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Drop Off or Drop Out?

Gary Newton

It was 9:30 on Sunday morning, and Tanya stood outside the church building -- left in the dust of her mom's four-door Plymouth. It was her first time to be a drop-off kid; she wasn't sure what to do.

Inside the looming church door, Tanya saw a platter of chocolate-covered doughnuts. The ones with nuts caught her eye. She sneaked in the door behind an elderly couple who moved very slowly. Sheepishly, Tanya moved toward the table and grabbed two doughnuts. An older lady barked at her, "The children's class is down the hall on the left!"

Tanya stuffed one of the doughnuts in her mouth, trailing nuts and crumbs as she walked down the hall toward the room. The class had already started, and as she opened the door every eye was on her -- 10 kids and one teacher. She quickly sat in the only empty chair.

The other kids looked kind of strange to Tanya, and it was obvious that the teacher was irritated that she was late. When the teacher talked about some kind of a contest, Tanya thought it was safe to eat the other doughnut. She was famished.

"We do not eat in this classroom!" the teacher reprimanded. The kids surrounding her giggled sheepishly, and Tanya kept her head down for the rest of the class. The teacher talked about a mean fish that ate people and spit them out on dry land. It was really weird. She even made everyone in the class color a picture of the dumb fish. As soon as Tanya heard the bell, she ran outside as fast as she could.

The street never looked so good. Tanya never wanted to go back!

What do you do about drop-off kids -- those kids whose parents drop them off and leave them to fend for themselves in your foreign culture? Drop-off kids don't know your church's language, customs, accepted behaviors, values, or unwritten codes.

For the last five years, my wife and I have been reaching out to the kids in our downtown neighborhood and trying to get them into local churches. We lead the Huntington Kids Club -- an outreach to about 70 unchurched kids each week. Our goal is to build relationships between the leaders and the kids in an exciting club environment and to eventually guide the kids and their parents into the fellowship of a local church. Each of the 30 club leaders or "buddies" spends time with kids outside of club and strives to encourage them and their parents to become a part of a local church. We're learning both the joys and challenges of getting unchurched kids to feel comfortable in the various churches in our community.

We've identified seven ways to help drop-off kids feel welcome in church.

1. Pair each drop-off child with a mentor family. One of the best ways to ensure that each drop-off child is meaningfully connected at your church is to assign each child an entire family as a mentor. The role of the mentors, or buddies as I prefer to call them, is to get to know the child and the parents and to help them understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus and part of a local church. Other possible responsibilities of the mentor family:

  • Pick up the child for church.
  • Introduce the child to various people in your church.
  • Explain and interpret the unique customs and traditions of your church.
  • Listen to the child's feedback about experiences at church.
  • Sit with the child during the church service.

2. Build relationships outside your church. For drop-off kids to feel connected to your church, they must have a close relational connection with at least one other person. While most churched kids get this relational connection through their parents and friends, drop-off kids must usually depend on more formal relationships in the church, such as those with teachers or program leaders. As busy as teachers and leaders are, it's often difficult for them to become a "big brother" or "parent figure" to everyone under their care. For this reason, it's imperative for churches to mobilize as many people in the church as possible to mentor and follow up with each drop-off child. As mentor families, they need to plan regular times with their kids doing fun and wholesome activities. Ideally, mentors should stick with their kids through the teen years. Things mentors can do with kids outside the church:

  • Visit kids during lunch at school.
  • Plan a special event once a month.
  • Invite kids home for a meal.
  • Attend kids' concerts, games, or practices.
  • Go to a fast-food restaurant together.
  • Play sports together.
  • Take them with you on a family vacation or camping trip.
  • Do special things with them on birthdays and holidays.

3. Make learning personal, interactive, and applicable. While churched kids may put up with a more passive learning environment, unchurched kids must especially be personally engaged in learning if they're to get anything out of a teaching experience. Sometimes our tendency is to be more directive and preachy with kids who have little or no biblical knowledge. We erroneously think we need to get as much biblical knowledge into their heads as possible and as quickly as we can. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take even more time with unchurched kids to prepare their hearts to learn and to make their learning personal, interactive, and applicable. Helpful learning approaches:

  • Start lessons by asking pertinent questions to get the kids to share their life experiences related to the lesson theme.
  • Listen more than you talk as a teacher.
  • Keep kids active in the lesson -- discovering, sharing, building, exploring, designing, planning, questioning, problem-solving, examining, and creating.
  • Teach kids to listen to and interact with one another respectfully.
  • Challenge kids to come up with applications based on what they've learned from Scripture.
  • Hold kids accountable to put their specific goals into practice during the week.

4. Start with kids' experience -- not yours. There's a tendency among those of us "in the know" about Christian things to think those outside the church are "dumb" spirit­ually. Once again, nothing could be further from the truth. Unchurched people sometimes have a much more accurate perception of spiritual issues than those who've grown up in the church. In fact, unchurched kids may have a fresher and more honest understanding of spiritual issues than churched kids. They just need to be given a chance to share their ideas and perceptions in a nonthreatening environment. The best way to get kids to share their insights is to ask questions in nontheological language related to their needs, questions, and perceptions. Some conversation starters that could be useful to get drop-off kids talking about spiritual things:

  • What do you think God looks like?
  • What do you think of our church?
  • When was a time in your life you were really scared?
  • What do you think about God sending his Son to die on the cross?
  • If people were left on their own without God, do you think they'd get better or worse?
  • Why do you think people fight so much?

5. Train kids and adults in your church to reach out to guests. If drop-off kids and their families are going to feel like a part of your church, your entire church will have to be mobilized to reach out to them socially. The follow-up of unchurched kids cannot be left entirely to the designated mentors. It must become everyone's passion. Yet while many church members talk as if they want to reach people outside their church, very few actually desire to get close to people from a different background. Most church people, including ­children, tend to come to church to hang out primarily with their friends. If this dynamic isn't changed, it can be very difficult for unchurched kids and adults to feel as if they're truly a part of the church "family." Ways to train your people to reach out to newcomers:

  • Preach a sermon series on reaching out to newcomers.
  • Offer training classes with practical, experiential learn­ing activities.
  • Design strategies within each program, Sunday school class, service, and activity in the church to mobilize people to get to know new people.
  • Design attractive intergenerational social experiences in your church.

6. Use wisdom in discipline. Most discipline problems with drop-off kids come from the fact that the kids are entering a very different environment with unknown norms and expectations. If they're to succeed in your church environment, they must learn and respect the church rules, procedures, leadership structure, and expectations. These are learned best within a relationship with a trusted mentor or friend. Some wise principles of discipline:

  • Set and explain clear behavioral expectations.
  • Keep the rules simple and few.
  • Don't humiliate or punish kids for acting "normal" in a "strange" environment.
  • Use direct eye contact for praise and correction.
  • Be firm when intentionally challenged.
  • Never ridicule or use sarcasm.
  • Don't let large groups of unchurched kids sit together unsupervised.

7. Get to know drop-off kids' parents. If we're to have a long-term influence in the lives of unchurched kids, we must reach their parents and extended families. For this to happen, church people must get closer to the drop-off kids' parents. Suggestions to reach out to parents of unchurched kids:

  • Greet parents when they drop off and pick up kids.
  • Have mentor families invite the parents to go to church or come over for a meal.
  • Mentor families can sit with parents when they visit their child's activity or concert.

So how can you deal with drop-off parents? Instead of resenting their absence, receive the gift of their children. These kids may be the next Billy Graham waiting to be groomed in your church's love and nurture. Or they may be an opening door into the hearts and lives of their families. Follow these guidelines to welcome drop-off kids, and you'll echo Jesus' joyful cry to "let the children come" -- whether by bus, by foot, by family car, or by a drop off at the curb.

Gary Newton is a professor of educational ministries in Huntington, Indiana.


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