Historic Church Serves Youth, Savors the Growth
By Justin Horey
Leading an effective children’s ministry is a lot like baking a cake. It’s important to have the right tools, a complete recipe, and all the necessary ingredients. Even with all of those things in place, the process can still be messy. But as First Christian Church of Monticello, Kentucky, is proving, the results can be sweet.
“Raccoon” John Smith, the renowned 19th-century evangelist, started First Christian Church in the tiny frontier town of Monticello in 1831. By the time senior minister Joe Tipton arrived at the church in 2011, Monticello was home to just 6,000 residents and First Christian was averaging about 100 in Sunday worship attendance—with less than 10 children present most weeks.
Tipton recognized immediately that the church’s children’s ministry (birth through fifth grade) would need to change if the church wanted to grow. In his view, “If we can reach the kids, we can reach the parents.”
Within a year of Tipton’s arrival, First Christian created a new children’s ministry area called Kids Garden by relocating some of the adult-education classrooms and removing a number of existing walls. It created a large, open area designed specifically for kids. The results were dramatic: When Kids Garden opened, the children’s ministry doubled in size almost immediately—from 8 or 9 kids to 20 or more.
For the next four years, from 2012 to 2016, the church experienced consistent growth in its children’s ministry. By 2016, the program was drawing 40 to 50 kids each week, and Kids Garden was at capacity. A church that had once struggled to find more than 10 children on a Sunday had suddenly run out of space.
At that point, Tipton and the church leaders created a “dream team” to pray and explore solutions to the church’s facility needs. Realizing the decades-old building could not accommodate any further growth in the children’s ministry, First Christian purchased the property next door and built a $2 million children’s facility that opened in October 2018.
Upon its completion, the children’s ministry started growing again—from 40-50 up to 70-80 kids each week—and it’s easy to understand why. Among other amenities, the new building includes an indoor playground visible from the street. It also features a simple, secure check-in system at a centralized location that makes for an easy pre-service drop-off process and gives parents a sense of security.
Tipton believes the secure, centralized check-in area is a factor in the strength and growth of the children’s program at First Christian. Prior to 2012, children were located in different parts of the church building on Sunday mornings. Visitors and first-time guests often struggled to figure out where their children should go. Today, the centralized check-in has resolved that problem.
Of course, the facility is only one part of the revitalization of the children’s ministry at First Christian. The congregation recently began using The Gospel Project for Kids as its children’s curriculum. It’s a “Christ-centered, chronological journey through Scripture” intended to show children how the whole Bible points to Jesus.
The LifeWay curriculum is a three-year program, and First Christian is about halfway through it. Children’s director Anita Bowman, who was instrumental in selecting the program, said she appreciates it because it teaches biblical literacy, and because “it teaches that kids are responsible for their own faith.”
The curriculum provides “Big Picture Questions” each week intended to reinforce the Sunday-morning lesson by guiding at-home discussions between parents and children. Bowman shares those questions via a colorful handout she gives to parents after the Sunday service. She also posts the questions to the church’s dedicated children’s ministry Facebook page (www.facebook.com/fcckids), where parents can share and discuss the questions with one another.
Tipton and Bowman have led the transformation of the children’s area at First Christian, but they are hardly alone. The children’s program currently depends on 15 to 20 volunteers each week, and those volunteers are personally invested in the kids under their care by shepherding and loving them throughout the week.
Children’s ministry volunteers regularly reach out to parents to help reinforce the weekly lesson and encourage a partnership between those families and the church. FCC members are also active in the community and local schools. All of the local athletic chaplains attend First Christian Church, as do many of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes sponsors in Monticello. The congregation also blesses the children of the city through its “FCC Loves Monticello” initiative—a program that serves teachers with practical acts like providing food for faculty in-service days.
Naturally, the children’s ministry team has its greatest impact on Sunday mornings. The church bus driver picks up and drops off at least 10 of the 75 or so children who attend church on Sundays, and though the driver isn’t ministering to the kids in the classroom, he knows them all. That kind of involvement helps solidify the children’s connection to the church—especially since many of them come from what Tipton calls “pretty rough backgrounds.” On a recent Sunday morning, two children’s ministry workers even provided birthday cake and gifts to a pair of twins who weren’t going to have a celebration at home.
Like many churches in the region, First Christian also offers children’s programming on Wednesday nights. Dinner is available to everyone who attends, and it is provided free of charge to children who need it. Attendance on Wednesday night is about half that of Sunday, providing staff and volunteers in the children’s ministry another opportunity to teach and disciple a significant number of kids.
Some 200 years after it was established, Monticello is still a modest city. Likewise, Tipton is humble in his assessment of the changes that have transformed the children’s program at First Christian Church.
“A lot of what we’ve done is not cutting edge, but it’s cutting edge here in Monticello,” he said. And the results are undeniable. Attendance at the church is running about 300 today—about 200 more than when Tipton arrived in 2011. Few churches anywhere can claim to have such a significant impact on the surrounding community, reaching roughly 5 percent of the city’s population each week.
By evaluating and improving its facilities, implementing all-new curriculum, and recruiting a committed team of talented, committed workers, First Christian Church has cooked up a children’s ministry program that blesses young people and entire families.
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.