Hundreds of children’s ministry leaders face these same questions every week. They work incredibly hard to minister effectively to the children who arrive at their doors. They face the challenging prospect of not knowing how many children might show up (two or 25?), along with the even bigger challenge of meeting their needs – when the children are all over the age spectrum. So how do you keep a small church ministry effective and relevant?
You think S.M.A.L.L!
S: Start with a Plan
To create impact – in any size children’s ministry – you must begin with a plan. Plan how you’ll effectively reach children in your children’s ministry. Recruit for the classes you’ll offer – even if those classes are occasionally empty – based on your average weekly attendance (track attendance for three months to get a close average). Do the necessary volunteer screening and training to prepare volunteers. Prepare teaching materials, including curriculum and supplies. Prepare your space and be ready.
Note: Being ready doesn’t mean having a healthy stack of word puzzles and coloring pages ready for children. It means being prepared with a full lesson plan that maximizes every moment your volunteers have with children.
It’s easier to lower your preparedness standards when you think there might be just a few children. It’s easy to slip into the mindset of “winging it.” But remind yourself of this: Reality is just the opposite. With only a handful of children, you have greater opportunity than ever to make a deep and lasting impact. Prepare for it! Regardless of who or how many might show up, start with a plan.
M: Move to Plan B
Your Plan A is in place: You’re prepared for your average attendance and ready to go. But if drastically fewer children show up, or if children’ age ranges are awkward (for instance, you have a 4 year old and a 12 year old sitting at the table staring blankly at you), then move to Plan B.
Plan B is your plan for what you’ll do if your number or ages vary dramatically from what you’d normally expect. Determine beforehand how you’ll handle such variances. Who’ll lead? How will you organize your volunteers? Will you dismiss some volunteers, or use them in other ways? How will you mix age groups so older children interact with and mentor younger children? Is your curriculum geared to engage all ages? Where will children go? Think through all the troublesome scenarios you’ve experience in the past year: Too many children, not enough children, major age gaps, group imbalances (10 preschoolers and one teen, for instance). If it’s a possibility, plan for it. That doesn’t mean you need to create a new plan every week, but have a plan prepared for the major scenarios you face. Typically, you can simply adjust Plan A, but you need Plan B for the big obstacles.
Note: Plan B isn’t winging it. Making up Plan B as you go isn’t acceptable; have it ready and your volunteers trained to adapt in advance.
A: Always Focus on Relationships
Ministry happens best through relationships. This is true in mega churches, medium churches, and small churches. The difference (and your advantage) is when you have a very small number of children, you have an exponentially larger opportunity to invest in relationships with them.
Whether you’re in Plan A mode or resorting to Plan B, relationships must be at the center of your efforts. Curriculum and resources are important. Facilities and programs are important. But it’s relationships – and almost nothing else – that greatly impact the life of a child for Jesus. Jesus Himself invested deeply in a small group aside from His wider ministry. Why? Because there’s greater impact in small numbers. There’s greater opportunity to teach, engage, guide, understand, befriend, and demonstrate your faith up close. So rather than bemoaning the fact that so few children came, celebrate the fact that you have more time and energy to pour yourself into the lives of a few – just as Jesus did.
L: Let Children Engage
One of the wonderful (and many would say most important) ways children learn is by becoming fully engaged in what you’re teaching.
When you have 100 children in children’s church, engaged participation isn’t always possible. Personal discovery isn’t always easy. Guiding children in life-changing experiences may be watered down because there may be too many children and too few adults. But with a small group of children? What a blessing! There are so many ways to let children participate. Think about these for starters:
- Teaching – Let children “co-teach” the lesson. Engage them in reading the Scripture or retelling or acting out the biblical events.
- Mentoring – Allow older children to help younger children engage in all aspects of the lesson. Younger children are thrilled by an older child’s attention, and older children love to take on leadership roles. You have the perfect opportunity to invest in children in a way that trains them to be leaders in children’s ministry – today!
- Clarification – You can engage children deeply in what you’re teaching with dialogue that gauges their understanding of the lesson and the principles you’re teaching. As you talk with children and listen to their feedback, address their misunderstandings or clarify how what they’re leaning applies to their lives. In a smaller setting, you have the ability to answer questions as children think through what they’re learning.
- Mobility – With a small group of children, you’re blessed with flexibility. A spur-of-the-moment jaunt outside with five children to enjoy the warm sunshine during a lesson on creation is totally doable. Not always so with a class of 25. Smaller groups offer mobility and open the door to creative ideas. Move to new locations – other rooms, outside, or in the pastor’s office (or not!)- to stimulate children’ interest and engagement.
- Service – Service is a win-win for your children and your church. Work with other departments such as adult classes or auxiliaries to pinpoint ways your children can serve. Maybe it’s taking offerings, passing out brochures, cleaning up, or any number of seemingly small ways to serve. Engage children in service projects for the community, too, and use these as a teaching tool.
One of the key characteristics of any children’s ministry is fun. When children and adults have fun together, everyone’s engaged. And if what children are engaged in is meaningful and purposeful, then they’re learning in a way that impacts their lives for the better.
But fun can be threatened. Don’t allow your attitude to sour when you don’t have many children show up. I remember feeling frustrated when the number I expected didn’t materialize. Instead of focusing on the children who were there, I’d focus on the children who weren’t. That attitude took the fun out of the experience for everyone. Have fun with the children who are there. Don’t minimize their attendance by thinking of those who didn’t show.
You may only have a few children show up, but S.M.A.L.L. thinking will lead to flexibility, relationships, engaged children, and laughter that strengthens your ministry – on every scale!