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Trading Sacred Spaces

Children's Ministry Magazine


Church: Community Fellowship, Waterloo, Ontario
Church Size: 1,100
Children's Ministry Size: 250
Church: Christ Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Houston, Texas
Church Size: 350
Children's Ministry Size: 75
Church: Monte Vista Baptist Church, Maryville, Tennessee
Church Size: 1,000
Children's Ministry Size: 300
Church: Baptist Temple, Charleston, West Virginia
Church Size: 600
Children's Ministry Size: 50

Ever sit in someone else's church and feel like all the glaring gaps in the children's ministry are screaming at you? Why don't these people see what needs to be fixed here? you wonder. Your outsider objectivity gives you "eyes to see," while those of us in our churches have "home blindness."

So in the spirit of The Learning Channel's Trading Spaces series -- where two sets of neighbors swap keys to transform a room in each other's home -- Children's Ministry Magazine created our own Trading Sacred Spaces experience...with a twist.

Rather than diving in to redecorate rooms, we enlisted four willing children's ministers who'd allow our reviewers to visit their churches at random -- and with a child in tow. We recruited our four experienced reviewers from our team of R.E.A.L. Learning Specialists and Children's Ministry Magazine Live workshop partners.

We gave these reviewers a detailed evaluation form (on page 100) to covertly evaluate their selected sacred space in the areas of first impressions outside, first impressions inside, safety, eye and heart appeal, educational philosophy, last impressions, and areas of special interest. Then we asked our reviewers to report back to us about their experiences. What we found was both encouraging...and eye-opening.

First Impressions Outside The Standard: Indications that people are welcome and wanted.

What Our Reviewers Found: Each church had specially designated guest parking that was convenient to the church entrance. These reserved parking spaces communicated that the churches valued and looked forward to guests, and that they wanted to give visitors special treatment.

Two churches posted easy-to-read, permanent signs that marked the main entrance and the children's ministry area. Signs are vital because they help visitors get their bearings and find different areas of the church without constantly having to ask for directions.

At one church without signs, a reviewer said, "It was a little confusing, but people were willing to direct us."

First Impressions Inside, The Standard: Evidence of child- and family-friendliness.

What Our Reviewers Found: Three of our four reviewers were welcomed by a church greeter within the first minute they entered the church. This immediate welcome made these reviewers feel noticed and valued. All the greeters and ushers at each church were friendly and helpful. Our reviewers reported that they sought out greeters several times to ask directions and other questions about the church.

On the other hand, three of our reviewers couldn't find a visitor check-in area, and only one reviewer could immediately locate information about the children's ministry.

When parents bring their children to a new church, one of the first things they'll look for is information about the children's ministry. A well-put-together brochure or information sheet makes a great impression on guests.

One reviewer who was unable to locate this information was surprised. "I had to ask about information. They took me to the children's director, and she found a brochure and gave it to me."

For two reviewers, locating the churches' children's ministry in the building was a snap. Signs and printed directions clearly pointed the way.

But the other two couldn't find the children's ministries in the churches and had to ask for directions. For them, wandering around lost wasn't very enjoyable. One even reported that when she asked for directions, a greeter was unable to help her.

Three reviewers reported they had difficulty understanding the way the children's ministry worked once they found it. Only one church's directions pertaining to the children's ministry -- including check-in and classroom information -- was clear and understandable. One reviewer wandered with her daughter in the halls until they found the correct room. "There were signs on each door indicating the room number, but I never saw a check-in area," she said.

Two reviewers were happy to report that a classroom teacher or volunteer immediately greeted them when they entered a classroom and that the teacher or volunteer introduced their children to their classmates and encouraged them to join in.

Here's one of the more eye-opening things we discovered about visitor-friendliness. Our reviewers reported that once they left the children's ministry area to attend worship, only two reviewers received any acknowledgment from congregation members.

The two who weren't welcomed or acknowledged left the service feeling ignored and left out. One said, "Only one gentleman came and spoke to us. I spoke to two others because I needed to ask a question."

The other said that as a visitor, she wouldn't return to the church because it seemed as though the regular members, while friendly to one another, were indifferent to her. She felt like an outsider. One reviewer who was welcomed by congregation members was delighted by the level of friendliness she found. "This congregation is very friendly! They wanted to share names and phone numbers and offered to help if I was moving to the area. They even asked me to sit with them and have coffee afterward."

Safety, The Standard: Evidence that an adequate safety system is in place and functioning.

What Our Reviewers Found: Not one of our reviewers could find a protection policy for the children's ministry clearly stated or posted. One reviewer said, "I didn't see the safety policy, and I was looking for it."

Another commented, "The children are dismissed for children's church about 10 minutes into the worship service. When I took my 4-year-old downstairs, the worker asked her name. My daughter stated her first name, but the worker didn't ask for her last name, and she didn't ask my name or for any information about my child. If there'd been a problem, they would've had to come to the sanctuary and hunt for me."

Another reviewer said, "We often assume a child is safe at church. I had to trust that my child would be there for me at the end of the service."

None of the churches gathered parent contact information, and none inquired whether kids had food allergies or health concerns.

One reviewer said that although the church she visited didn't ask for specific information about her child, she felt adequate measures were taken to protect regularly attending kids with allergies. "It was clear that they're controlling allergy issues by posting signs on the wall about which kids have allergies. Plus, they had a No Nut Zone sign."

Two reviewers said they felt completely comfortable leaving their children. One said she felt okay about leaving her child, and the fourth reviewer said she felt uncomfortable leaving her child. "I felt sure that my 4-year-old was safe. But I also felt very uncomfortable because I'd left her with complete strangers who neither knew me nor anything about her. It was a bit unnerving."

Only one reviewer felt well-informed about what her child would be doing while she was at worship. "They really went into detail, telling me about Sunday school and children's church and what happens in there."

All the reviewers were especially pleased that their kids had been made to feel secure and welcome in their classrooms.

Eye and Heart Appeal, The Standard: A clean and kid-friendly area for children.

What Our Reviewers Found: Three reviewers were impressed by the fact that the churches they visited were especially clean and tidy. These same three reviewers noted the churches' sanitary and inviting restrooms, and the fact that all the classrooms smelled fresh and recently cleaned.

One visitor reported that the church she visited "could have used some improvement" in this area. Although this fact didn't seem to affect her overall opinion of the church, she did notice that the restrooms and classrooms weren't as clean as they should've been.

All our reviewers said the churches seemed very kid-friendly in their decorations, furniture, and focus. In fact, three churches filled their classrooms with age- and size-appropriate furniture. One has even installed child-sized toilets in the restrooms!

Educational Philosophy, The Standard: Indications that R.E.A.L. Learning -- relational, experiential, applicable, and learner-based -- is taking place.

What Our Reviewers Found: Two reviewers saw clear indications that kids were taught using interactive activities. These same reviewers said these churches took measures to ensure that kids were actively engaged in their Sunday school classes or children's church.

One reviewer reported that her child was unable to tell her about the lesson after Sunday school. Another said that her children indicated that the teacher was more concerned about disciplining the "wild kids" than anything else. Two of our reviewers said their children left without learning anything new about God.

Last Impressions, The Standard: A send-off that makes people want to return.

What Our Reviewers Found: Two reviewers were invited back by congregation members. The same two were thanked for coming and invited back by greeters.

The reviewers who were given a fond farewell said, "My kids had a nice time and made friends. As a visitor, that meant a lot to me, and the friendliness and genuine interest was very touching." Most surprisingly, two of our reviewers weren't thanked for coming, invited back, or told goodbye by anyone at all.

One of these two reviewers summed up her thoughts this way: "The worship service was good, the preaching was good, but to be honest, I felt pretty ignored. The children seemed happy to be there. I saw a lot of interaction between families in the church. I saw smiles and hugs and handshakes. On the other hand, I didn't feel a very warm welcome. I had to initiate conversation. This church's greatest weakness for visitors, based on my experience, is the need for more friendliness. I'm sure that these folks didn't intentionally ignore a visitor. My observation was that the church family felt loved and glad to see each other. However, as a visitor, I'd probably move on to other churches."

Three of our four visitors said they'd be happy to visit these churches again based on a good experience. Unfortunately, one indicated she wouldn't consider returning.

General Observations

We asked our reviewers to comment on things the churches did (or didn't do) that particularly stood out in their minds. Here are their comments.

  • "It's obvious that this church cares about children. The children's area is in an older part of the church, but it's very well cared for and clean. It appears that this care is initiated by love for families."
  • "The lobby had ministry tables set up for each ministry area. This is very helpful. I was able to retrieve children's ministry stuff and newcomer stuff. Excellent displays!"
  • "Strong leadership is apparent. This church's vision was evident on the foyer wall. It's clear that they know where they're headed."
  • "We had a great day. It was eye-opening to be a visitor with kids. Every children's minister should do this periodically."
  • "The children's director helped my kids connect with kids their own age. She was loving, friendly, and helpful."
  • "I saw passion, but passion for what? Jesus was not evident. I saw passion for programs. I was disappointed that this church's strength wasn't verbalized as 'kids growing in Christ.' "
  • "Possibly they could make the choir for the kids more contemporary -- it was very formal, stiff, and almost sad."
  • "This church's greatest weakness -- how can I say this gently? -- is the need for more friendliness."


Find a partner with whom you can trade sacred spaces. This person should be someone from another church. Take a moment before your visit to familiarize yourself with the questions on this evaluation.


Yes No I was able to find the church based on directions.
Yes No Visitor parking is conveniently located near the church entrance.
Yes No

Easy-to-read signs clearly mark the church entrance and children's ministry area.

Yes No It was immediately clear to me where I should go.


Yes No Inside the church doors, a greeter welcomed me within one minute.
Yes No Church greeters are clearly identified and easy to locate.
Yes No

A visitor check-in area is available.

Yes No Information about the children's ministry is easy to find and understand.
Yes No The church provides printed material about its children's ministry.
Yes No Directions pertaining to the children's ministry (location, check-in, classrooms) are clear and understandable.
Yes No The children's ministry area is easy to find.
Yes No I was able to identify the children's ministry director, pastor, or leader.
Yes No A classroom teacher or volunteer greeted me immediately when I visited a classroom in the children's ministry area.
Yes No Visiting children are identified and welcomed as visitors in each classroom.
Yes No I found my way to the worship area without any problems after visiting the children's ministry.
Yes No Congregation members welcomed me.


Yes No The church's protection policy for the children's ministry is clearly stated.
Yes No The church has a secure method in place for parents to retrieve their children.
Yes No

A children's ministry worker gathered my parent contact information.

Yes No I was asked whether my child has any allergies and/or health concerns upon check-in.
Yes No Information about snacks to be served is clearly posted.
Yes No I was able to roam freely in the children's ministry area.


Please rate the following statements using a scale of 1-5. (1=Poor; 2=Needs improvement; 3=Average; 4=Good; 5=Excellent)

___ The nursery area is clean, tidy, and has a pleasant smell.
___ The preschool area is clean, tidy, and has a pleasant smell.
___ The elementary area is clean, tidy, and has a pleasant smell.
___ The preteen area is clean, tidy, and has a pleasant smell.
___ The children's ministry area is decorated in an appealing manner that portrays the character of the ministry.
___ The children's ministry area is kid-friendly in its appearance.
___ The furniture and objects in the rooms are age- and size-appropriate for kids.
___ The temperature in the ministry area is just right.
___ The displays and decorations are current and seasonally appropriate.
___ The restrooms are sanitary and inviting.
___ I felt secure leaving my child in the ministry's care while attending worship.
___ I was informed about what my child would be doing while I was gone.
___ My child felt secure and was welcomed by the teacher and children.
___ The logistical flow between the children's ministry and worship area works well.
___ My child had a great experience in Sunday school or children's church.
___ My child would enjoy visiting this church again.
___ I was impressed by how friendly this church is toward visitors.
___ I would visit this church again based on a great experience.


Yes No This children's ministry provides interactive activities and learning opportunities for children.
Yes No R.E.A.L. Learning (relational, experiential, applicable, and learner-based) takes place in this children's ministry.
Yes No

My child(ren) were actively engaged in their Sunday school class or children's church.

Yes No Kids understood the lesson they were taught and came away with practical life application.
Yes No My child(ren) learned something new about God in their classes.
Yes No The church's vision or mission statement is clear and was lived out during my visit.


Yes No I was invited back by congregation members.
Yes No I was invited back by the greeters.
Yes No

I was told goodbye and thanked for coming.


Describe the strengths and weaknesses of the church and children's ministry.

The church I'm visiting stated that its strengths are:
And that its weaknesses are:
Based on your experience, what is this church's area of greatest strength? weakness?
What should this ministry continue doing?
What should this ministry eliminate, replace, or stop doing?
If you were to advise this ministry to focus on 1 thing for improvement, what would it be?
How would you encourage this ministry?
Any other comments?

Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change. Originally published in January-February, 2004 in Children's Ministry Magazine.

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