Revitalizing Your Children’s Ministry
By Karen Wingate
“Growing, dynamic churches are rooted in a powerful philosophy that recognizes kids matter to God,” says Rick Chromey, author of Energizing Children’s Ministry in the Smaller Church. Those are discouraging words to a church that sees the population of its children’s department slipping into oblivion.
Struggling churches know that without the next generation, their congregation’s future is in jeopardy. Is it possible to revitalize a dying children’s ministry?
“Yes,” says Teri Lewis, director of the Son Harbor children’s ministry program at Plymouth Avenue Christian Church, a congregation of 250 in Deland, Florida. In 2003, a “good” Sunday at Plymouth Avenue saw 10 children show up for morning services. Now, Lewis directs a rotating base of 53 volunteers serving an average of 40 children per week. When visitors walk into the church’s educational wing, they find the walls bedecked in a nautical theme with a ship’s bow for a puppet stage, buoys and ropes decorating the walls, and workers dressed in blue polo shirts and white pants helping to promote the Son Harbor theme.
Seven years of hard work have made Son Harbor the exciting program it is today. By admitting the children’s program was broken, and then assessing the community and casting a vision for what the children’s ministry could become, Lewis and the church have shown that a floundering children’s ministry can survive and thrive.
Critique the Present
“The church didn’t realize how broken the children’s ministry was,” Lewis admits. Church leaders soon discovered the problem was more than dismal attendance. Burned-out workers had nothing left to give. The entire program had lost its excitement and vibrancy.
Plymouth Avenue’s problem is typical of small congregations that feel defeated because they don’t have the resources of the nearest megachurch. Lewis led the congregation to take the first step in revamping any children’s ministry: determine how you can expand on what you have, not on what you don’t have.
Canvass the Community
The next step in the turnaround process is to survey the harvest field. Who are the children God has given you to reach? Like the king who appraised his army before going to war (Luke 14:31-33), Lewis believes we need to understand the audience we intend to reach.
This step might take some creativity and a willingness to drop preconceived ideas. Find out everything you can about the children you want to serve: What are family income levels in your area? What extracurricular activities are most popular? Do both parents of most families work? Is it realistic in your community to expect kids to come to a Wednesday night program? If not, what day and time of day will work for most families? What is the faith background of your community? What is the percentage of single-parent or blended families? What are the unique needs of families in your community? How can the church help meet those needs?
After you’ve examined why your program doesn’t work and what your congregation has to offer to meet the needs of your community, it’s time to cast a vision for what the program can become.
Cast the Vision
The volunteers at Plymouth Avenue Christian Church created an overarching environment to help connect with prospective children and their parents. The nautical theme is pervasive, and volunteers are easily recognized. Program titles, certain features of weekly lessons, and decorations all stick to that theme.
“It’s a theme that works for us because we are located close to Daytona Beach,” Lewis says. “Each congregation needs to figure out what environment will work best for them.”
“You don’t need a huge budget to do this.” Lewis says. “We transformed our education building for less than $1,000, and the kids love it!”
The next step was to generate excitement for the new program. “You need to get your church’s mind on children,” she says. She suggests using every opportunity to share the vision with the congregation, reminding members that today’s children will lead tomorrow’s church.
Citing ways the children’s ministry will help the community, Lewis worked to involve everyone in the congregation, from college girls to 75-year-old retired men, to help paint rooms, nose around garage sales and thrift stores for props, and build the huge puppet stage that dominates one corner of the spacious room Son Harbor uses each Sunday.
Involvement is a key component in keeping people informed and excited about the children’s ministry program. As Lewis seeks volunteers, she considers the gifts, talents, and interests of people in the congregation. This helps her suggest slots where each worker can serve effectively.
She tapped into every age level for staffing the program. As soon as kids graduate from sixth grade, Lewis arranges for them to help once a month with the Sunday morning program. “This teaches your kids about service, and gives them an opportunity to teach,” she says. “How else will they learn?”
Her oldest regular volunteer is an 81-year-old woman. Another senior citizen volunteer, who calls his puppet “Fisherman Pete,” ends each children’s session by reciting an original poem and singing a song with the children.
Eight-year-old Ashley Wilder says, “I like the song Fisherman Pete sings, ‘I Will Make You Fishers of Men!’” Her 6-year-old sister, Emily adds, “And they teach about God!”
Hope, also a puppet, runs the Seaside Café for snack time. Other puppets, operated by several teens, run the different shops on the Harbor Wharf.
Lewis avoids worker burnout by showing frequent appreciation for her volunteers. Last May, she held a Captain’s Dinner to honor those who had served in Son Harbor for the past year. Her Facebook status for that day expressed her gratitude for her coworkers. The response to that simple comment on Facebook was amazing, as parents and fellow workers showered her with their own notes of appreciation.
You can show appreciation for your volunteers by posting pictures of kids and workers on your worship service’s PowerPoint, putting notes of thanks in your church newsletter, and by acknowledging volunteer efforts from the pulpit in sermons and Communion illustrations. Hearing a minister thank children’s workers can be a powerful encouragement to a discouraged worker!
Most of all, Lewis says, be consistent. Keep having events, even if attendance is low the first few times. Early on, the Plymouth Avenue church started two yearly outreach programs, a communitywide Easter egg party called “Egg-sperience” and the PACC Pumpkin Party in the fall. The programs struggled the first few years, but last year the Pumpkin Party was staffed by 100 volunteers and reached 800 kids.
“So many times, people want to throw their hands up and quit when something doesn’t turn out the way they envisioned it.” Lewis says, “but for our community outreach events, we keep trying by critiquing the event and finding ways to make it better the next year.
“So, don’t give up!” Lewis says. “Plan . . . do . . . critique . . . and do again! And God will bless your efforts.”
Karen Wingate is a freelance writer and minister’s wife. She has worked in children’s ministry for more than 30 years and writes about children’s ministry issues at www.childrenteach.blogspot.com.