Something’s catching — and these preteens are hooked! Here’s how to make faith contagious to these kids in your ministry.
Warning: Christianity May Be Catching on With Preteens
Recently I looked at our church parking lot and was amazed to see more than 100 kids at our Club Splash preteen event. Kids slid through huge, inflatable water slides, dove down giant slippery slopes, and rushed through the huge wild rapids. But what amazed me wasn’t the number of kids or the volume of laughter — it was the infectious Christian spirit spreading from our preteens. More than half the kids in our parking lot were visitors.
It hasn’t always been this way. In the past, our kids rarely invited their non-Christian friends to church. They were reluctant to reach out to their friends. We realized something was missing in our preteen ministry, and we intentionally set on a path to fix it. And over time our ministry has become a place where our preteens enthusiastically reach out to their friends for Jesus.
Get on the same page with preteens.
It took us awhile to realize that part of the reason our preteen program wasn’t growing was that our kids didn’t feel driven to invite their friends. Our kids didn’t understand the importance of sharing their faith, and we knew we needed to reassess our programs.
So we changed our path. We developed new programs to grow preteens’ understanding of Christianity, and we taught them our church’s mission. We found ways to keep our ministry’s goal in front of our preteens by explaining the purpose of outreach events and giving kids a copy of the church’s vision. Most importantly, we talked about the importance of our mission constantly.
One major shift we implemented was to teach the importance of reaching unchurched friends on a weekly basis. We present this series in an age-appropriate way and give kids tips for connecting with their friends. At the end of each series, we sponsor a special, fun event so kids can apply what they’ve learned by inviting friends. At the end of the evening, we invite visiting kids to attend our programs and services.
Be an authentic equipper.
Preteens can detect a phony in an instant. It’s vital for preteen leaders and volunteers to be models for kids. Authentic adults encourage kids to follow in their footsteps. We encourage adults to be transparent about their successes and failures, and to make their efforts to reach unchurched friends visible.
Preteens have preconceived notions about reaching out to their friends. We’ve found that by equipping them to share their faith in a style that fits them, we can eliminate many of their fears. We’ve incorporated the following key learning points in most aspects of our preteen ministry, including regular classroom time and all our special programs.
- It’s important to share your faith.
- There are different ways to share your faith.
- You can have comfortable, nonthreatening, spiritual conversations with friends.
- It’s important to talk about how you came to know Jesus.
- You can naturally communicate the gospel in less than five minutes.
Make it happen.
The natural next step to equipping kids to reach out to their friends is to give them tons of opportunities to bring their friends to exciting church events. We focused on offering ultra-cool, wildly fun events that cover three main categories.
Ongoing Preteen Programs
Our weeknight introduction to Christianity is one of our most popular programs-who would’ve guessed? Kids bring their friends, who bring more friends, and we learn the basics of Christianity in a nonthreatening, engaging way. Kids eat dinner together each night, play games, listen to an age-appropriate message, and then break into small groups. Our church grew from about 600 children and adults in 1996 to 1,300 presently; this weeknight program has been a cornerstone of that growth.
These events offer an experience kids can’t get anywhere else-with no strings attached. Our goal is for kids and guests to associate fun with church. One of our most successful events was Laser Tag Mania, where preteens played unlimited Laser Tag games ’till three in the morning. The kids loved this so much they talked about it for weeks afterward.
Preteen Events With a Purpose
These events provide kids with fun and an opportunity to become a follower of Jesus. At Friday Night Live preteens played wild indoor and outdoor games, and then listened to a creatively communicated message about Jesus. With help from the movie Mr. Deeds (we used the clip where Adam Sandler’s foot was numb and being beaten with a rod) we illustrated our numbness to sin without God in our lives. Creative tools and presentation helped us drive home the point. The result? Eight kids became forever friends with Jesus at the event.
For preteens, inviting friends to church can be risky. They risk rejection, which can hurt. We wanted our kids to see the difference they were making, so we videotaped success stories. Our kids love seeing the impact they’re having and are encouraged to continue inviting their friends.
One of my favorites: Kylee found her way to our program, and God transformed her life. She invited her friends to visit, and now five or six are regulars. In only a few months she became a Christian and began reaching out to her friends — all at the ripe age of 10. Now there’s a success story!
Over time, we’ve transformed our preteen ministry from a place where kids were focused on themselves to a place where Jesus and his mission is our focus. Jesus started with 12 people and the entire world was knocked upside down because of what God did through them — not because they had special powers we don’t have, but because they were infected with Christianity and they dedicated their lives to infecting others with it as well.
Nick Diliberto is a children’s ministry director in California.
Who’s In Charge Here?
A year ago I launched a new children’s church program. It still has all the standard features — snacks, crafts, worship, class time. But I changed the focus of the program. One of the key questions I asked myself while considering the change was, Am I preparing the children I minister to today to be the leaders of the church tomorrow? All change must have purpose. My purpose is to grow young ministers.
I confess: Our preteens were my biggest challenge. They come from Sunday school, rewarded with treats, ready to “rock and roll.” Instead, they’re bored. The opening session of children’s church endeavored to capture and hold the attention of kids ranging in age from 3 to 12 for 35 minutes — no small feat. If the little ones are enthralled, the bigger ones are bored stiff. If the preteens are engaged, the small children are lost. We needed to captivate all our kids. That’s how the idea of creating a ministry program for preteens that would help them practice leadership was born.
Each preteen has a job.
Our opening session consists of four parts-worship, prayer, memory work, and puppets.
A preteen volunteer leads worship each week, and we choose a worship team to back up the worship leader. This group selects music from pieces kids know. The group practices the songs and motions as time allows. During the service, I always sing with the leader-but he or she has the mic.
A preteen volunteer leads us in prayer. The more often preteens pray aloud, the easier it is to get volunteers. Stay close to the person who’s praying and provide assistance when needed. Preteens have more confidence when they know they can count on you for help. We encourage younger kids to pray aloud as well — sometimes as many as 10 kids pray.
A preteen directs our memory work. We learn verses in a variety of ways — songs, raps, repetition, and games. The preteen and I choose the methods together, and we spend time on each passage of Scripture until the kids have all learned it well.
I write puppet scripts a week in advance. Preteens volunteer to be puppeteers, and they assign the puppet characters themselves. Practice takes place with minimal supervision.
I’ll tell you now, if you’re a perfectionist, handing over leadership roles to your preteens isn’t for you. We have a lot of mistakes. That’s okay. We work on puppetry skills. We work on expression in worship. And we make improvements every week. And I’m willing to trade perfection for the opportunity to raise confident young leaders in the church.
Not every preteen wants to be involved in each aspect of ministry. Some have favorite things they like to do. Gabe and Sam both love to operate the projector and do puppets, but neither likes to sing. I’ve made it clear that everybody has to try every role at least once. Both boys know that they’ll be asked to serve on worship team sometime. Still, I try to alternate kids in their favorite positions as much as possible. There are times, though, when my kids have to relinquish their desires to give someone else the chance to lead.
The program doesn’t run itself. I’m in charge, so I must take charge. Preteens aren’t mature enough to handle all the issues that arise. They need help sorting out issues among themselves so they look to me for guidance. They also know I’m the boss, and my word is the last word. My preteens are fine with that as long as I allow them to give plenty of input and seriously consider their suggestions. And believe me, they have some great ideas!
Our younger kids respond very well to the leadership of preteen kids. I love watching little Katie and Betsy stand wide-eyed as our preteens teach them a new action song. The levels of respect, obedience, and effort among younger kids are significantly higher when commanded by our preteens rather than demanded by our adults. Lots of our younger kids aspire to be leaders because of our current preteen leadership team.
Build good preteen leaders.
Because our preteens responded so well to this program, an atmosphere of positive peer pressure prevails. When new kids lack confidence or try to dump negativity on the program, our preteens are quick to boost morale and pressure kids to “try it” before they pass judgment. They also like it because it sets them apart from the younger kids.
Leadership is a team effort, so no one wants to see any part of it fail. When Jamie has difficulties reading a puppet skit, other puppeteers coach him through his lines. Reading is difficult for Jamie, yet he’s very willing to be a puppeteer because he knows he’ll get help if he needs it. Initially I expected our audience to be disinterested by this lack of professionalism. On the contrary, kids are in rapt attention. Jamie is one of their own; they can relate. Isaiah stutters, but he wants to do a puppet. And next week, I’ll let him. With God’s help and the help of his peers, he’ll succeed. No one leads alone.
I’m training people who won’t be afraid to lead in the future. Years from now, when asked to be on a worship team, Langdon will say with confidence, “I can do that. I’ve done it before.” When asked to pray in public, Katie will say yes because she’s had experience. When asked to teach children with puppets, Abby, Lizzie, and Kelsi will do it because they’ve done it before. Our youth pastor is excited that in another year I’ll be passing on a seasoned junior high worship team. I’m excited to be impacting future generations for Jesus today.
Gary Forslund is children’s minister in Stanwood, Washington.
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