every child needs relationship

You may remember him.  First time visitor. Indeed, first time ever in a church. Neighbor kid. Invited by someone from your congregation who lives nearby. Sitting in the back quietly. Unsure. Needing connection. So, you make your way to him before children’s church begins, introducing yourself and getting to know him. Did you know that this moment would stay with the boy for the rest of his days? Did you know that your simple gesture of kindness and consistent subsequent connections, helping the boy to connect not only with you, but also with his new peers, would alter the trajectory of his life?

Relationships are fertile soil for heart work. Any effort to lead children to follow Jesus as Lord must be rooted in relationships, first with God and also with each other. Curriculum comes and goes. So do object lessons, props, pyro-technics, thematic environments,  logos, mission statements, and tricked out websites…. Relationships and their influence endure.

Every child you pastor or teach needs relationship on multiple levels: family, extended family, peer friendships, larger community, etc. Obviously some are caught up in the decisions of parents or the hard realities of life. Divorce, death of a parent, a parent in prison, or perhaps the child was born out of wedlock, to name a few. I am sure you have heard the prayer requests of these kids whispered in your ear, as they weep over matters they cannot control. So, they cling to you, trusting the connection you have initiated with them, and in turn, learning to trust God.

Here is the simple reality I implore you to consider. The latest curriculum fad cannot replace a listening ear. A well-executed object lesson cannot replace a well-timed smile and  high five. The coolest props, pyrotechnics, and thematic environments cannot replace attentive, caring, accountable interaction with you and your frontline ministry colleagues. In short, the children can live without cutting edge logos, highly refined mission statements, and state-of-the-art websites. They cannot live without godly relationships. They need God. They need their families. They need you.

the benefits of free play at church

Photo by Glen Alan Woods

There are seasons during the year in children’s ministry where I encourage the children to enjoy a certain amount of free play. It might seem to be such a waste. Free play? At church? What about teaching them the Bible? What about teaching them to pray, worship and serve? Where does the gospel fit in? Free play? Harumph. If this is your initial reaction, let me invite you to hold on a moment and consider my point-of-view.

Free play can provide important benefits and create unique opportunities if it is done within intentionally limited parameters. It allows children to develop relationships with each other and with adult leaders using their most fluent language, play. The younger the child is, or the more reticent, the more profoundly this dynamic can play itself out. Yet we adults tend to like to talk, or to solicit verbal responses from the children, forgetting how intimidating it can be for them. And when we aren’t talking, we may be trying to get them to read or write. There is nothing wrong with any of that to a certain degree, but a neglect of the varied ways people learn can have troubling consequences for those who are not primarily verbal/linguistic learners.  Continue reading

to learn a child’s name

They come from the neighborhood, these beautiful children. Each of them has a name, a story, a heart full of dreams, expectations, needs, and temptations. Their situations are unique. Some are first generation immigrants from other countries; others are second and third generation, or have a long ancestry in America. They hold in common residency in section 8 apartment housing for low-income families. And that is often how they are identified. By the government. Sadly also, by the church. But they are so much more than that. That is why I take the time to get to know their names, their families, especially their parents, and their collective stories. Continue reading

remembering the forgotten among us

This is me when I was about 6 years old.

Overlooked children. Every children’s ministry has them. These children often are the majority. Ordinary. Normal. Too easily forgotten in favor of their more vocal or more demanding counterparts. They blend into the weekly routines of the ministry. Each week they come and go, typically doing what they are supposed to do, but not always. It is not usually their goal to make waves, at least not the kind that puts the focus of disciplinary attention on themselves.

To be sure, their problems often are no fewer than their more assertive peers. They simply choose not to act out, at least not publically. And so they blend in. And they are forgotten. Continue reading

concerning holy grails and church marketing

In the church world, there are trend setters and trend watchers, opinion leaders and early (and late) adapters, marketing gurus and viral media mavens. Love em or hate em, they are out there. From every denominational stripe or the lack thereof, they make their preferences known as evidenced by the behavior of those whom they influence. Often this is good; equally often it probably is not. Why do I dare say that? Continue reading

Five Things That CM Volunteers Need

What do CM volunteers need?

  • Affirmation. We all need encouragement. Volunteers are no different. Honor them. Brag about them in their presence to others. Deflect praise to them. Shoulder the burden of criticism so as to minimize its impact on them. (This is a necessary task of leadership. There is a time for volunteers to hear and deal with constructive criticism, but it can be demoralizing if they get hit with it week after week without any kind of filter or support system.) If they do not feel appreciated, then they typically will migrate to opportunities which yield consistent positive feedback. It is a fact of human nature. Ignore it at your church’s peril.
  • Resources. Ministry to children requires basic supplies and tools. It also needs various knock-your-socks-off cool props and set pieces to capture the imaginations of children and those volunteers that get to work with them. Even if you have little or no budget in your church, start small and build a treasure chest of cool stuff for your workers to use in the ministry. You might even network with other local churches to see if they would loan you their cool stuff. I bet they would be willing to give it if they no longer have a need for it!
  • Clear expectations. Never assume your volunteers know every policy or procedure in your church. This relates to taking children to the restroom, check-in/check-out procedures,  appropriate physical touch, sanitizing toys and tools and general cleanup, and so on. Do they know what to do? Are you sure? Write it down. Post critical information on walls in conspicuous places. Have a handbook full of the information which is given to each teacher and ask them to sign that they have read and understood it (I am currently developing this for my church, both for leaders and for parents. It is hard, but necessary).
  • Training. Learn the culture of your church and train your people using appropriate means. In my context, much of the training currently occurs using just-in-time training and mentoring. In the past we have done seminars, classes, and sent people to events. We try to have current leaders training rising leaders.
  • Communication. Be in contact with your leaders in various ways. This is not hard to do in the current environment with social technologies, handheld devices, email, cell phones, and–dare I mention it–the ability actually to speak face-to-face (rumors of this method’s demise are highly exaggerated).

What would you add?

maturing children’s ministry dreams

Do you have a dream for your children’s ministry? For your church? Is it clear? Can it be translated into specific action steps? Is it impossible for you in the natural, but spot-on realistic for God Almighty who loves to do the impossible through regular people like you and me?

When I first took leadership over a children’s ministry at my first church, I had a dream of leading as many kids to Jesus as I could and helping them grow close to God. A great dream. A lofty one. Yet, not fully matured.

I originally began working with children at a young age. During the summers of my sophomore and junior years in high school I worked at a daycare with toddlers through 6th grade. As a freshman in college I began working in a local church’s mid-week kids church. There is a story about being thrown to the wolves which I thought about including here, but I won’t this time…. Yet, I will say that the years which followed laid the groundwork leading up to my first appointment to leadership. It helped me to refine my dream of making disciples of the youngest among us. Still, something was missing, but I was not sure what it was.

When I began serving at my current church, I was excited about recruiting, developing and leading teams of people to impact children, both in our church and from the neighborhood. There were great successes, and a few heart-breaks along the way. Fourteen years later I have undergone some major changes in my practices and thinking. I am still as committed as ever to leading children to Jesus and helping them grow in faith maturity. But, I have finally begun to realize that the center of gravity in making this a reality is not on the church campus. Rather, it is in the home. Or, it should be. So, my dream has matured and refined, mixing practical realities with childlike faith that God can do the impossible. Want to see it?

I dream of turning the hearts of parents and children to God and to each other in Christ.

Now for the expected objection to this dream…. Yes, I know that lots of families do not fit the traditional cultural ideal of two parents and one or more children. Of course, if we are honest with ourselves, even two-parent households have a hard time living up to the billing “ideal.” The sooner we lose the “ideal” label the better off we all will be. Not because I don’t think that people who have children ought to marry first and be faithful spouses to each other and loving parents. Of course not. Rather, I think the label creates a distraction from unrealistic expectations of perfection rather than a helpful description.

I think the dream quoted above is relevant to families of all circumstances. It speaks of turning hearts to God and to each other in Christ. So, there is the spiritual component and the natural relational component. It goes back to making disciples and helping them mature. Yet now the center of gravity is transferred to the home, with the church serving as a place of refuge and a spiritual support, both to those who are trying to fulfill this dream, and to those who do not yet perceive its importance.

What dreams do you have for your children’s ministry? Begin praying now. Write them down. Talk with your pastor, your church parents, even the children in your church. Watch God to begin something special in your midst.