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Contagious Faith

Something's catching--and these preteens are hooked!

Warning: Christianity May Be Catching

Recently I looked at our church parking lot and was amazed to see more than 100 kids at our Club Splash preteen event. Kids slid through huge, inflatable water slides, dove down giant slippery slopes, and rushed through the huge wild rapids. But what amazed me wasn't the number of kids or the volume of laughter -- it was the infectious Christian spirit spreading from our preteens. More than half the kids in our parking lot were visitors.

It hasn't always been this way. In the past, our kids rarely invited their non-Christian friends to church. They were reluctant to reach out to their friends. We realized something was missing in our preteen ministry, and we intentionally set on a path to fix it. And over time our ministry has become a place where our preteens enthusiastically reach out to their friends for Jesus.

Get on the same page. It took us awhile to realize that part of the reason our preteen program wasn't growing was that our kids didn't feel driven to invite their friends. Our kids didn't understand the importance of sharing their faith, and we knew we needed to reassess our programs.

So we changed our path. We developed new programs to grow preteens' understanding about Christianity. We taught them our church's mission. We found ways to keep our ministry's goal in front of our preteens -- always. We explained the purpose of outreach events. We gave kids a copy of the church's vision. Most importantly, we talked about the importance of our mission constantly.

One major shift we implemented was to teach the importance of reaching unchurched friends on a weekly basis. We present this series in an age-appropriate way and give kids tips for connecting with their friends. At the end of each series, we sponsor a special, fun event so kids can apply what they've learned by inviting friends. At the end of the evening, we invite visiting kids to attend our programs and services.

Be an authentic equipper. Preteens can detect a phony in an instant. It's vital for preteen leaders and volunteers to be models for kids. Authentic adults encourage kids to follow in their footsteps. We encourage adults to be transparent about their successes and failures, and to make their efforts to reach unchurched friends visible.

Preteens have preconceived notions about reaching out to their friends. We've found that by equipping them to share their faith in a style that fits them, we can eliminate many of their fears. We've incorporated the following key learning points in most aspects of our preteen ministry, including regular classroom time and all our special programs.

• It's important to share your faith.

• There are different ways to share your faith.

• You can have comfortable, nonthreatening, spiritual conversations with friends.

• It's important to talk about how you came to know Jesus.

• You can naturally communicate the gospel in less than five minutes.

Make it happen. The natural next step to equipping kids to reach out to their friends is to give them tons of opportunities to bring their friends to exciting church events. We focused on offering ultra-cool, wildly fun events that cover three main categories.

Ongoing Programs -- Our weeknight introduction to Christianity is one of our most popular programs-who would've guessed? Kids bring their friends, who bring more friends, and we learn the basics of Christianity in a nonthreatening, engaging way. Kids eat dinner together each night, play games, listen to an age-appropriate message, and then break into small groups. Our church grew from about 600 children and adults in 1996 to 1,300 presently; this weeknight program has been a cornerstone of that growth.

Just-for-Fun Events -- These events offer an experience kids can't get anywhere else-with no strings attached. Our goal is for kids and guests to associate fun with church. One of our most successful events was Laser Tag Mania, where preteens played unlimited Laser Tag games 'till three in the morning. The kids loved this so much they talked about it for weeks afterward.

Events With a Purpose -- These events provide kids with fun and an opportunity to become a follower of Jesus. At Friday Night Live preteens played wild indoor and outdoor games, and then listened to a creatively communicated message about Jesus. With help from the movie Mr. Deeds (we used the clip where Adam Sandler's foot was numb and being beaten with a rod) we illustrated our numbness to sin without God in our lives. Creative tools and presentation helped us drive home the point. The result? Eight kids became forever friends with Jesus at the event.

Celebrate success. For preteens, inviting friends to church can be risky. They risk rejection, which can hurt. We wanted our kids to see the difference they were making, so we videotaped success stories. Our kids love seeing the impact they're having and are encouraged to continue inviting their friends.

One of my favorites: Kylee found her way to our program, and God transformed her life. She invited her friends to visit, and now five or six are regulars. In only a few months she became a Christian and began reaching out to her friends -- all at the ripe age of 10. Now there's a success story!

Over time, we've transformed our preteen ministry from a place where kids were focused on themselves to a place where Jesus and his mission is our focus. Jesus started with 12 people and the entire world was knocked upside down because of what God did through them -- not because they had special powers we don't have, but because they were infected with Christianity and they dedicated their lives to infecting others with it as well.

Nick Diliberto is a children's ministry director in California.

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