It was a Tuesday afternoon and an ordinary children’s ministry staff team meeting—that ended up changing the way we do ministry at Van Dyke Church. Sitting in our church coffee shop, someone suggested that using iPads in small group time might be a cool idea. A few chuckles circling the table considering the cost could have caused the conversation to disappear, but it didn’t. In fact, the conversation grew, and before we were finished, an entirely new concept was born.
If we could use an iPad to create interactive teaching tools, we could provide our small group leaders with endless amounts of games, pictures, object lessons, video links, and attention grabbing tools. Of course, a leader with an iPad isn’t, in itself, an exciting thing. But an iPad that the entire group could work with just might be revolutionary. We brainstormed and agreed that if it had a connection to a larger screen so everyone could see what the iPad viewer could see, the combination would be golden.
This thing would be more than a flannel graph board. It could revolutionize the conversations our leaders were having and connect with kids who were typically known as “wall flowers” in our programs. What would happen if we could pull every single child into the conversation, give them a chance to interact with the media, and show them that the Bible could have a connection to technology?
We started out carefully creating simple but intentional Bible games, books-of-the-Bible flashcards, musical selections, photos from the lesson, timelines, and maps showing where in the world this lesson took place. We also provided other tools that would help each teacher, especially the ones who forgot to read the lesson ahead of time. Leaders learned that they could read the prompts and didn’t have to be an expert to lead the lesson.
We realized we could use the timeline to help kids place families, key dates, connections, order of events, and context into visually organized charts that were at the disposal of every leader right in the conversation of the lesson. Repetitive visuals, clever ways to remember, and detailed concepts could be pulled up in a moment’s notice.
Of course, kids often know more about technology than adults, and we learned quickly that kids could operate the iPad when less tech-literate volunteers were in charge. We even realized that kids who were unable to focus previously were more focused if they operated the iPad for the rest of the group.
Jack, one of the best volunteers on our team, chose to make it an honor to be the iPad operator of the day. Jacob, his most fidgety kid became a star pupil because now he had to focus, stay on task, and had a job to do. Jacob was tasked with keeping up with the tech needs of the group. Jack and Jacob had more than a simple bonding experience. Jacob began to arrive early and perfect his iPad skills. This gave Jack great opportunities to build their relationship and invest in Jacob. This young man would have never connected across a table, but with a tool in his hand, he grew as a leader, an assistant, and in his spiritual knowledge as well. The best part is, Jacob doesn’t even know it happened. But at the end of this past school year, Jacob asked Jack if he’d be back as a volunteer. Score one for relational recruiting.
I’d love to tell you that it was all fun and games. It took more time than we estimated in the beginning, but we got better as time went on. Keeping it age appropriate, fun, and easy to navigate were all challenges. Some of the products we created were better than others, and some were flashier in appearance, but every week for two years now we’ve had iPads in our elementary classrooms. We chose to focus on context, Bible navigation, Bible timeline, and Bible memory in our applied games. That helped us ensure consistency in what our leaders had to work with, and few curriculums actually include all of those elements, so we felt we were supplementing well.
Financially, we took on a challenge and we weren’t taking chances with this investment. Each station includes a freestanding TV, an Apple TV with remote, and an IPad. We’ve carefully placed each table in a kid-proof case. We allowed people to donate money or used iPads to our arsenal, built a charging station and a storage case, and connected them for charging during the week. We tinkered with the design and we’ve completely changed our prototype several times. Our original design had the iPads tethered to a 32″ television for each group with an HDMI cable and split connector, but with the purchase of Apple TVs, each station is now wireless. We’re running more than one station in a room and haven’t experienced any technical issues this year.
We tried other tools, such as Chrome Cast and inexpensive tablets. Our current model uses cloud-based storage. This enables us to create programs on one computer (we use a Mac) and then update the iPads weekly to be ready for the weekend ahead.
Producing simple interactive moments has become a weekly challenge. Using Keynote we rearrange verses, fashion games to help kids remember the lesson, and get really creative beyond the bounds of what classic curriculum offers. Locating Bible apps and uploading great images has taken up our usual curriculum prep time but has released us from the million copies we used to make on the photocopier.
We know the tool has changed the way our group leaders communicate. They find a confidence in sharing with their kids. Children watch the screen intently for a few minutes at a time, and we have seen interactive elements drive the wow factor up substantially. High school students love this tool, and adult leaders often step back and let their teen assistants take the lead. We love seeing this happen!
Here’s the part that should really spark your attention: We don’t write our own curriculum. We’ve added visuals, some of which are provided by our curriculum company. We’ve created games with simple stock footage. And we have used the tool to enhance our curriculum, not change it altogether. Like any great ministry, we’re adapting curriculum to fit our tech-friendly environment, and we’re reaching the introverted child who isn’t typically inclined to talk in small groups. We’re reaching kids who often check themselves out of conversations, and we are reaching beyond the stereotypical extrovert friendly high-energy programming that is present all over in churches.
We discovered that we still need manipulatives for a few hands-on activities each week and that some teachers are happier with it than others, but, we would take the iPad challenge again any day.
Julie Giles is the Director of Children’s Ministries, Van Dyke Church in Lutz, FL. When I say “we” in this article, it really has been a team effort. I don’t want to take credit for the ingenuity that has gone into this project. I might be their leader, but this team has reinvented sliced bread, or something like that. Vandyke.org