Here is one ‘Good Idea’ for you to consider about how children’s ministry can be a place that welcomes everyone and especially the newcomer. Coming to church, more and more, is a strange thing in our culture. It takes a lot of courage for someone new to cross the threshold into church – adult or child – and we bear a great responsibility to welcome them graciously and warmly. We owe them that!
We welcome because we have been welcomed
Simply put, welcoming others bears witness to the fact that we too have been welcomed by Jesus. So often we think of welcome as strategic – as something that draws people in while – in reality – our hearts are elsewhere – occupied, worried, busy. Or we tend to think of welcome as the job of cheerful extroverts who naturally know how to strike up conversations.
But welcoming is something we all can – and are called – to do. It is a version of giving bread to another because we too have been given bread. Try to think of welcoming others as the humble act of acknowledging our own need to have been welcomed and in gratitude also giving that welcome to another. Welcoming others in this spirit is an indicator of church being a ‘level playing field’ – there aren’t those who are in or out, up or down.
Welcoming others is also extending a hand of warmth to someone who most likely isn’t expecting it and may not even know what to do with it. There are many times I have welcomed a new parent bringing a child to church and their response is very cautious, almost cold. Often it will seem like the welcome landed nowhere or was flat -but that is likely not the case. People, on the whole, know when someone is genuinely being kind – they just won’t always know how to receive it. But over time, consistency in this kind of welcoming presence bears witness to Christ’s consistency of welcome to us and is part of others being drawn to Him.
But let’s get practical. What can this look like ‘on the ground’?
I did a study a few years back of main line churches that were growing and that had vibrant inter-generational ministries. One of the things I noticed was that in each case they had created a kind of ‘middle space’ that welcomed newcomers. And by this I mean an actual physical space – an in between place that allowed people to check the community out while keeping at a ‘safe’ distance. Sometimes this was an elaborate architectural renovation but most of the time is was a simple re-jig of existing space with a focus on what would feel welcoming (a mini café in the foyer, couches and easy chairs with books in the entry area, rotating art exhibits in an entry area open to the public, pamphlets and church info that could be accessed without having to talk to someone).In our church, we decided to do this specifically for the children’s ministry.
Here is how we changed the use of the main entry area to children’s ministry.
We improved our signage and communication: A parishioner in our church donated a freestanding chalkboard that is placed on the city sidewalk outside the children’s ministry building with a cheerful “welcome” sign that is refreshed weekly. We also created a 3×5 ‘site map’ card that briefly outlines the programming for children and has a map of where the programs are, along with contact information.
We changed the main floor of the children’s ministry building into a hospitality space. We improved the lighting (a very affordable IKEA purchase!), put music on, provided trays of sliced fruit and stocked bookshelves with donated board games, books and Lego. We also created a welcome table with information about programs at church generally but also specifically for children.
We then created a hospitality time ahead of the service. We open the building 15-30 minutes ahead of the service and have a rotating hospitality team of 2 who prep the fruit trays, set up the space and personally greet everyone who comes through the door. They are also the gatekeepers for any questions – particularly for a newcomer.
Each arriving child is then directed to their leader who is hanging out and playing board games, building Lego or any other activity that the children have chosen. The leaders see this window as one of their main times to connect with the kids under their care. It also provides a gentle and easy way to welcome a visiting child. A visitor is introduced directly to their leader by the welcoming team and there is time to chat, show them around and introduce them to peers before the morning starts.
For some parents, the hospitality time is a welcome chance to get to the service early and ‘switch gears’ into worship. For others, it is a great time to hang out and connect with other parents. It also gives children’s ministry leaders an easy way to connect with a parent if need be.
This hospitality time has greatly increased our ability to take time to interact personally and warmly with a visitor or newcomer. We can chat with them, give them a tour of the spaces and take the time to introduce the child to their leader in a low-stress way. The parent then still has time to find their way to the service knowing their child is in a good, welcoming space. We thought opening up this hospitality time would be a lot of work. But logistically and in terms of leader support, it has proven a simple move to make but it has had big dividends.
So, here is the challenge
Look at your spaces and see if there is any way to create a ‘middle space’ for the newcomer that makes their crossing the threshold into church as warm, inviting and easy as possible. Consider things like light, sound, food, access to information and never underestimate the value and need for a personal greeting and for taking the time to connect with someone.