by Amy Grisham
We all hope we will see growth in our ministries. Not just because we want to be “big” but because if we are growing, that means more children are getting to hear the message of Jesus. To have growth means new children are coming to your church. While we are all excited to see new children coming to our ministries, do we have a strategic plan for what their experience will be when they arrive? Are we actively ready for them and not just theoretically ready for them? By this I mean, do we know specifically what it will look like for the children—and their families—who are coming to our environments for the first time? Are we anticipating them and setting up systems that will let them know: “We are waiting for you. We are so excited you are here. We have a plan for you.”
No matter the size of our ministries currently, we should all be anticipating the children God is going to bring to us. There are some strategic, yet simple, steps we can put in place to let families know we are waiting for them to walk through our doors!
First, is the pathway—the literal pathway—from your front door to your children’s ministry area obvious to those who are walking through those doors for the first time? Do you have clear signage? Do you have friendly, outgoing people looking for first-timers with children to intercept these families and help them get to where you are waiting for them?
I had the opportunity to witness, firsthand, what it feels like when this is not the case at a church. When my boys were in kindergarten and 1st grade, we had the opportunity to visit a church in a city we were travelling through. We walked through the front doors of the church, two little boys in tow and stood in the foyer area for about five minutes, searching for a sign and, honestly, waiting for someone to help us. When we realized this was not going to happen, we approached the man standing at the sanctuary door wearing a name that labeled him as a greeter. When we asked him where we could find the environment for our children, he was nice, but he was very confused. “Umm. I’m not sure. Let’s see what we can find out.” We then walked up and down hallways of his church looking for where our children should go. Finally, we ran into someone else who was able to tell us that the children should stay with us until after singing and then we could follow the other families to where we would drop off our children. We followed these directions and then the crowd out of the sanctuary and to the children’s ministry area. We found someone wearing a children’s ministry T-shirt and let them know we were new. They were friendly and did help us get the boys settled. Of course, this took a little longer than it took the insider families to get their kids settled, so when we went back through the doors we had exited through, we walked right into the front of the sanctuary. The pastor was already speaking and there we stood, all eyes on us as we came in “late” to the restart of the service. I was glad we were just passing through and not looking for a new church because we would’ve had to visit another new church the following Sunday. The thought of having to face another experience like what we had just been through was disheartening at best.
Second, do you have someone (at least one someone, maybe more if you are a larger ministry) who has the specific job to welcome and inform new families about your ministry, what their children will experience in your environment, and help the children feel welcome once families have arrived in your children’s ministry area? Do you have information to put in the hands of the parents to tell them about what you offer children and their families? An easily identified visitor check-in area, manned by people (not just a computer) is a great way to accomplish this. The volunteer(s) in this area should be outgoing, warm, friendly and well armed with information to share with parents (a welcome packet they can take with them is great!) about what their kids will experience while they are with you and letting them know about the different ways your ministry works to partner with families.
Third, all volunteers should be clear on exactly how visitors are introduced and welcomed to your ministry area. This can look like a variety of ways based on your ministry size. If you have more than one small group/leader for each grade, it would be great to have one leader designated to welcome visitors. This allows the greeters to confidently take a visiting child to a group, without the greeter having to stand and survey the room—giving the impression that they are not sure where the child should go, giving the child the impression that you don’t know what to do with them now that they have shown up.
Of course, if you have one small group leader for a specific grade, or leaders who cover multiple grades, your visitor would go with the appropriate leader for their grade. It’s a great idea to have someone who is taking the child to the group and introducing the child, by name, to the small group leader. I am this person at my church. As I am walking a child to their group, I let them know the name of the leader, that we are so excited they are with us for the morning, that their group is made up of other children their age who will be excited to meet them. Basically, I see it as my job to let each visiting child know we were expecting them, we have a place for them, and we are so excited they are with us!
If a child is visiting with a friend or family member, the first priority is to help that child feel comfortable. If that means bending “rules” on age-group divisions, then bend that rule! Allow that 2nd-grader to be a part of their cousins 5th-grade group, if that is where the child is most comfortable. Our goal is to do what we can to help them have an amazing experience where they see Jesus. If a child is so upset at being separated from the one person they know, odds are they won’t truly hear anything being taught that morning. Allow common sense and good hospitality to rule in each circumstance!
Every child who visits with us is an opportunity to introduce someone to Jesus—both children and parents. We should have a plan for making their visit with us the most welcoming, comfortable and fun thing they have ever done! Our goal should be for parents to feel confident that we are going to care for their children while they are with us and that we are intentional in what we have prepared for them. I’d encourage you to set up a “secret shopper” to walk through your process—a visiting relative or friend is a great way to do this. Ask them to be honest with you about their experience and then prepare yourself for their feedback. It’s easy for us to become blind to what it feels like for visitors, because we aren’t one, and we potentially haven’t been one for a very long time. Set yourself up to find out how your ministry can improve to become the best first-time experience for families!