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 waste.
Here’s what friendly churches do to help children feel like they belong.
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 acclimated.”
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 kids.”
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.”