By Lindsey Goetz
Children, like adults, are spiritually formed in their day-to-day comings and goings, as they play, learn, and grow. We are formed by what we do and what we love. What a parent does at home will have much greater and lasting impact than what we can hope to accomplish in a one hour Sunday morning class. As those who love and work with children, we can each share our own stories of joy and sadness over the ways we have witnessed the shaping power of the home in the lives of our own families and of the children in our ministries. Most Children’s Ministers, agree– if the parents aren’t on your team, your ability to impact the life of the child is going to be limited. What are practical ways that we can include, and engage parents in the work of discipleship, both for the sake of their child’s spiritual formation and their own?
We must continually place before parents a vision of the great responsibility and privilege that the discipleship of our families is. Those of us who have had small children at home can remember what it is like to be overwhelmed by the day-to-day tasks and unexpected circumstances that come along with raising a family. Throw in a job or two, schooling, and a few other commitments, and “church” can quickly become another item on a checklist of “Things Good Parents Do.” What are some practical ways to vision cast?
- Communicate to the parents how your programming is designed to support or enhance what they are doing at home. When we came into our new position, we sat down and thought about how each element of our ministry fit together to serve, support or resource parents and families. If it didn’t, we have changed it, or are in the process of changing it so that all that we do can be maximized by parents for the discipleship of their children.
- Foster places (shared meals, online communities, playgroups, etc.) where stories can be shared of how parents are seeing God at work in their homes and in the lives of their children. When you hear a story like this from a parent in your ministry, celebrate with them and then provide a space for sharing with the community.
- Work with other staff and pastors to come up with a plan for how spiritual formation can happen at your church. Some churches organize this by grades or ages while others organize it by life events or milestones such as baptism, confirmation, beginning school, etc. Let parents in on what your thought process is so that they can play off the structure you are using as they plan for discipleship in their home.
Take the Pulse Consistently
I still remember the first few weeks after we brought our first child home from the hospital. Just as I was feeling like I had gotten the hang of things, something would change–she would sleep a longer or shorter stretch, need to eat more or less than before, all because she had reached a new milestone. With the transitional nature of parenting, the needs, struggles, and joys will be different for each family– month by month and year by year. How are you keeping tabs on the families in your congregation to ensure that they are encouraged, equipped, and prepared for the next bend in the road?
- Home Visits— While possibly not practical at extremely large churches, my husband and I have found home visits to be foundational to the ministry we do with families in our church. Our goal is to visit each family in our congregation once every 1.5 years. These visits provide space to connect, to see how discipleship is working in the varying contexts within our faith community, and to listen to the struggles, joys, and needs of the people we are serving.
- Parenting Mentors. Some churches pair more experienced parents with younger parents for a mentoring relationship. This provides an opportunity for life-on-life encouragement and equipping, as well as decentralizing the work from just the staff.
- Surveys: Either on-line or in person, keep asking what families need.
As a Children’s Minister, I have found that I am often “in the right place at the right time” as it relates to children and the resources available to parents who are seeking to disciple their children faithfully. In fact, many companies will send us free copies or samples of resources simply because of our job title. My husband and I see it as an important part of our role to vet these resources and to pass the quality ones along to the families in our congregation. There are so many more high-quality resources available to parents and families than there were even just 5 years ago. How do you connect parents with these resources?
- Start a well-curated resource library: With the shuttering of many brick and mortar Christian bookstores, it can be difficult to evaluate and choose resources without being able to hold them and flip through the pages. By using free samples and purchasing used books from Amazon, we started our own library. Parents at our church are able to check out books and other resources before purchasing.
- Introduce resources to children during programming as appropriate. Our family loves the Sing the Bible with Slugs & Bugs CD’s. Every single one of us. My not-yet-two-year-old will call out the refrains of songs from the backseat as she hears the first notes coming through the minivan speakers. When I discovered that few people in our church were familiar with Slugs & Bugs, I looked into booking a concert and purchased all the CD’s for our children’s ministry. We then made Slugs & Bugs the soundtrack of our Summer Sunday School and our Summer Kids Club (VBS). At the end of the summer, we had Randall Goodgame come for a Slugs & Bugs Sing the Bible Live! Concert. By then, the kids who regularly attend Sunday School were superfans. More than just passing on a great resource, this thrills me because many of Randall’s songs are just straight Scripture. In our children’s ministry, we have memorized well over 10 verses this Summer, just by singing. Knowing that those children have the very words of God deep in their hearts is beautiful and life-giving and makes those challenging weeks seem worth it.
- Book Clubs- Select a small number of books or other resources and invite people to sign up for parenting or family “resource clubs” for feedback. Depending on the resource, families can get together to analyze, troubleshoot, rejoice, and encourage along the way.
To be honest, this is the area where I struggle the most. I highly value communicating with parents, but I am also tired and often fall short of my grandest plans for excellent parental communication. I would love to hear what it looks like for you to communicate clearly with the families in your church regarding the material and experiences their children are having. All too often I fear my “take home sheet” is trampled on the floor before a parent ever lays eyes on it.
- Plan ahead— Planning ahead allows you time to communicate events, programs, and even curriculum to parents in a way that respects their time while also giving them the chance to make parenting within the context of the local church a priority.
- A communication survey: ask parents how they would most like to receive information, how often, and what kinds of things they want to know. And the dreaded question “How do I keep those papers from ending up on the floor?”
- Follow Through With Action
Obviously, communicating with parents in a culture where all of us are overworking and under sabbathing is difficult. It takes counter cultural persistence and effort. But the responsibility we have to children and families to faithfully serve, equip, and walk alongside them in the journey of discipleship is well worth the effort. How do you keep families in the loop? What are you planning to try after reading this article? Are any ideas stirring in you?
Lindsey is a Hearts Alive writer and curriculum specialist. She and her husband are the Children’s Directors for First Presbyterian Church of Aurora, IL.