Rev. Denise Bender

We live in a world that craves instant gratification, and expects change to be instantaneous and easy – just look at all of the “makeover” reality shows on TV.

But we know that true transformation is rarely fast – just look to the story of the Ugly Duckling. One of my favorite posters is that of a young, gangly, grey and fuzzy baby swan looking in a mirror and seeing the reflection of a beautiful, sleek adult swan. The hope of that young swan is the hope I see in the community where I lead children’s ministries at a small, urban Denver church.

In July of 2013, I began a very part-time contract with a small, urban church that was struggling with finances, as many churches do. But, this church had one very significant thing going for it: there were children attending with their families. However, the children didn’t really have any guided time to explore their own spirituality except by sitting in worship; which in and of itself is valuable, but there was little space for their input or questions. Children need to have a sacred space and time just to be children.

Stones and baby handsAnd so the senior pastor, the church, and I began a routine of the children attending half of the worship service and then meeting together in a safe and sacred space to hear scripture on their level, pray, and be engaged in the lesson through crafts or games. Living into the same lesson that the adults are hearing from the senior pastor allows for a richer learning environment for the children. The parents are given the discussion questions in a “Let’s Talk About It” format that encourages further conversation within the family during the week.

The first Sunday I was at the church, I had prepared my lesson and was excited for the children – and parents – to meet me. Only one family came. But, at the end of the class, the shyest of the brothers said – “Wow, this was really fun. Can we do it again?” Subsequently that family’s mom has become one of the church’s most dedicated lay volunteers. She is so appreciated.

Over the course of the time I have been there the church now averages 12 children each Sunday, with a potential of about 20 children. That is with 20 – 40 adults in worship. The financial leap of faith that this congregation made to contract with my services was pretty scary for them, and it continues to be something they discuss every month. But the growth they have seen in their children from a spiritual and maturity standpoint makes the leap worthwhile in their estimation.

There are different dynamics in every church. This particular church has very consistent attendance. One reason is that many of the parishioners are related and have been at the church for many years. Another reason is that they are not inclined to spend their hard-earned money on weekends skiing or other leisure activities; they would rather spend their money on food for their children and a home. Other important dynamics include the commitment the laity make, not only for their children away from church, but volunteering on a routine basis in Sunday school, at Family Gatherings, and other special events. Empowering and equipping the laity to volunteer helps not only the children grow in faith, but also those very volunteers who spend time engaging the lessons of our faith also.

Children’s ministry is not just for children. It is the engaging opportunity for adults to experience faith development with the children. Many small and struggling churches can benefit from taking time to teach their children the stories of our faith. Because in so teaching, we also learn. And as the children’s ministry grows in size and grace, so, too, may the congregation begin to see their own potential to become a mature and elegant swan.

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