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.”
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 Sunday school 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 too! 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!
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 breaks.
 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 more.
 Social-All people want to do be in healthy emotional relationships with others. How does your ministry nurture these relationships?
 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 children.
 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.
Christine Yount Jones is executive editor for Children’s Ministry Magazine and has been accused of smiling too much!