It was the second morning of VBS and I stood at the door welcoming 250 excited kids. He went through the door, not even acknowledging I was standing there, when I said, “Good morning, Justin!” His head popped up and looked at me with questioning eyes, like it wasn’t really him that I had spoken to. Repeatedly, throughout the next couple of days, Justin appeared within arm’s length but not saying a word … waiting … waiting for me to say his name. Once I said it, he would grin and run off to rejoin his group. Finally, he asked, “How come you know my name?” I took a few moments to draw him close and share how I felt that his name was important, because he was important. His name was personal, and if we were going to be friends, I needed to know his name. I shared how I had to work at remembering the names of all the children at VBS that week, but I did it, because I wanted to. Most importantly, this gave me the opportunity to let Justin know that God KNEW him and all the other kids … by name.
Let’s talk about how we connect with kids. Some of you who have worked with kids for years and years may know all of this, but we all need a refresher course now and then to point out what we’ve let fall by the wayside. Connecting with kids is our life calling, and we need to remember that they see their connection to God through our connection with them. Your kids will draw conclusions about their relationship with God by the way they feel about their relationship with you. Take your connections with kids seriously, so that none will fall through the cracks of oversight.
KNOW the child’s name.
Duh … of course, you know their names. But what about that first-time visitor or the kid who points you out in the grocery store? How quickly do you learn their names and would you know it if you were out of the “church” context? It’s just about the most personal thing there is … your name. It separates you from everyone else. That’s why we put nametags on—to show our identifying mark. When you learn a child’s name immediately, the message you’re sending that child is that they are important to you and you want to be their friend. And, if you are modeling Jesus to them, then it’s easy for them to believe that “Jesus knows my name and wants to be my friend.”
I’m terrible at names! So, I have to come up with all kinds of strategies that will help me. When a large event, like VBS, is coming up, I go through the registration slips and the computer entries … over and over. Even though I don’t have a face to go with many of those names, I want the name to be familiar to me when I do meet that child. I review who they were invited by, so I have a reference person. And, I practically memorize who will be in each group. If all of that is done beforehand, then I can concentrate on actually developing relationships during the event week.
When first-time visitors show up, I make sure they stay with the person they came with. That’s not just for their security, but it gives me a familiar face to associate them with. I also say their name as many times as I possibly can, just to hear myself say it, although it serves to bank positive reactions with the child too. A great way to make this new child feel welcome is to snap a picture of the friends together. It’s a simple way of celebrating them being with you, but it’s a great tool to use later in the week as you review names and faces.
Follow-up can also help you remember a new child’s name. Write … long-hand (you do remember how to do that, don’t you?) … a postcard or note that includes their name in the greeting and also as you sign off. I know this may sound like a lot of work, but address it yourself. (I heard that moan!) There are associations you will make by writing their address. Don’t disregard the importance of knowing a child’s name!
KNOW about them.
You find out about kids by talking with them. Sounds pretty elementary, doesn’t it? But, you wouldn’t believe the number of times I have observed a children’s class only to find the adult leaders getting to know one another and not engaging the kids in conversation. They’re sharing recipes and stories from the gym, or complaining about the way a boss is treating them. There’s a time for that, but it’s not when you’re teaching kids!
Chit-chat with the kids about anything and everything. Each comment or question they raise is another reference point for you to connect to. You’ll find out what they’re involved in after school, how they feel about their teachers, what gets them excited, what movies they’ve seen, what makes them sad, how healthy their family life is, and what pets have died in the past three years … all important reference points for the future of your relationship.
KNOW how to celebrate!
Losing a first tooth, winning a ballgame, getting a ribbon at the county fair, beating Dad at a new video game, starting kindergarten, moving on to the preteen ministry, getting a new puppy, completing a walk-a-thon, collecting cans for the food pantry … they’re all events that deserve a celebration.
We lock ourselves into a model of what celebration means by envisioning a party with friends, decorations, and lots of good food. But celebration is more than an event. It’s an attitude! There are stories upon stories in the Bible of celebrations, but those aren’t the stories we normally talk about. I believe God included them in His Holy Word because He wants us to celebrate often and about everything. To a child, celebration comes in the form of a hoot-and-a-holler, a high five, a shout out, a big smile and “I’m so proud of you.” But, probably one of the best ways to celebrate with a child is to let them hear you share their reason for celebration: “Colby, did you hear that Taylor single-handedly gathered 57 pairs of shoes for our winter project? That just blows my mind!” Now, you have invited someone else to share in the celebration and you’ve formed a strong connection with that child.
KNOW about urgency.
Kids wants to see your message conveyed with a sense of urgency, because that tells them that you think it’s important for them to know and make their own. When you communicate the urgency of knowing Christ as your personal Savior, you’ve told that child that your relationship with God is so important to you that you don’t want them to miss out on the best thing that could ever happen to them. Urgency speaks to the fact that I’m not going to keep anything good hidden from you … I don’t want you to miss this great opportunity!
KNOW their developmental stage.
When you ask a child to do something that is entirely age-inappropriate—either too far ahead of them or something they were doing a couple of years before—then you aren’t respecting the relationship with the child. Remember, they need to be known. And, understanding their developmental stage is critical to that. What are second-graders normally able to do? Is this child ahead or behind that?
Spend some time identifying how each child takes in information—their strong multiple intelligences. Does this child thrive when visual elements are introduced? Does she clam up when we play large group games? Does this child step forward to lead when music is involved? Is he very social or does he enjoy working on things independently?
KNOW their spiritual developmental stage.
This can be a real challenge, because the age or grade of the child is no indicator of where they are spiritually. A 5-year-old may be a vibrant follower of Christ while his 10-year-old cousin who attends the church hasn’t begun that journey. When a baptism service is announced, you may have every grade level represented.
So, when teaching a class, you must be mindful of what each child understands and is committed to, no matter what their age. The goal is to challenge each child to move closer to the Lord, but in order to do that you need to understand where they are and what their next step is. In one small group, that next step can vary greatly.
A child will respect you, trust you, and want a relationship with you when you show an interest in really getting to KNOW them. Can you name the kids you minister with? Can you list three things that are important to each child? Do you know something they are celebrating? Do they sense your urgency in sharing the message of Jesus Christ with them? Do you know where they are developmentally? Do you know where they are spiritually? In doing all the administrative parts of children’s ministry, from organizing events to volunteer recruitment, let’s not forget that it comes down to your relationship with the kids and leading them into a relationship with the One True God.