Children today are, as we well know, increasingly tech-savvy. They are practically born with iPads in their hands, and, yes, they bring them to worship. We are often slow, congregationally and denominationally, to keep pace. Printed children’s bulletins and bags of toys are often all we offer little children when they enter for worship. What is the purpose of these offerings—just to keep them entertained during this “adult” activity?
Can we create ways for them to make use of their devices to assist in their worship and faith formation? Perhaps QR codes on bulletins pointing to a website that would help them engage in learning the Gospel story for the day or something about what’s happening in worship?
Pastors, youth leaders and faith-formation leaders must also take seriously their role in supporting parents. Make use of all the ways we communicate these days as individuals and congregations. Write for your website, newsletter, weekly e-blast or Facebook page specifically about faith issues parents face.
Engage with parents through these channels about how to respond when their child doesn’t want to attend church. Make recommendations about good children’s Bibles or resources for talking to children about issues they may be facing. Address why we pray at meals or even why family meals are important. When these things are shared on social media or your congregation’s website, parents will absolutely share them.
More than our kids
If your congregation doesn’t have any children regularly attending worship, many of these ideas may seem irrelevant. But if it’s mainly grandparents in your congregation, you still have strong connections to children. So, imagine newsletter columns and Facebook posts aimed at communicating faith practices between grandparents and grandchildren.
The young families who share your ZIP code and your schools need support and the kind of partnership faith communities can offer. Every congregation has a physical address. If your church building was a house, where would the children in that house attend school? Those are “your” schools, whether any children in your congregation attend them or not. Congregations and ecumenical clusters of congregations can meet with school districts and simply ask, how can we help our children succeed?
None of these students is a member of one of our congregations, but they are all members of God’s family.
We did that in the Columbia, S.C., area after some of us became aware that children in our state who were not reading at grade level were assumed to be future criminals and that the prison system planned accordingly. We developed a tutoring program called Reading Matters in concert with a variety of congregations and our school district. Our focus was on first- and second-graders in underperforming schools. We now have 120 tutors in 11 schools every week.
Another ecumenical cluster of congregations started a literacy camp at our middle school. We had already established a food backpack program there, and we now offer this camp during summer, winter and spring breaks. At each camp, we have a selected book as our focus, purchased for each student. Camp activities are centered around the characters and plot of that book. None of these students is a member of one of our congregations, but they are all members of God’s family.
More than the children
The best way to connect to young parents is with holy accompaniment—be available, be interested, offer the love and care of the church, get to know their families, have lunch, attend an occasional game or recital. Pastors are one of the few “professionals” intimately and consistently allowed into people’s lives.
I feel close to the children of my congregations, not only because I baptized them, but because I held them when they were but a few hours old. I prayed with them when they lost their first grandparent, and I attended their school plays and their college graduations. Holy presence is the closest thing I’ve found to the proverbial “magic bullet” in ministry.
I hear a lot of congregations saying they wish they had more children. I hear parents and culture being blamed for their absence. But wishing and blaming will get you nowhere, except pretty depressed. The things I’ve experienced and suggested here don’t cost anything. They don’t require a youth minister. They do require attention and investment on the part of the pastor and the congregation.
In cases where money is needed for some larger-scale projects, such as the middle school literacy camp I described, our funding came from outreach grants from the wider church and as donations from local congregations and businesses. Time and creativity are the largest costs involved in this ministry. Congregations of all sizes and situations have these assets already in hand. Stop wishing—just do, because you can!