10 ideas to help your church connect and grow
The fall programming year is just around the corner, so we thought we’d gather up some of the best ideas for church leaders and educators. From Reformation Sunday parties to developing relationships between children and older adults, these ideas help build up Christ’s church one meaningful activity at a time.
1 | Generations together
We connected our oldest and youngest generations with a program called Grandpals. In this ministry kids read, write and share letters with their assigned Grandpal. The Grandpals are volunteers and can either be homebound or regular attendees at church. Some of our Grandpals are 65; some are 90. Some have grandkids nearby; some don’t. But they all corresponded by written letter with a student every month.
It was a very rewarding experience for the youth (who never complained about having to write) and the Grandpals. I heard from various Grandpals beforehand that they didn’t feel they had anything to say or offer to these children — “I haven’t been around that age for decades. They won’t want to read what I have to say.” Not only were the kids interested; they looked forward to their letters! The Grandpals felt affirmed and the youth felt accepted in a way they had not previously felt.
By the end of the year, they were all asking to meet in person, so we set up a Painting and Pizza party. The students sent out invitations. The generations ate together, painted together and then, if they wanted, they switched paintings to take home.
— Laurie Juarez, Director of Children’s Ministries, Highland Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
2 | Fun with the 500th
It’s time to plan a party! We’re going to be 500 years old in October! We’re descendants of the Reformation, a key part of our heritage as Presbyterians. Many in our churches may ask, “What is this Reformation thing all about?” Let’s have a party and find out!
The Growing in Grace & Gratitude curriculum has a free, downloadable lesson with a multitude of activities for all ages. “The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation” can be used as the jumping-off point for a one-day event for the whole congregation. Some ideas for whole-group activities and possible station activities include:
- Casting an older child or an adult as Martin Luther and encouraging children to help him “nail” his 95 theses to the door as he explains what they are.
- Encouraging all ages to consider what the church should do differently in 2017 and posting those ideas on a door with sticky notes.
- Encouraging participants to think about why Martin Luther had to have courage and having each participant either draw a picture about a time when they had courage or draw a symbol of courage. Display the pictures on a clothesline.
The party could be held on a Sunday following worship or for a Wednesday night program. It could also include a potluck; folks could be encouraged to find recipes from the 1500s.
— Ginny Harville Baker, Christian Education and Recreational Ministry Consultant, Lexington, Kentucky
3 | Cookies with cops
During a program that looked at the different workers in our community, I realized that the kids in our low-income, mixed-race neighborhood had an adversarial relationship with the police. As I thought about how to bring the two groups together, I remembered another program we already had in place — baking cookies. Suddenly it hit me: How could the kids and the police not have a positive interaction while sharing cookies and milk? And so, Cookies with Cops began.
Cookies with Cops brings the police into the church kitchen and develops personal relationships between cops and kids. For a month, the kids and cops worked side by side to measure ingredients and mix them while they talked. During the baking time they played games. The police were enthusiastic about participating and ended up bringing prizes for the games. We discovered that working with a big group requires multiple mixers, lots of adult volunteers and plenty of oven space. But, now that the relationships are established, the kids and cops decorate prebaked cookies together on a monthly basis.
The best part of the program is the honest dialogue. One of the first questions the kids posed to the police was “Why are you always shooting us?” The officer’s answer didn’t try to justify police action but allowed the child to voice his fears and concerns. The officer allowed the child the weight of his feelings. That holy moment happened over cookies.
— Stacey Oden, Director of Christian Education, United Presbyterian Church, New Kensington, Pennsylvania
4 | The blessing of food
All of us need to eat, but we don’t often take the time to think theologically about our meals. Presbyterians work for a world where everyone will have sufficient, healthy and culturally appropriate food and where those who produce and prepare food will be fairly compensated, respected and appreciated. We celebrate God’s abundance and call for justice in mid-October during the global Food Week of Action, which includes International Day of Rural Women (Oct. 15), World Food Day (Oct. 16) and International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (Oct. 17).
There are many ways to honor God’s abundant blessings of food this fall:
- On World Communion Sunday (Oct. 1) provide lessons on the blessings of food, land, water, labor and the health of God’s creation as they relate to the sacrament.
- Consider using the educational and worship resource “Have You Anything Here to Eat?” or other educational ideas at bit.ly/blessingoffood.
- Set aside time in October and November as a time for youth and/or adults to study the seven-session curriculum “Just Eating? Practicing Our Faith at the Table” (pcusa.org/justeating).
- Check out other PC(USA) resources specifically for the global Food Week of Action at pcusa.org/foodweek.
— Rebecca Barnes, Coordinator, Presbyterian Hunger Program
5 | Practicing worship skills
Each fall, we invite our new second-graders and a parent or guardian of each of them to join us for five Sunday evenings of worship readiness and sacrament training. We feel it is important for parents to attend the class along with the children, so the parents can learn some techniques for reinforcing worship skills on Sunday mornings.
We open with a scavenger hunt in the sanctuary to learn the vocabulary of the worship space. Through games and activities, we learn about the order of worship and why certain worship elements fall where they do in the service. We explore the meaning of baptism and we bake bread, which is used in Communion the Sunday after we complete our sessions. The Communion liturgy that Sunday includes leadership by the children.
At the completion of the five weeks, the children also receive a “Big Kid Worship Bag,” which includes tools for worship, such as bookmarks to mark the hymns and Scriptures and Worship Notes to help follow the order of worship. The Worship Notes have space for the children to write or draw their own prayers and responses to Scripture. The Worship Notes also include reminders in child-friendly language about what we are doing in each part of worship.
Children expand their understanding of worship, which leads to more active participation in the years to come. Parents tell us they feel more equipped to continue the process of guiding their children in corporate worship after these sessions.
— Kathryn McGregor, Director of Christian Education, Unity Presbyterian Church, Fort Mill, South Carolina
6 | No school? Go to church!
Several years ago the members of our Christian Education Committee took a look at both the needs of our community and the resources the committee had. It did not take long to see that many families faced a challenge when trying to secure child care for their elementary-age children when local public schools were not in session. Our solution to this child care dilemma was to use our resources to help. We created what have become known as Fun Days.
On weekdays when the children are off, students in kindergarten through fifth grade have the opportunity to play, create and make new friends in a safe environment — our church. Fun Days allow the children and the adult and youth leaders the opportunity to truly have fun! We’ve enjoyed silly games, such as Minute to Win It, visits from the local pizza chain to make pizza, ceramic painting courtesy of a local art store, visits to our area’s wildlife refuge, improvisational acts led by a local theater, carving pumpkins in the church pumpkin patch and making care packages for food pantry boxes. Fun Days allow us to tune into the gifts within the congregation, as well as the networking within our community.
The greatest gift that has come from this ministry, outside of the time with the children, has been the opportunity to form relationships within the local school systems. Teachers and administrators have been wonderful supporters of Fun Days. They recognize me when I come into the schools to volunteer and when we see each other out in the community. Our church is building relationships beyond the church walls.
— Harriet Thompson, Director of Christian Education, Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church, Fisherville, Virginia
7 | Family game night
A question facing many churches is a hard one: How do we meet families where they are in order to be more involved with their lives so that in turn they want to be more involved in what we have going on?
We wrestle constantly with offering the right events and opportunities that meet the needs of our families without making them feel overwhelmed.
For many years our church has hosted a Family Movie Night on an evening in January. It is an easy way to get families out of their houses and it takes little to no effort on anyone’s part. We realized that it was getting people here, but there was no interaction between children or parents.
So, two years ago we added Family Game Night to our calendar. We set aside a Sunday evening for food and fellowship together. Our church owns a lot of games, both big and small, and we bring them all out. Additionally, we encourage families to bring their own games to share with others.
The plan is simple:
- We advertise the event with emails and social media posts — things that make it easy to invite others — as well as with posts in bulletins and newsletters.
- The week before, we get a head count from RSVPs and add 10 percent so that we can purchase pizza supplies and be sure we have enough tables. (We eat at some and play games at others.)
- The day of the event, we have families make their own pizzas when they arrive, and the games begin!
Family Game Night has attracted people who are active in our ministries as well as those who showed up because they got an invitation!
— Rob Monroe, Director of Children, Youth and Family Ministries, First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, Missouri
8 | Finding the right path
I lead an interdenominational youth group in my community. During the school year, we have youth in grades 7–12 come together from several denominations (including Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, Assembly of God, Church of God and Methodist) for Bible study.
Because we are so diverse in our understanding of theology, we try to offer a broad understanding of what it means to be a Christian. We believe that if we can offer our youth a basic understanding of what the Bible says about how we are to follow Christ in our daily lives, then they can then apply it in their own lives using their own theology.
A couple of our sessions have focused on paths. In one I placed lots of mini beanbags on the floor, creating a path. The youth were to walk the path blindfolded while the rest of the group shouted out directions to help them get through the maze without stepping on a beanbag. For the last round, one person gave the correct instructions and the rest of the group gave them wrong directions. It helped the youth to understand that choosing who to listen to is important.
In another lesson, I put a line of masking tape on the floor of the church sanctuary. When the youth arrived, I had them all find a place on the tape. I would give them directions like “Go left three steps if you like rock music; go right three steps if you like country music.” As we went along, the instructions got harder. Some of the youth traveled a long way, but others barely moved.
We trust that each will find their own path with the help of their community.
— Bonnie Ratcliff, Director of Christian Education, First Presbyterian Church, Independence, Missouri
9 | Be a superhero
Getting children engaged can sometimes be a challenge. As a general rule, I look around and see what is happening in culture and try to tie my lessons into that. One recent theme was to think of biblical heroes as superheroes. Superman, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, the Avengers and others all have distinct traits or abilities that make them extraordinary workers for justice. In addition to their skills, they have passion and drive.
Here are three things I thought about when thinking of a superhero Bible study:
- Make the characters come alive with vivid and suspenseful storytelling. (“Picture this: an undercover woman who is on a covert mission to save her people. If she is found out, it could mean death!”) Superhero comics and movies are full of action and conflict. So is the Bible! We don’t always need fancy technology to draw the children in.
- Heroes have flaws! Samson’s lifestyle didn’t always demonstrate righteousness, nor did David’s, but the Spirit of God was with them. Remember to narrow down the discussion to fit your allotted time, but don’t always leave out the hard parts. Often when a person in the Bible makes a bad choice, it can lead to a great conversation on consequences, God’s grace and God’s forgiveness.
- Begin or end with the superhero of all superheroes, Jesus. There is plenty in Jesus’ story that is heroic. He uses his power to fight injustice, forgive and heal, and he demonstrates the greatest act of strength and sacrifice, on the cross. He is our favorite superhero and he calls us to be his heroes of our world.
— Amanda Fuls, Children and Youth Director, Covenant Community Presbyterian Church, Schofield, Wisconsin
10 | School shoes for homeless kids
Twin Falls, Idaho, has grown by 25 percent in 15 years. The community has had to expand public schools, build a new hospital and recruit new businesses as employers. Our homeless population has also increased and today includes over 400 children. Some live with friends or family, others “couch surf,” and still others live in cars or on the streets.
Homeless families struggle every day to get work, buy food and find shelter. Little remains when it is time to buy school supplies and new shoes for their kids when school starts each fall.
Twin Falls First Presbyterian Church started our Shoe Project for homeless kids several years ago. In addition to school supplies, our Presbyterian Women’s circles collect new socks and cash donations from our congregation for new shoes. Donated dollars are transformed into gift cards for local shoe stores, which are delivered to the school district’s at-risk coordinator for distribution to needy kids. Each year our program has nearly doubled its donations.
That simple pair of shoes may be the first new thing these children have ever owned. A big smile, renewed self-esteem and a sense of ownership (and warm, dry feet) accompany every pair of shoes — representing a lot more than meets the eye!
— Kathy Price, Volunteer, Certified Christian Educator, First Presbyterian Church, Twin Falls, Idaho
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