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Experience of a Lifetime

Valerie Van Kooten

10 little things that make a big difference in how kids experience your ministry -- and whether they come back.

Our ultimate goal in children's ministry is to introduce kids to a growing, lifelong relationship with Jesus. But occasionally our goal gets derailed: Our lessons are well-planned, our team is welcoming, and our teachers have the best intentions. So what could possibly go wrong?

A child's experience of your ministry begins with the very first contact you make with the child and the child's family, even before he or she sets foot on your church's property. This experience continues as the child walks through your door, joins in the activities, strikes up a relationship with teachers and other children, and then goes back home -- where the child then decides whether to return. Your ministry may be running smoothly, with all your i's dotted and your t's crossed. But sometimes it's the seemingly smallest things that keep a child -- and the child's family -- from returning. Take a look at these examples.

XTreme, your ministry's boys club, is having a campout next week. Only members of XTreme can attend, for what seem to be good reasons: not enough leaders to oversee too many boys, vehicle space limitations, the need to plan for supplies and gear. Michael visits an XTreme meeting with a friend who's a member, and gets really excited when he hears about the campout. However, the leaders decide he hasn't been coming long enough to qualify as a member. Michael goes home and doesn't return to that church's programs.

Julia's excited about the Sunday school class she's been attending for several weeks. On Bring Your Family to Church Sunday, she eagerly invites her parents and two brothers. When they arrive, Julia's brother, who uses a wheelchair, has a hard time negotiating the archaic elevator system of the church. After requiring assistance from ministry volunteers, he feels that he's a real hassle and just wants to leave. Julia continues to attend Sunday school, but her family never returns.

Can you relate? To ensure that children truly experience what we work so hard to give them in our programs, we've got to look behind the programs to be sure the proper underpinnings are in place. Here are 10 ways you can make the experience a good one for every child who walks through your door.

[1] Make your ministry physically accessible. Just navigating the building and its surroundings can be a headache for a newcomer. Are the signs in the parking lot easy to read and follow? Do they need to be in more than one language? Do guests know where specific rooms are? If the church is older and wasn't originally built to accommodate people with disabilities, how have you made it possible for these guests to access your building?

"Parents decide whether they're coming back in the first eight minutes," says Dale Hudson, director of children's ministry at Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and co-author of Turbocharged: 100 Simple Secrets to Successful Children's Ministry. "We often forget what it's like to be in a new place, and the signage needs to be clear, even in the parking lots."

Hudson adds that the church members who are just inside the door are vitally important. "Obviously, you need friendly people to be greeters, and you might want a guest services counter when they first walk in," he says. "When people ask for a classroom, never point, but personally walk them there and be sure they connect with a teacher in the room."

[2] Take a look at the space. The physical location where kids meet needs to be more than something "converted" from big people's meeting spaces the rest of the week. Patty Smith, director of children and family ministries for the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church, says great children's ministry programs make it look as if they've been preparing for children all week long.

"Of course, we want to be welcoming, and the environment goes a long way toward that," she says. "Don't just limit yourself to paintings on the walls -- take a look at proportions and dimensions of things." For example, Smith says using big chairs for little kids isn't comfortable or welcoming.

Other things to consider are how far away the children's ministry is from adults who may be meeting at the same time. You want the spaces close enough that parents have easy access, but far enough that kids can be kids -- noise and all.

[3] Make all children feel welcome. Learn children's names immediately -- along with the spelling. Using name tags, where you can visually see the name, can be a big help. Denise Peterson, director of children's and family ministries at Marlborough Congregational Church in Marlborough, Connecticut, remembers when just knowing a child's name made a huge impact.

"I make it a practice to say a new child's name over and over," Peterson explains. "We had a little girl who came to our programs four or five times and then left the area. Months later the family came back, and I called her by name. Her mom couldn't believe it. She said, 'You remembered her name?' That was really important to her."

One of the welcoming items Peterson uses in her program is Wonder Bags -- brightly colored bags sewed by a church member. A new child gets to take a bag home, choose something to put in it, and return it the following week. "I then have three minutes to tell a story or a spiritual message about the item the child put in," Peterson says. "If the child stumps me, he or she gets a gift from the gift drawer. The kids love it."

Not all children walking into your church understand the signs, symbols, or reasons for these things -- regardless of whether they're unchurched or not. When Peterson's team set out the crèche, many of the children thought the figure of Joseph was the church's senior pastor. "So we now have an area that introduces kids to symbols and people -- crosses, Jesus, other Christian symbols -- where we can sing welcoming songs and let the kids get to know each other," Peterson says.

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