up straight, eyes up front, silence.” The process teaches kids to behave. Metro’s bus-ministry volunteers weekly face the frustration of “taking a tiger out of the jungle for an hour to train it, and then throwing it right back into the jungle.” But as Blake asserts, “Only God’s Word can change lives.” To create structure, Baker advocates clear boundaries for kids: “Whatever standard you hold for the children, they’ll rise to it.” The most basic and important standard tells the children, “We love you. We’re here to protect you, and that means we won’t allow you to hurt anyone else.”
Blake says the key to successful outreach to children is visiting families each week. It’s easier to discipline kids if they know that Mom knows these people and these people know Mom.
Getting to know families helps Metro Ministries achieve their ultimate goal: to change New York City — starting with the children, reaching to the families, spreading to the neighborhoods, and finally transforming the entire city. In fact, publicity in the last few years has revealed Metro Ministry’s success in reaching their goal. The New York City police department has indicated a significant crime decrease in the geographical areas where Metro Ministries runs their bus ministry routes.
To help increase church support for outreach, children at Diehl’s church attend Sunday-morning services. The bused kids sit with volunteers and Diehl’s wife and daughter. During an open welcome time, kids run through the church shaking hands and building relationships with adults. When adults stand to receive prayer, many times all the children surround them and pray.
The precious cargo on each bus that rolls into churches weekly is the eternal souls of children whom God loves. Diehl says it poetically: “Every week God allows you to hold his kingdom in your hand. The way you hold them will make a difference in the way these diamonds and rubies shine.”
Allison Bull is a children’s minister in Murrysville, Pennsylvania. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.