If your church is the friendliest place in town, you're the
exception. In our exclusive research, we asked more than 750
churched and non-churched people in the U.S. to name the
friendliest place in town. Home was overwhelmingly the #1 place
(that's good to hear!). Church was an anemic second; only 17
percent of people surveyed said they consider church to be the
friendliest place in town.
Church growth experts say this has to change-especially in the
face of declining attendance in churches across America. "The
church has to find ways to reach our youngest generations, to help
faith become relevant to them, and to meet them where they are
(which likely means unconventional ways of doing church), and to
bring them into a meaningful relationship with Christ," says Gia
Garey, Group Life Ministry Connections Director at the United
Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.
What can you do? We asked children's ministers at churches with
a friendly reputation to share how they've become exceptional in
the top-5 qualities of a friendly church. There's no time to
Here's what friendly churches do to help children feel like they
Someone Like Me-A sense of belonging starts in
the parking lot at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Children's pastor Eric Echols says, "Once parents pull onto our
property, they're directed to park in our designated 'children's
ministry parking lot.' When they get out of their vehicle, they're
surrounded by other families with kids in tow, which lets them know
they're not alone. Immediately they realize they can identify with
the majority of families at 12Stone Church, and this creates a
sense of belonging."
The Buddy System-Every week, the children's
ministry at NewLife Community Church in Fredericktown, Ohio,
attracts two or three new kids. "Getting kids to feel like they
belong at our church from their very first moment isn't an easy
task," says Janet Anthony, NewLife's children's director. "If they
know anyone else in the class, we pair them up to sit together; if
not, we introduce them to a couple of kids who'll help them get
Intentional Connections-Elementary small groups at
12Stone begin each week with a "What's Up?" segment. Echols
explains, "Because we teach the Bible story during our large group
time, the main role of our small group leaders is to build
community and create connections with the kids. Kids are allowed to
talk about what they're learning and how they're developing a
relationship with God."
Consistent Leaders-When children come to your
ministry and see the same teachers or leaders every time, they have
a stronger sense of belonging than if those people change from week
to week. A friendly face can be very reassuring. "We've found that
consistency is fundamental to making kids feel like they belong,"
says Echols. "A bond is formed between the kids and the leader
which opens up the door for us to pour into the lives of our
Friendship Ties-Kids need connections to other
kids to feel that they belong. If Anthony finds a child who doesn't
have any particularly strong friendships in her ministry, she
creates a recreational event-a sleepover, trip to a sports event,
or camping trip-for the child's age level and interests to create
ties of friendship.
"Take David (name changed) for example," Anthony remembers. "At
age 10, David was new to our church and hated coming down to kids'
worship…So I planned a trip for 4th through 6th graders to a local
arcade with mini golf and go-karts. David loved it and came away
knowing a couple of boys from the trip much better. No longer did
he have to be coaxed to go to kids' worship."
2 Comfort Zone
How can we make our children's ministries a place where children
feel comfortable? Check out these comfy ideas.
Speaking Their Language-One of the best ways to
help kids feel comfortable is to be able to talk about what
interests them. More important than knowing what's hot and what's
not in today's culture, get to know what each child in your
ministry is into-is it Transformers or the Facebook Farmville game?
What's important to children is that you know about them.
Just-My-Size Environments-Ban the sterile
adults-only rooms in the children's area of your church. When
children enter a room, the first thing they do is look to see if
there's something there for them. If not, their sense of comfort
goes out the window.
"Kids will feel comfortable, safe, and secure in an environment
that's child-friendly," says Carmen Kamrath, associate editor of
this magazine and 20-year children's ministry veteran. "Furniture
that's their size, toys, and colors all can provide a welcoming
environment for them. When children enter a room that's obviously
meant just for them with welcoming and child-friendly colors,
sizes, and decorations, they're much more likely to quickly feel at
ease and comfortable."
3 Relaxed Fit
Let's admit it. Those of us who work in the church feel pretty
relaxed. For guests, though, the church we love so much can seem
pretty daunting and foreign. To make our ministries the friendliest
place in town, we have to help children and families feel at ease
as they worship.
Personal Space-Don't overwhelm guests with too
much friendliness. A handshake is fine; a hug is too much. For
children, encourage your staff to discern what children are
comfortable with-a wave or a high five? Every person has personal
space you must honor-even children. Be available to answer
questions, but don't hover. Initiate conversation but keep it light
and friendly rather than diving into deep conversations
immediately. Too much too soon will not put guests at ease.
Personal Connections-"Helping kids feel
comfortable or at ease means they begin to trust you and respect
you. Conversation with them one-on-one helps, but I've found the
sooner we get involved more deeply, they begin to feel connected,"
says Anthony. "I draw in new kids by making personal phone calls to
invite them to events we're sponsoring that may be of interest to
them. I take advantage of any opportunity to personally stop by
their house. Personal appearances at their home or at school/sports
events helps them know you consider them to be more than just
another kid at your church. Living life alongside them in many
different situations creates relationship."
In most churches, this kind of personal attention must be
everyone's job-not just the children's ministry director. In a day
and age when online social networking is a prime way people
connect, every teacher or small group leader taking the extra mile
to connect in person will capture kids' and families' hearts. Just
email or call ahead before you show up!
4 Talk to Me
The fourth aspect of a friendly ministry goes way beyond small
talk; it's about conversation. Here are ways to create meaningful
conversations for kids.
Conversation-Plan ways for kids to talk to one
another. Anthony says, "Opportunities for kids to talk with each
other in pairs or groups of three during class time develops the
relational dimension even more. Discussion gives them time for
conversation with peers, helping them to share more deeply their
ideas and opinions."
Small Groups-Friendly churches tout small groups
as a critical element in making your ministry welcoming to
children. Anthony explains why: "To give kids deeper relationships
at church, we've recruited small group leaders who consistently
volunteer their time each month to lead a small group of kids
during worship time. Through discussion and activities related to
the lesson, they reach deeper into the lives of kids in their group
both personally and spiritually."
And small means small-no more than six in a group at church,
including the leader. Small groups that are genuinely small ensure
volunteer retention. Ali Thompson, editor of Group's Living Inside
Out large group/small group curriculum, explains why: "Small groups
this size help kids participate more in discussions. They'll
discover more about their faith, and that results in what every
leader needs for motivation. Leaders want to know they're making a
difference in kids' lives, and with smaller groups they can make a
bigger difference and see it more clearly as they get to know each
child more personally. Additionally, discipline issues won't arise
as much in small groups, and when they do, it's less overwhelming
for the leader to tackle the problem."
Facilities-The 12Stone team designed their church
with large lobby areas where people can gather and engage in
conversation. "We designed a play area where parents and children
gather before and after services to hang out and talk," Echols
says. "We even have a Starbucks in our lobby, along with living
room environments, where people can grab a cup of coffee and talk.
Being a large church, we know the value of making the church
smaller by creating multiple areas throughout our facility that are
conducive to having conversations."
You don't have to hire an architect to make conversation happen;
simply add comfortable seating, a pot of coffee for adults, and
doughnuts for kids. Then encourage your staff to hang out as long
as people want.
5 Miles of Smiles
The fifth-and last-ingredient for a friendly church is a genuine
smile. It's not that we have to train people to smile; we simply
need to place greeters where their smiles will shine. And watch the
contagious nature of a smile after that!
Greetings-"A smile brightens everyone's day.
When someone smiles at you, it sets you at ease," Echols says.
"Along with our overall church greeting team, we place children's
ministry volunteers at our main entrances and the entrances to our
children's ministry environments to greet kids and families as they
enter the church."
A long-standing guideline with our Group Workcamps foundation is
the "10-foot rule." All volunteers and staff are trained that
whenever someone comes within 10 feet of them to flash a genuine
smile. The 10-foot rule could transform your church!
Goodbyes-Ministries have usually perfected the
first 10 minutes of friendliness. Church growth experts are
finding, though, that the first 10 minutes may not be the most
important. Dr. Charles Arn, president of Church Growth, Inc., says
in an Off the Agenda blog interview: "We also asked the focus
groups when they decided that the church was friendly or not. From
the answers we got, there's a 10-minute window that's pregnant with
opportunities for a church to make a good impression. And it wasn't
the 10 minutes I expected…More than any other time, folks said, 'I
decided this was a friendly church in the 10 minutes following the
conclusion of the serv- ice.' Many feel that's the first time
people are free to be themselves."
How friendly is your church ministry in the last 10 minutes when
parents are frantically retrieving their children?
Fun, Fun, Fun-The best way to put a smile on a
child's face is to create a ministry that's enjoyable. Add humor.
Play with kids. When kids go home and tell their parents what a
great time they had, that'll put a smile on parents' faces
So there you have it! Your church may not be the exception to the
rule-yet! But if you add these five key things that our exclusive
research confirms, your church will be the friendliest place in
town. People won't be able to stay away from it! cm
Christine Yount Jones is executive editor for Children's
Ministry Magazine and has been accused of smiling too
Go to group.com/church2010 for
more information on Group's research-and sign up for six free
booklets that'll help make your church, youth ministry, and
children's ministry the friendliest places in town.
Meeting real needs
Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, a basic psychological theory,
can help you evaluate your ministry settings to see if you're
meeting children's and families' basic needs-and therefore helping
them to feel more comfortable in your ministry.
 Physiological-Provide for basic physical needs
such as food, drink, rest, and diaper-changes or restroom
 Safety-While kids are more in-tune with the
emotional safety of your church (the way people treat them),
parents are looking for check-in systems, screened volunteers, and
 Social-All people want to do be in healthy
emotional relationships with others. How does your ministry nurture
 Esteem-Acceptance, value, and recognition are
all elements of esteem. Take a step in the right direction by
declaring your ministry a "no put-down zone," and show zero
tolerance for anything that doesn't communicate esteem to
 Self-Actualization-Your ministry has a great
opportunity to help children-of all ages-know that they have a
purpose in life thanks to God. Give them opportunities to serve and
to make a difference.
Friendliest place for volunteers
Kim Bogart, children's director at Southpoint Community Church
in Jacksonville, Florida, tells how her church is the friendliest
place in town for their ministry teams.
 Belonging-We intentionally tell our volunteer
staff that they're part of a ministry team where every member is
valuable. We assign team leaders who direct, inspire, and follow up
with team members. We share good reports with our team on a regular
basis through letters, a social network, and verbal communication
to let them know how their faithful service helps to impact the
lives of our church family.
 Comfort Zone-We intentionally encourage our
team members to attend ministry events and small group Bible
studies. And we provide a plethora of high energy, interactive
training opportunities. We know when our ministry team develops
meaningful relationships and understands expectations and roles,
they'll feel more comfortable in their volunteer assignments.
 Relaxed Fit-Our pastors have intentionally
cultivated a culture of transparency. This makes it easier to share
weaknesses and concerns with others. When our ministry volunteers
don't feel they have to "act" a certain way-that they can simply be
themselves and expect God to use them as they are-it puts them at
ease. We also make it our business to have fun together as laughter
puts all of us at ease.
 Talk to Me-We intentionally schedule those who
have "the gift of gab" with volunteers who are less likely to start
up a conversation. We pray for our volunteers to cultivate an
authentic interest in others. We assign table hosts for sit-down
events throughout our ministries and provide conversation-starters
at ministry events and in our classrooms.
 Miles of Smiles-We have intentionally
communicated the importance of realizing that what we do in
children's ministry is actually a form of true worship to God. When
we serve with an attitude of worship and rely on God's strength,
smiles are inevitable.