Children are essential to faith communities. Without them, church families are simply entertaining themselves until they die. With many congregations facing the lack of children in their midst, the need to reach out to them is real. Here are some concrete steps that your church can take to welcome children and the grownups who love them.
In this installment I am focusing on how you can potentially welcome children whose resources are few and who live in an area near your church. A lot of rural churches have pockets of poverty hidden away off of the main roads. If you don't know where these are, ask the school bus drivers. They see all the children's housing conditions. If you want to reach the most needy children this is where you will find them.
I understand that this is challenging and maybe even a bit scary, but it is doable. There are children who live in the shadow of our steeples that are waiting for an invitation to come and join us. They want to be noticed, loved, accepted, and challenged. They want Jesus.
Once you get over feeling strange about visiting a neighborhood that looks different from yours, you will notice that children all have the same needs. They need affirmation, someone to smile at them, play, and they need Christian education. Begin by simply taking the time to acknowledge them. Then you move on to the fun stuff of games, snacks, stories, crafts etc. Children know when they are loved, and they will respond. So will their parents.
Speaking of parents, it is important to engage them as well. Make a point of introducing yourselves to the parents as children are dropped off or picked up from events at church. If you are doing outreach off sight in a neighborhood or park, consider wearing name tags with your church's name on them. Matching shirts work well as an eye catcher. Being able to identify easily the people who are welcoming their children helps all parents to feel better about any situation.
Hospitality is the alpha and omega of all ministry, but when children are involved, this is especially true. It is so easy to say, "It's just children. Let's do it as cheaply and easily as we can. Eliminate the words "cheap" and "easy" from your priority list when planning for ministry with all children. Replace them with "fun" and "Christ-centered".
How do you go about doing that? As with anything, it begins with a desire to take the initiative and make a change. As your congregation welcomes children, well resourced or not, you will begin by genuinely wanting children just because they need Jesus.
Here are some thoughts about what this has looked like in my experience:
1. Use whatever you have at hand! Horses as evangelism workers? Absolutely! My bonus daughter has enjoyed a life long love affair with horses. One summer, to welcome the children who lived around the church, my husband and his beautiful daughter saddled up and rode their horses through the most poorly resourced neighborhood in the area. It was a run down neighborhood filled with mobile homes teetering on uneven cinder blocks. They went through on horse back and took flyers inviting all the children to Vacation Bible School. They then gave horse rides to everyone who wanted one each day before VBS began.
What child can resist such a draw? Dozens of children came for a horse ride, and stayed to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many of these came back to worship on the Sunday following. They attended Sunday school and were welcomed by their teachers. It was great.
2. Protect the young ones. There was one problem: The Grumpy Old Guys. This exclusive club has a branch in many local churches, and one of their core beliefs is that children are only welcome in church if they behave like old people. What happened after Sunday school that day? One of the visiting children, wearing dirty and ill fitting jeans, was running in the upstairs hallway. The chief Grumpy Old Guy yelled angrily, "Hey you! I don't ever want to see you running in this hall again!"
It was a great prophecy; that child never ran in the hall again because we never saw that child, or any of the others that heard the Grumpy Old Guy, ever again. Never. All the warm welcomes, genuine love and acceptance were destroyed by one person. I wish I could say that this was the only incident of its kind that I witnessed.
I hate to say it, but there may be people in your congregation that need to be kept away from the children. Run interference between those that you know are prone to be too harsh and our vulnerable little ones. A child who has never met anyone who attends worship has no idea what the rules are. It is possible to teach and guide without anger. Be aware.
3. Discover what works. Dust off your creativity! Who are the artists? The crafters? The jugglers? The games organizers? I, myself, know how to ride a unicycle. I have used that skill to draw the attention of skateboarding children. They are very impressed. We trade lessons. Unicycle for skate boarding. They do way better learning my skill than I do theirs. But here's the deal: it opens up a space for conversations about Jesus. I gain their respect with a silly, useless skill learned in childhood. What silly skill do you have that you can use?
Make room in your congregations by using whatever you have at hand. Skills, interests, talents. Can you cook? Knit? Woodcraft? Tell stories? Run? Do Tai Chi? Invite the children from the low resourced areas to come and join you and learn from. Or better yet, take these activities to a spot in their neighborhood. You don't have to have horses or unicycle riders. You are all that is needed. You have the gifts that are needed in your community.
If you want to serve children, or have ever wanted your halls to ring with laughter and running feet, if you want the joy and the challenges that come along with all this, jump in and have fun. Go where the children are. Invite them to come to you and then offer them your very best. Have fun! It is as easy, and as difficult as that.