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Deep and Wide: Bible Experiences for Combined-Age Groups

Social scientists have researched what happens when children of different ages play and learn together. And guess what: There are advantages for kids of all ages! Read on to find out how your church’s ministry to children will benefit from combined-age groups and classrooms. Discover how preschool and elementary kids can effectively explore Bible truth together, and how, as their teacher, you can facilitate cooperation, community, and deep Bible discoveries.

Remember the classic Sunday school song, “Deep and Wide”? (It’s an oldie but goodie.) The lyrics are catchy—and a little silly. But its title accurately describes what children’s ministry leaders do: We share a deep love for God and his Word with a wide range of kids.

But effective children’s ministry is not always easy! Especially when you have a wide range of kids in one room together. Deep and wide is not easy breezy.

At your church, are combined-age groups a must-do or a choose-to?

Group Publishing recently conducted an exclusive survey with small churches.

About 48 percent of the respondents said their format was “one room.” That means they have a small group of children that includes many age or grade levels together. Forty six percent of the respondents said they have age-graded classrooms. And some of those respondents have age-graded Sunday schools and combined ages for children’s church.

Large churches combine ages, too! A one room, large group/small group format has become a common format. It requires a few less volunteers and lends itself to varying or inconsistent attendance, which is more common these days.

Sometimes mixed ages feel like a must-do instead of a choose-to. But instead, try to think positively so that we can explore the benefits of leading and serving a group of children who range from preschool to sixth grade.

Because there is an upside to mixing things up!

Think Chex Mix!

The fine folks who created this tasty treat chose to put different snacks together. Let’s learn from Chex Mix as we consider combining age levels in children’s ministry.

  • First, they found a container.
  • Then they mixed it up.
  • Then they served it up to hungry snackers like you and me.

Find a container.

When we create meaningful Bible experiences for combined age groups, we start by finding a container. In other words, we prepare an environment where kids of all ages want to be.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Montessori method. Maria Montessori was an Italian scientist and educator. She developed an educational philosophy that is still utilized with children today. She called the container “The Prepared Environment.” The Montessori method begins by creating an environment that helps kids learn how to think. Maria Montessori believed that we learn when we experience.

For children’s ministries, our container is more than the room in which we meet; it’s the atmosphere! It’s the vibe—the spirit we create and the Holy Spirit creates—that empowers combined-age groups of kids with responsibility and encourages them to take charge of their learning experience—with our help and guidance.

Meaningful Bible experiences start with empowering kids with responsibility and choice. At a Group VBS, combined-age groups of kids volunteer for roles and responsibilities each day of VBS. Over the years, we’ve found that responsibility grows relationships. Kids encourage each other in their roles, form friendships, and love being in charge of things, too.

Take a look at these children’s ministry roles for kids and consider how these job titles can be integrated into any curriculum you use as you gather with combined-age groups. As you do this, you’re preparing your environment. You’re creating a container or space where kids of different ages and maturity levels can all contribute and grow.

  • Ready Reader is ready and willing to read a Bible verse aloud.
  • Prayer Person prays aloud nice and loud so everyone can hear.
  • Happy Helpers jump at the chance to handout supplies and clean up stuff.
  • Befrienders are on the lookout for those who need help and encouragement.
  • Greeters say, “Hello and welcome!” to everyone as they arrive and “Have a good day!” to everyone as they leave.

Mix it up.

We have our container. Now it’s time to mix things up and attend to everyone’s unique needs.

Each salty Chex Mix member brings its own flavor. And together they create a medley of taste that’s even better! Likewise, each child in your combined-age classroom is important. Each child brings their own unique flavors and needs. So we need to create meaningful Bible experiences that attend to everyone’s needs.

One way we do this is by giving kids a choice. The Montessori method of education is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning, and collaborative play. This method works in ministry to children, too! This happens when leaders allow kids to make creative choices in their learning, while we offer age-appropriate activities to guide the process.

Hear this: Mixing it up is not a free-for-all. Rather, it’s inviting kids to choose purposeful play experiences that help them connect Bible truth to play and fun.

Think about what happens when several families from your church gather together in a home. Perhaps for small group, a dinner, or a fun game night. If kids know each other, they’re quick to dive into fun and play. But if they don’t know each other so well, it’s a little awkward. But eventually, play brings them together!

It’s one thing to play with kids, but it’s another thing to disciple kids through play. That’s where a good curriculum for children’s ministry comes in! Children’s ministry is more than play. That’s the difference between children’s ministry and child care. Effective ministry to children integrates toys in order to bring kids together and teach Bible truth.

Take a look at this example from Group’s Simply Loved curriculum. You’ll notice that beloved toys that appeal to kids of all ages can help kids get to know each other and get to know a rock-solid truth about God. Be on the lookout for how your favorite curriculum integrates discipleship and play, too!

Teaching is more than Bible story telling: it’s befriending kids and helping kids connect Bible truth to their lives. It’s sharing about your own friendship with Jesus. It’s modeling what being a Jesus follower looks like. And it’s teaching like Jesus taught.

Serve it up!

We’ve found the container—strategies to create an environment for friendship and discovery. We mixed it up, thinking about each child’s needs and how to talk with kids. If you skip this part and jump right into Bible content, you’ll make a mess. Now, let’s explore how to serve up Bible content well.

Effective children’s ministries focus on Bible truth—not just Bible knowledge. We cover less content more intentionally in an article called “How One-Point Learning Can Shape Kids’ Faith,” Ali Thompson explains it like this:

“One-point learning means that a single, applicable truth from the Bible is repeated over and over throughout the lesson, explored in different ways, and cemented in kids’ minds.”

As we serve up Bible truth, we start small. Perhaps even one verse. Then we help kids place that verse in the big story of Scripture as we disciple through play.  Here’s what that can look like with Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”

6 Steps to Exploring Key Verses in Context:

  1. First, explain big words. What does it mean to be still? When have you been still? Do you like being still? Why or why not?
  2. Who did God inspire to write these words? This Psalm was written by the Sons of Korah. Even a 12-year-old may not have heard of them before!
  3. Who were these words written to? God’s people, also known as the Israelites, first heard those words.
  4. Why did they need to hear it? Perhaps you could tell a brief Bible story that gives an example of a time when God came through for his people—for example the parting of the Red Sea! The Israelites needed to remember how God had fought for them in the past. Like when they left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea!
  5. What does this verse tell us about God? God is in charge. That was the one, easy to remember Bible point that was repeated over and over at the field test.
  6. How does understanding this verse help you trust God more? To answer that question, invite kids to play some more! Free play works great for this part. Some could read books, while others count dominos. Let kids gravitate toward play that appeals to their age and stage. You may be surprised at how, by this point, they want to play together!

Exploring key verses in context naturally leads to deep Bible learning for everyone!

Remember the goal.

The goal of children’s ministry is not Bible mastery. It’s not information retention. It’s growing friendship with God and each other.

Remember, your combined-age class is just one piece of children’s spiritual formation. Make the most of your time together and trust that God will help them experience his love in age-appropriate ways at just the right time. Friends, that’s Deep and Wide children’s ministry!

Looking for all-new children’s ministry lessons for combined age groups? Check out All Together Sunday School, coming Summer 2024! Or review some bestselling resources for combined-age groups here.

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